obama and cities

Yule Heibel passed a link to Obama talking about cities after being given a copy of Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs over Twitter the other day. 

 

I retweeted it, prompting the following thoughtful e-mail from Derek Lindner. 

To Obama’s credit, the video shows that he has familiarity with Jacobs, and by referencing ‘all the studies’ (or some such thing) he shows that he is up on more recent theories of urban planning, though what those are we don’t know (Biden, OTOH, is flipping through the book in the background looking as though it’s in Urdu.)  Of course Obama’s does nothing to let the man giving him the book realize that he’s just insulted Obama’s intelligence, as if he’d just been handed, say, Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962) as a presidential primer on economics. 

The depressing thing is that no one else realizes Obama’s just been insulted, because the level of maturity of the discourse in general on the topic is so low. No one expects the president to know any better than Jacobs (or, apparently, to even know Jacobs, for that matter).

I’m hopeful that with Obama in office the level of public discourse will rise significantly, but I’m a bit nervous as to what might happen with the federal govt taking a larger role in urban planning policy at a national scale. Some high-level vision might be welcome–after seeing New Orleans’ planning process first hand, I’m not a strong advocate of bottom-up planning methodologies–but look at what central banking has done for our economy lately. Perhaps its better to let some decisions be made locally? 

Hm, I’d like to see your top five list of things Obama should do regarding urban planning policy. 

d

That’s my hope too, Derek. 

First of all, Jane Jacobs is a neoliberal (and Banham isn’t that far off too). Her faith in the spontaneous social order of the city led us right to the current mess, in which doe-eyed real estate developers took up the life that she found so appealing and sold it as spectacle, only to wind up choking the life out of it. Have you been to the Village lately? There’s no there, there, although they have Anthropologie.

Second, Obama is clearly above it all. He’s appealing to a crowd in Toledo, a city which is too peripheral to be in the global order of things and for which the promised Bilbao-effect of the Sejima glass pavilion isn’t going to pan out (I went there last year, it was ho-hum…in contrast, the old museum building captivated, especially a great show of work by David Macauley). Still, he points out that you can’t separate cities from the metropolitan regions they are in. Jacobs is still very much part of the crowd that favors a division between the city and the suburb. It’s funny that as I was taking Amtrak back from Philadelphia to Jersey today, I thought of a more lasting, if lesser known, to the field of urban studies, Jean Gottmann’s Megalopolis, published in the same year as Jacobs’s book. In the video Obama is on Gottmann’s side, not Jacobs’s:

We must abandon the idea of the city as a tightly settled and organized unit in which people, activities, and riches are crowded into a very small area clearly separated from its nonurban surroundings. Every city in this region spreads out far and wide around its original nucleus; it grows amidst an irregularly colloidal mixture of rural and suburban landscapes; it melts on broad fronts with other mixtures, of somewhat similar though different texture, belonging to the suburban neighborhoods of other cities. (Gottmann, 5)

Moreover, I suspect Obama, or at least his advisors, have read and absorbed much more cutting edge material. Certainly Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort seems like a blueprint for how Obama won the election. I’m hoping he’s reading stuff by the Metropolitan Institute at Virginian Tech, which to my mind consistently does the most interesting work on cities out there. It would also be great to hear that Obama had read some Stephen Graham and certainly, as a cautionary measure, Rebecca Solnit’s Hollow City. I’m a little bit scared, however, by the comment about Chicago. Certainly its doing well, but are the Richard Florida/Bilbao-Effect model that drove that metropolis is finished. We’ll see, I guess.

As for my recommendations for what Obama should do with cities, they’re on their way, really they are. 

Yule Heibel passed a link to Obama talking about cities after being given a copy of Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs over Twitter the other day. 

 

I retweeted it, prompting the following thoughtful e-mail from Derek Lindner. 

To Obama’s credit, the video shows that he has familiarity with Jacobs, and by referencing ‘all the studies’ (or some such thing) he shows that he is up on more recent theories of urban planning, though what those are we don’t know (Biden, OTOH, is flipping through the book in the background looking as though it’s in Urdu.)  Of course Obama’s does nothing to let the man giving him the book realize that he’s just insulted Obama’s intelligence, as if he’d just been handed, say, Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (1962) as a presidential primer on economics. 

The depressing thing is that no one else realizes Obama’s just been insulted, because the level of maturity of the discourse in general on the topic is so low. No one expects the president to know any better than Jacobs (or, apparently, to even know Jacobs, for that matter).

I’m hopeful that with Obama in office the level of public discourse will rise significantly, but I’m a bit nervous as to what might happen with the federal govt taking a larger role in urban planning policy at a national scale. Some high-level vision might be welcome–after seeing New Orleans’ planning process first hand, I’m not a strong advocate of bottom-up planning methodologies–but look at what central banking has done for our economy lately. Perhaps its better to let some decisions be made locally? 

Hm, I’d like to see your top five list of things Obama should do regarding urban planning policy. 

d

That’s my hope too, Derek. 

First of all, Jane Jacobs is a neoliberal (and Banham isn’t that far off too). Her faith in the spontaneous social order of the city led us right to the current mess, in which doe-eyed real estate developers took up the life that she found so appealing and sold it as spectacle, only to wind up choking the life out of it. Have you been to the Village lately? There’s no there, there, although they have Anthropologie.

Second, Obama is clearly above it all. He’s appealing to a crowd in Toledo, a city which is too peripheral to be in the global order of things and for which the promised Bilbao-effect of the Sejima glass pavilion isn’t going to pan out (I went there last year, it was ho-hum…in contrast, the old museum building captivated, especially a great show of work by David Macauley). Still, he points out that you can’t separate cities from the metropolitan regions they are in. Jacobs is still very much part of the crowd that favors a division between the city and the suburb. It’s funny that as I was taking Amtrak back from Philadelphia to Jersey today, I thought of a more lasting, if lesser known, to the field of urban studies, Jean Gottmann’s Megalopolis, published in the same year as Jacobs’s book. In the video Obama is on Gottmann’s side, not Jacobs’s:

We must abandon the idea of the city as a tightly settled and organized unit in which people, activities, and riches are crowded into a very small area clearly separated from its nonurban surroundings. Every city in this region spreads out far and wide around its original nucleus; it grows amidst an irregularly colloidal mixture of rural and suburban landscapes; it melts on broad fronts with other mixtures, of somewhat similar though different texture, belonging to the suburban neighborhoods of other cities. (Gottmann, 5)

Moreover, I suspect Obama, or at least his advisors, have read and absorbed much more cutting edge material. Certainly Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort seems like a blueprint for how Obama won the election. I’m hoping he’s reading stuff by the Metropolitan Institute at Virginian Tech, which to my mind consistently does the most interesting work on cities out there. It would also be great to hear that Obama had read some Stephen Graham and certainly, as a cautionary measure, Rebecca Solnit’s Hollow City. I’m a little bit scared, however, by the comment about Chicago. Certainly its doing well, but are the Richard Florida/Bilbao-Effect model that drove that metropolis is finished. We’ll see, I guess.

As for my recommendations for what Obama should do with cities, they’re on their way, really they are. 

2 thoughts on “obama and cities

  1. agree and disagree
    i partly agree and partly disagree… i’d argue you are reacting more towards the washed-down version of jacobs represented by those real estate developers. jacobs has been reduced to an image that is too literal, often the exact opposite of what she was arguing for… she argued for diversity, developers look to homogenize and group similar consumers. she argued for networks of small blocks and supervised streets, which is not what those ‘outdoor malls’ do, plus should not be construed as a blanket recommendation for all conditions. she warns on the perils of empty space, but is careful to qualify the kind of empty space can be detrimental and the kind that is useful, particularly through its borders. she looked for a balance of spontaneity and order- neither the complete management of city centers [“privatized” public space] nor the complete disorder of unchecked growth.

    i also disagree in your assesment of jacobs as opposite to the concept of megalopolis- she discusses it in one of the final chapters of her book, and argues for the importance of studying this condition more carefully. she refrains from any spatial recommendations arguing ‘it’s too early’ at that point to really know how a ‘metropolitan region’ [how she calls it] might behave, and only points out some administrative recommendations- this makes sense for her because her writing is mostly empirical- she just admits she has no experience of this condition to give further advice on it.

    of course too much has changed since the book -it speaks of a different cultural and urban condition-, but the basics are there to be reinterpreted in current cities, suburbs and everything in between. not to turn suburbs into cities, but to help find new solutions to current problems taking into account some basic advice… advice that keeps being forgotten in a lot of contemporary work, that ends up making similar mistakes as the work of the 50’s and 60’s that she critiqued. i guess in general my argument is for an open minded reading of jacobs- i think she makes some important points that it would be useful to take into account in a response to current conditions.

    i do have to admit i haven’t read all the material you’re sourcing, though, so i’ll be catching up on that. looking forward to your obama recommendations!

  2. Ideology or Science?
    Not to fall too far into the mode of defending Jacobs, she should be given credit not only for her remarkable “faith in the spontaneous social order of the city,” but for her articulation of this in complexity science terms decades ahead of schedule. Having brought Warren Weaver’s work in this area to light (http://web.mac.com/peterlaurence/iWeb/Peter%20Laurence/JAE%2059(3).html), if not her faith alone, seems to make her a direct forbear and early advocate of the networked city…

    Keep up the great work, Kazys. I’m using your blog and Networked Publics in both seminar and studio this semester. Cheers, PL