Like Jedi Knights, urban planning has a dark side
April 29, 2016
Just like the Jedi Knights in Star Wars, urban planners can choose to come to the dark side or the light side.
We can envision a Darth Vader in the person of New York’s Robert Moses (1888 -1981), although that appraisal is rather facile. He’s the polarizing figure known as the last century’s “Master Builder.” We have the Titan of the Skyline to thank for the splendor of the United Nations building, among many other iconic achievements. As the New York Sun reported, our experience of the Big Apple has been shaped most significantly by the singular drive of Moses, who “built 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds, and 150,000 housing units, spending $150 billion in today’s dollars.” His legacy is mixed.
We talk about social equity as a component of sustainability – words Moses wouldn’t have known to employ in that order (history is the finest of teachers). Displacement of the poor was part of that mixed legacy. As was the cruel bifurcation of neighborhoods with highways, leading to a fracturing of cohesiveness and a culture of institutionalized socio-economic discrimination. The guy had too much unchecked power, and it probably went to his head. If you love New York, it’s inarguable that without Moses, it would be a different kind of New York to love. There are those who argue he liked cars more than people.
That’s where the yin to that yang comes in, in the person of Jane Jacobs (1916-2006). When threatened by downtown expressways, neighborhoods had a champion in the writer/activist, who helped them fight for their survival. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, explores why places work – and why the ill-considered policies that informed the more dubious part of Moses’s modus operandi are anathema.
We love the quote in the graphic above, which we dedicate in Jacobs’ honor, but also this one: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” That’s the community-centered approach that informs the concept of modern Placemaking, which you’ve seen us reference in past posts.
Legacies are always more complicated than a collection of quotes or a half century of Monday morning quarterbacking in the former of editorial counterpoint. In the end, though, the question remains: what would Yoda do?