Balancing Great American Cities: Its Form AND Content

Event: Interpreting and MisInterpreting Jane Jacobs: New York and Beyond
Location: Museum of the City of New York, 03.07.07
Speakers: Ronald Shiffman, FAICP, Hon. AIA — Professor of Urban Planning, Pratt Institute; Michael Sorkin — Director, Graduate Urban Design Program, City College of New York; Margaret Zeidler — President, 401 Richmond, Toronto; Moderator Mary W. Rowe — Senior Urban Fellow, Blue Moon Fund; Roberta Brandes Gratz — Founder, The Center for the Living City at Purchase College (introduction)
Organizers: Museum of the City of New York

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jessica Sheridan

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs praised the organized chaos of everyday urban life and articulates how a city’s aggregate form contributes to a vital life. She taught us how to listen to urban places, explains Roberta Brandes Gratz, founder of the Center for the Living City at Purchase College. In the neighborhoods she admired, Jacobs did not, however, see a model for but rather principles to guide urban development. In Greenwich Village, for example, Jacobs saw a healthy exchange between the public and private realms that should be replicated. But not all neighborhoods can or should be the Village.

According to Michael Sorkin, Director of the Urban Design Program at the City College of New York, the dual aspects of Jacobs thinking — the formal and the participatory — are interdependent. Often her ideas are misread because of the tendency to “divorce Jane Jacobs the activist from Jane Jacobs the gifted observer of urban morphologies.” Jacobs’s observations are increasingly lost as her ideas are appropriated “to sell large, top-down projects,” explained Ronald Shiffman, FAICP, Hon. AIA, Professor of Urban Planning at Pratt Institute. He cited the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn and Columbia University’s Manhattanville expansion as examples of this. As Sorkin summarized, “The form of the ‘good city’ and its culture are inseparable.”