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Jane Jacobs and Boston: Too Much Back Bay, Too Little Roxbury

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Would sainted urban-planning pioneer Jane Jacobs like the way Boston has turned out? The question came to us after reading an op-ed in the Saturday Globe by Anthony Flint, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge and the author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City.

Indeed, much of Jacobs' reputation rests on her confrontations with Robert Moses over the development—and, some say, destruction—of New York City in the 1960s. But her efforts and ideas are translatable to just about urban area, particularly ones like the Hub that aspire to be places that people both live and work in (rather than places that people just commute to and from). The central Jacobs idea? That cities should be comprised of moderately dense, mixed-use neighborhoods with ready access to public transportation and parkland.

A lovely idea, yes, one developed by its progenitor during her time in old-school Greenwich Village.

The problem with this idea, of course, is that it does not afford much room for development or growth—which explains not only Jacobs' clashes with Moses but with a revisionist wave the last couple of years regarding her seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The wave's logic runs basically like this: It was all well and fine for Jacobs to expound Greenwich Village circa 1960 as the ideal model for urban planning, as a warm-and-fuzzy place to raise kids in a city and as an affordable locale for retailers to do business; but that vision did not necessarily translate into the future or into other geographies (hell, the revisionists argue, it didn't even translate into Greenwich Village! The still-moderately dense, mixed-use neighborhood became one of the most exclusive and priciest in the United States.)

The vision should have translated into Boston, with its squares and its T and its residents' attachments to their neighborhoods. But, to us, it doesn't look like it did. Instead, parts of the Hub are, like Greenwich Village, astoundingly pricey for residents and retailers alike (think Back Bay and Beacon Hill, even Chinatown and the North End); and other parts are perpetually down on their luck (witness last week's report on the staggering poverty of Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan). Jacobs' ideas, if anything, championed the former and exacerbated the latter.

And little of this disparity can be solved, we think, by what Jacobs often proposed: low-rise residential development (which, however unintentionally, often caps the amount of available housing, thus driving up the prices of what's there); and fewer new roadways in favor of more spending on/development of subway lines and buses (or their ideological grandchildren, bike and HOV lanes).

Perhaps what's needed in Boston is what Flint in his op-ed suggests for cities in general: a blending of Robert Moses' get-the-job-done regional planning that integrates and connects the different moving parts that Jane Jacobs' ideas made more livable and enviable. We doubt Jacobs, who died in 2006, would be down for that. But it's not enough, we also think, for the Hub to aspire to be all Back Bay with Roxbury out of sight, out of mind.

What do you think?

· An Urban Legacy in Need of Renewal [Globe]
· Poverty's Grip Tightens in Boston, Study Says [Globe]