Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass professor surveys urban planning in new book

By Brian Canova

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In University of Massachusetts professor Max Page’s latest book, he revisits Jane Jacob’s critique of modernist urban planning policies to understand the role it has played – and continues to play – in the construction of cities both in the United States and around the world.

Jacobs published “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” 50 years ago in 1961. With its dominant ideas on modernism and specifically the modern planning of highways, it may have affected the growth of the urban renewal movement.

“There was a feeling that we needed to rip through 18th and 19th century cities in order to build the modern city of highways and high rise towers,” said Page, professor of architecture and history.

Page explained that the prevailing notion among urban planners was that these proposed highways which would “rip” through the middle of cities would “kill two birds with one stone.” They would get cars into the city while also eliminating the slums and poorer neighborhoods by transplanting them with eight-lane freeways and interstates, he said.

Jacobs stood in opposition to these ideas. Seeing that these were good places to live with decent communities, she argued for their preservation rather than their destruction. Two examples where her ideas were able to influence modern planning away from this sacking of vibrant neighborhoods include Boston’s North End and Manhattan’s South Houston, each of which have since become large and recognizable cultural centers of either city.

“She turned things upside down basically,” Page said.

The effects of Jacob’s writings can be seen most recently in the Big Dig project. The Rose Kennedy Greenway project replaced the elevated freeway system, moving Interstate 93 underground and freeing up a nearly 1.5 mile long plot of land for parks and public places.

But Jacobs’ influence has not been limited to only the United States, says Page. “What we’re saying is that she has lasting impact around the world. Planners and architects around the world continue to read ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities,’” he said.

Her influence on an international scale is highlighted in the capital cities of Argentina’s Buenos Aires, and the United Arab Emirates’ Abu Dhabi.

Buenos Aires’ young movement to preserve historical and cultural locations is similar to Jane Jacobs’ advocacy to have old buildings remain as part of the modern city.

Her potential influence in Abu Dhabi is a bit different. When urban planners from Canada were brought into this city to make the city more pedestrian friendly with sidewalks and a design conducive to travel on foot, architects tapped one of Jacob’s most lasting ideas of “mixed use,” said Page.

Mixed use, according to Jacobs, was the idea that rather than separate commercial properties, factories, and residential buildings they could each cohabitate the same area. The example of building with a storefront on the first level, and residential living spaces or workshops on the levels above that, illustrates this point.

“It went totally against what planners of the day believed,” said Page. “She has a global impact.”

Page said that his book offers “a balanced approach to understand her and look both at the continued value of her lessons and honestly look at some of her blind spots and omissions.”

Her main blind spot or criticism, according to Page, was the enormous faith she placed in the free market. She was so focused on the safety and economic implications of city planning that she overlooked the value of culture, despite her writing’s focus around neighborhoods rich with it, he said.

To illustrate the latter point, Page gave the following example. While Jacobs was living in Lower Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and working on “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” she managed to write about the neighborhood with nothing to say about its role as a social and cultural experiment, representing a prominent hub in the beat movement, jazz, rock and roll and gay life.

Page also believes that Jacob’s skepticism of suburbs 50 years ago has not quite panned out, given that they are very much a reality today.

“Cities have changed,” said Page. “The deeper lessons in the book will be useful as we move into the future, as opposed to the more time specific ones. You can’t criticize someone in 1961 for not knowing where the world will be in 2011.”

Page – who first read Jacobs as an undeclared college student in a history of architecture course – gives “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” credit for inspiring him on his chosen path to study and later teach history and architecture.

Page explained that the book can be read by anyone – not only students – because of how very clearly and passionately it is written.
“The book is so well written, so compellingly well written and unlike so many books about cities,” said Page, “We’re sure it’s going to have another 50 years.”

Brian Canova can be reached at [email protected]

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