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Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: 'Building Like Moses with Jacobs in Mind'

"Building Like Moses with Jacobs in Mind": Contemporary Planning in New York City by Scott Larson
Temple University Press, 2013
Paperback, 198 pages

In a little less than three months New Yorkers will go to the polls to elect the successor to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who will complete his third term at the end of the year. In Bloomberg's 12 years in office he has had a major impact on the physical state of the city, from the completion of 2/3 of the elevated High Line park in West Chelsea and the continued transformation of formerly industrial waterfronts into parks and residential uses, to the rezoning of parts of the city (such as that around the High Line) to allow more bulk and the start of large-scale projects he's steered, such as Hudson Yards, Atlantic Yards, and Columbia's expansion in Manhattanville. Some may argue that Bloomberg's achievements have only improved NYC for the better, but others, including scholar Scott Larson, would take the opposite stance and argue that he has focused his efforts on the upper classes at the expense of the lower and middle classes.

How was Mayor Bloomberg able to foster developments targeted at the upper classes, create parks in adjacent areas, and pedestrianize streets in primarily tourist areas (among other significant accomplishments)? The answer, according to Larson, lies in the administration's championing of two historically oppositional forces: Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. The influence of both on the city is undeniable: Moses modernized the city through the construction of parkways, parks, playgrounds, public housing, cultural centers, and much, much more; Jacobs embraced diversity, history, small blocks, and the human aspects of neighborhoods, in the process fighting off Moses as he tried to bulldoze highways through parts of Manhattan that are now cherished for their history, scale, and architecture.

Bloomberg and his compatriots (most notably City Planning Director Amanda Burden and Deputy Mayor of Economic Development Daniel Doctoroff) pushed a development agenda that embraced the large-scale, top-down projects of Moses as well as the small-scale, bottom-up qualities of Jacobs, what Burden called "building like Moses with Jacobs in mind." In this quote, Moses receives top billing, pointing to what is really going on: the administration imposed a particular view of the city on the public. Even PlaNYC, which was promoted as a plan developed with the public through community meetings in 2007, was basically completed as a plan before it was ever presented to the public; the meetings (one of which I attended) were basically informational, without any room for incorporating comments. So Moses represented a way of getting things done, while Jacobs was merely a way of softening the edges of various schemes—the public doesn't want a stadium in Hudson Yards? Add some public green space around it.

Larson brilliantly dissects Bloomberg's tenure as Mayor of New York (particularly the first two terms), focusing on how the administration used the prevailing legacies of Moses and Jacobs to get what they wanted done. (Bloomberg's successful repeal of terms limits to give himself more time to implement his objectives reiterates this strategy.) After some history on Moses and Jacob and the way they have come to represent oppositional means of planning, Larson discusses the mayor's large-scale plans (2012 Olympics bid, Hudson Yards, Atlantic Yards, and Columbia University in Manhattanville) relative to a synthesis of the two personalities. Next are analyses of the exhibitions and books that reappraised the legacy of Robert Moses (I wrote about those for NYFA Current in 2007), as well as reactions on the part of Jacobs advocates, like the Municipal Art Society. Outside of a chapter devoted to the Regional Plan Association's Region at Risk report from 1996 (an influential document for the Bloomberg administration), and one on the work of Moses and Jacobs outside of New York City, the rest of the book focuses on just how Bloomberg used the tactic of "building like Moses with Jacobs in mind." One focused on Burden and her means of rolling design into the agenda is of particular interest to architects and urban designers.

Considering how easy it can be to get carried along with the positive aspects of what has happened in the last dozen years (the last 5-6 years, really, if we focus on what the administration started and completed), it's good—no, imperative—to have critical voices like Larson questioning the motives of those in power. The parks and other public spaces that Bloomberg has spearheaded have given the public plenty to appreciate, but even the High Line became a means of rezoning a desirable area, making it even further out of reach for most of us. Accomplishments like these overshadow what Bloomberg hasn't done for those who cannot afford million-dollar condos. His legacy as Mayor of New York is hardly etched in stone, and this book raises a flag as to what that legacy should be, as well as to what his successor should really focus on.

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