A version of this post also appeared in Commotion, the journal of Urbanistas.
The film was well produced and the use of archival footage and audio was a fun and enlightening way to revisit Jane Jacobs’ work. But, it didn’t dig very deep into the hows, whys and ‘what nows’ of how we think about planning and urban form today in light of the lessons from Jacobs. If you’re new to urbanism, it’s a good crash course on two of history’s most famous planning adversaries, but for those who know the philosophies, it didn’t offer much extra.
The film depicts a battle specific to an era. The 1960s were not only a time in which planners held a lot of power, but government did in general. Much as the political landscape has changed since the 1960s in both the US and UK, so has the role of government and planners within it. Planners no longer have as large of a role in shaping cities. In fact, major infrastructure decisions tend to be done not by planners, but by politicians, special bodies, or worse yet, lobbyists and investors.
As the end of this review from Oliver Wainwright at The Guardian points out, there are many problems with painting Jacobs and Moses as black and white, good versus evil. What ultimately is the film’s message? Central planners no longer exist in the US or UK, and many of Jacobs’ philosophies are codified in planning, design and landscape architecture best practice (e.g. eyes on the street/passive surveillance, people scale and mixed-use design) today. The ills of urban renewal still happen, but rarely triggered by planners, rather by cash-strapped local governments fighting for economic investment.
What is the Moses equivalent we should be looking out for today? The final images of sterile, cheap, closely-spaced tower blocks in China suggest we’re meant to ensure that the lessons are passed on to more recently urbanising cities. That’s important, but nothing about the film suggests planners and designers in China are the intended audience.
Could the ‘smart city’ and ‘big data’ movements be today’s version of urban renewal–where society’s ills and the ‘problems’ of modern life can be solved by sensors, data and algorithms? Rather than leaving control of the city to the technocrats of old, we are meant to leave control to the technology itself. As with central planning, there can be good done with these types of strategies, but as soon as we act like they are a cure-all and stop considering the human side of cities, there are (perhaps unintended) negative consequences.
By focussing on the battles of the 60s without a clear translation for today, the film missed an opportunity to call out the mistakes we may be repeating. It was comforting storytelling and a good refresher, but it failed to note that today’s Citizen Janes are up against a system more complex than just one Moses.