A few weeks ago, during a long weekend in New York, I found myself wandering Manhattan on a Monday. All the usual museums were closed so I tried a small gem of an exhibit on the life and accomplishments of Jane Jacobs.
Jacobs is the activist who helped save swaths of Manhattan from freeways and urban renewal through the 1960s. She's often credited with the basic idea that walkable neighborhoods inhabited by residents are healthier than impersonal housing projects on "super blocks."
It's a great lesson that's been internalized by planners worldwide. But I couldn't help think the pendulum has swung too far. Instead of protesting for strong neighborhoods it seems neighborhood activism -- often under the guise of Jacobs' lessons -- is simply against development, period.
This describes Seattle, where investment in new buildings in a close-in neighborhood is scorned. The Seattle P-I wrote in sympathy of neighbors of a University District coffee shop who didn't want a parking lot developed because a new building would cast shade on a patio! Never mind the benefit of more residents, workers or customers in the neighborhood. Of course, there's also some backlash to development in Portland and Vancouver.
Even in New York, the protest and NIMBY movement is strong. I choose to remember the row of old two-story buildings being torn down in favor of the Santiago Calatrava-designed transit hub. Instead of hand-wringing, the New York Post brushed off concerns of the tenants, calling the buildings "scuzzy."
So where's the middle ground? I'd vote for transparent development rules and design review. But most important is leadership that can make a clear case for what the city gains from development.