Urban planning: top down or bottom up?

Three new exhibitions have opened up in New York about the controversial urban planner Robert Moses. Moses was the architect of the New York World’s Fair in 1964-65, the rather sad-looking remnants of which you see as you take a cab into Manhattan from JFK airport. Much more fundamentally, though, he was the planner who remade New York over the course of the 20th century, as the Washington Post today explains.

Moses’s style of decision-making was nothing if not top-down: he is said to have referred to protesters seeking to block his plans for an expressway running through the middle of Greenwich Village’s chilled out Washington Square as “a bunch of mothers”. A heavily critical biography of him by Robert Caro in the 1970s did much to establish that view, according to the Post. Both the Post and the WSJ this morning contrast Moses’s approach with that of Jane Jacobs, author of The Life and Death of American Cities, who favoured a more bottom-up view of urban planning that would find much to like in today’s agendas of street liveability.

But it’s an article in the New Yorker a month ago that most acutely captures the dilemma that both Moses and Jacobs were essentially trying to solve. Paul Goldberger concludes that:

“In an era when almost any project can be held up for years by public hearings and reviews by community boards, community groups, civic groups, and planning commissions, not to mention the courts, it is hard not to feel a certain nostalgic tug for Moses’s method of building by decree. It may not have been democratic, or even right. Still, somebody has to look at the big picture and make decisions for the greater good. Moses’s problem was that he couldn’t take his eye off the big picture. He was so in tune with New York’s vastness that he had no patience for anything small within it. Caro brilliantly immortalized Moses’s indifference to neighborhoods and people at a time when the city was weak, when the wounds from his high-handed approach were raw, and when Jane Jacobs’s focus on the fine grain of neighborhoods held fresh promise. But there is a price to pay for thinking small, just as there is for thinking big. Thirty years later, we are still trying to find the balance.”