SUBSCRIBE TO OUR BLOG
One of the most influential and important urbanists of the 20th century had no formal training in the field, nor even a college degree, and yet her books have become essential material for any urban planner today. Jane Jacobs never worked in a professional capacity as a city planner, and flew in the face of most people who did at the time – like New York City urban planner Robert Moses – successfully arguing against their top-down strategies for urban renewal. Today's cities need more Jacobs' and less Moses' – and that has to start with who we consider qualified to become urban planners.
To become an urban planner in the United States, one generally needs a master's degree from one of the 71 programs accredited by the Planning Accreditation Board, and a couple years of prior work experience. And while the urban planner profession has almost reached gender parity (in terms of representation, if not pay), almost 85% of them are white, and planners as a whole are more likely to live and work in urban state capitals. While these statistics aren't as alarming compared to other occupational demographics through the United States and the world, it still reflects the reality that most urban planners aren't coming from the places targeted for renewal.
That lack of perspective may account for the negative effect that urban renewal efforts have had over the past 50 years in the smaller cities that need it the most. A recent exhibit curated by MASS Design Group at the Center for Architecture in New York City shows that as influential as Jacobsian urbanism might be, Moses' has had a more concrete effect. The exhibit, which focuses on Poughkeepsie, New York; Saginaw, Michigan; Spartanburg, South Carolina; and Easton, Pennsylvania tells different versions of the same story.
Money sent to the city for urban renewal instead went towards the demolition of “slum" housing to make room for highways that cut through the city centers. This displaced much of the cities' poorer populations without providing timely or affordable replacements, while the new thoroughfares only made it easier for traffic to pass through the city - instead of into it.
Like the related issue of gentrification, the problem with early urban renewal efforts were that they were designed to appeal to hypothetical new people that would hypothetically improve the cities at the expense of the people who already lived there.
However, those fringe cities, as well as dozens of others have begun to rebuild following previous failed urban renewal attempts – and this time they're succeeding. Local groups like The Greater Easton Development Partnership and Saginaw County Land Bank are tapping into local culture and addressing community needs rather than implementing plans designed and approved by people disconnected from the community.
Studies have shown that when you give disadvantaged people money rather than pre-made resources and aid, those people do a better job of pulling themselves out of poverty. People know what their communities need better and more intimately than designers and planners brought in from somewhere else. Like direct charity, urban renewal should empower communities to shape their own growth rather than have their futures dictated to them. As Jacobs wrote about during that initial urban renewal boom:
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."
To do a better job of listening to the communities urban planners hope to serve, we offer powerful public sector and infrastructure solutions that help planners see where the people live, and where they want to go.