Editorial: Taking Jane Jacobs’ Name in Vain

By Becky O’Malley
Friday May 19, 2006

The recent death of Jane Jacobs has prompted the usual spate of hagiographic reminiscences from professional planners and their critics who hope that they are candidates to assume the Jacobs mantle. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the word, hagiographies are Lives of the Saints, and Jane Jacobs was one of those unlucky or lucky people who are canonized before they die.  

The first thing to remember about her is that she was the original NIMBY. She didn’t want the Lower Manhattan Expressway to destroy her Greenwich Village backyard, and she used her considerable writing skill (she started out as a journalist) and her organizing ability to stop it. And those planners who loudly proclaim their links to the Jacobs heritage should remember that she detested planners, precisely because of their pseudo-scientific pretensions to know better than neighborhood residents what is “good for them.”  

Planning, like most fields, is subject to the whims of fashion. In the early ’60s, when Jacobs wrote The Life and Death of Great American Cities, the fashion czar in New York City was Robert Moses, who favored large-scale grandiose prescriptive urban renewal schemes. Today’s planning fashions are different, but in their own way just as prescriptive and formulaic. Believers in rapid transit today, who hold as an article of faith that if they build it riders will come, are just as fanatical as those in earlier days who insisted that mega-highways should be built everywhere.  

While visiting Santa Cruz this weekend I chanced to pick up the phone when a pollster was calling, and out of curiosity let him put me through his whole spiel. At first I thought his questions were devised to test support for some political candidate or other, but at the end of the interview he confessed that his Florida company was hired by the planning department of the City of Santa Cruz to test-market solutions that might be offered in that city’s upcoming general plan revision. Funny thing—his Santa Cruz solutions, for a much smaller, more isolated town which differs from Berkeley in many important particulars, were almost identical to those which have been pushed by the Berkeley planning department: Big Boxes on traffic arteries, paving over or building on all remaining open space inside town, much more student housing for Santa Cruz’s tiny one-street “downtown,” etc.  

It’s a new paradigm, but it’s still one size fits all.  

This new assortment of planning fads often invokes the sacred name of Jane Jacobs because it’s somewhat Greenwich-Villagesque in detail. Taller buildings, residential over retail, no cars—what’s not to like? Everyone loves New York, a wonderful town. 

The problem is that what’s right for the Village is not right for everywhere, as Jacobs would be the first to admit if she were still around to defend herself. She believed that places grew organically (and most of the places she cared deeply about were cities, but that’s a whole different discussion.)  

Santa Cruz in 1965 was a little seaside resort which had what was supposed to be a small, intimate new kind of university dropped into a big ranch well out of town. Now the obscene metastasizing of the University of California is threatening to gobble up little Santa Cruz in the same way it’s threatening to take over downtown Berkeley. Berkeley, however, is a city with many more residents and a longer and more complex history and infrastructure. Also, Santa Cruz’s historic downtown, what there was of it, was mostly destroyed in the 1989 earthquake, so it’s largely been rebuilt since, now with plenty of parking lots. But Berkeley still has a wealth of historic buildings which are gravely at risk in the latest round of planning-by-fad.  

Preserving cities’ historic fabric was another of Jane Jacobs’ core beliefs which many contemporary planners and developers would like to ignore. Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, has put together a whole web page of Jacobs obituaries. The one from Metro, a New York city alternative paper, quotes Berman’s contention that the arena to fight development has changed. “The forces of real estate are probably more highly organized now and the money in real estate is staggering,” he said. “Now, the battles are with private developers, with the city greenlighting their projects instead of in Robert Moses’ day, when the city itself was the enemy.”  

That’s certainly true in Berkeley, with politicians and planning staff falling all over each other thinking of new and better ways to deliver the city into the hands of development capital. Mayor Bates started things off with his Task Force on Permitting and Development, launched soon after he took office. One of the fruits of their labors is the disgraceful draft for a gutted Landmarks Preservation Ordinance which is being fast-tracked over the objections of citizens for passage in July, right before the City Council’s Long Vacation.  

Concerned activists are conflicted over what is the best way to stop this shortsighted plan. One group is circulating an initiative petition which would put an updated version of the current LPO on the November ballot. Others, though, fear that such an initiative would suffer the fate of the late Measure P, a height limitation initiative which was swamped by big developer money.  

Cynics now point to the fate of P as the vox populi, when it was no such thing. It was just another example of how easy it is to buy elections in Berkeley, contrary to the naïve assertions of some of our frequent correspondents. There’s no spending limit for initiatives—the anti-P forces got a $5,000 “contribution” from Patrick Kennedy’s mother-in-law, who lives in Sacramento. And that’s just one example from many in the list of anti-P contributors, the majority of whom were friends, employees or family of private developers.  

To make the analysis harder, Bates has been doing Sacramento-style inner-office “meet&greets” with preservationists. These are reported to combine vague offers to amend the draft with veiled threats of an even worse version if an initiative is tried and defeated. If an initiative were on the ballot, the council would probably not pass the draft in July, thus enabling mayoral opposition to be based on pie in the sky promises of improvements if the initiative is defeated. 

A better strategy might be to dare the mayor and city Council to do their worst in July. Let them pass the dreadful draft if they’re foolish enough, and then mount a referendum campaign against it, coupled with an initiative for a better update if desired. A campaign against a specific bad ordinance would be easier to mount, though referendums require more signatures and developer money would still be a problem. It is possible, with plenty of time to organize, to defeat even well-funded opponents. And Jane Jacobs didn’t shy away from direct action—she was arrested in a 1968 demonstration against a revival of Robert Moses’ expressway. We’re not recommending that necessarily, but it’s another thought.