Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs, and the Ever-Changing Role of the Planner

By Christopher Moon-Miklaucic

Winter 2021 Issue

Pictured above: Concept renderings of Robert Moses’ proposed LOMEX (Lower Manhattan Expressway), drawing by Paul Rudolph. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs are two of the most prominent figures of 20th century urban planning. To this day, their half-century old debate about New York City’s urban development continues to evoke a multitude of controversies in planning.

The Moses and Jacobs debate begins as a disagreement over the future of New York City but ends up becoming a much larger representation of two divergent views of the fate of cities. If Jacobs saw in cities, life, diversity, and complexity, Moses saw infrastructure, efficiency, and the act of building. Robert Caro famously dubbed him the “Power Broker”, symbolizing a top-down, large-scale approach to planning, while Jacobs was seen as the “eye on the street”, in many ways epitomizing a much smaller-scale reading of the city as viewed from the handlebars of her bicycle. Despite looking at the city from different angles, and offering wildly different solutions to improving city life, both Jacobs and Moses were ultimately critics of utopian planners such as Ebenezer Howard, Daniel Burnham, Le Corbusier and other “order obsessed” types. Unsurprisingly, planners have long been fascinated by these two characters, who have been simultaneously celebrated and polarizing. Their disagreements have often served as a proxy of both the power and importance of citizen participation, but also its striking limitations. Today, the debate is being reassessed because despite the romantic allure of Jacobs, the efficiency of the planning process and its ability to strive for change while taking into account a wide variety of needs is still in question, and a longing for Moses’ adept ability to navigate bureaucracies seems to be resurfacing. 

A DEBATE ROOTED IN FUNDAMENTAL PLANNING QUESTIONS

Up until World War II, Robert Moses was seen as a great reformer who was bringing a wide array of new projects to New York City. He was known for getting things done and was lauded for the number of infrastructure projects he was able to implement, particularly during the Great Depression. However, the Robert Moses tale takes a dark turn after World War II, when he starts to amass more power and becomes known more for what he destroys and displaces than what he builds. On the other hand, Jane Jacobs emerges as an advocate against the exact type of planning Moses was promoting. She observed that the very neighborhoods that embodied the true life of a city were the ones being targeted by planners for renewal. Indeed, planners often look to this debate because it evokes many different controversies in planning theory and epitomizes some of the professions’ polarizing views. As a result, it would seem rational for planners to root for Jacobs because she critiqued what is perhaps seen as the original sin of planning: urban renewal and technocratic modernism. 

The Moses and Jacobs debate brings forth a wide range of different and important questions. One of the sticking points on which they disagreed was the scale at which the city should be planned. Moses, on the one hand, worked at the regional scale. He viewed New York City as bottlenecked and isolated, and proposed to overcome this through new roads, bridges, and tunnels, which would in turn make the city appealing to the middle class who otherwise would flee to the suburbs. Moses’ planning leadership in the city catered to the modern middle class who wished to drive to parks and cultural centers. In contrast, Jacobs was much more interested in fine-grained neighborhoods, and experienced the city by sitting on stoops and riding her bicycle to truly have a small-scale read of the city. Furthermore, the role of the automobile was central to their disagreements. If planning came of age alongside the car, its role in the growth and development of cities would be hotly contested. At a basic level, planners understand that cities pose a great locational disadvantage as it relates to the car due to spatial limitations. One approach, and the one mostly posited by Jacobs and her view of planning for “city diversity, vitality and concentration of use”, is that the city must compete with the suburbs through other means, such as walkability and public transit. Moses argued that too many people would be left out if cars weren’t included in city planning and instead promoted the construction of massive infrastructure specifically tailored to automobility. 

Despite their differences of opinion, both Jacobs and Moses were more profound than many of the largely performative planners that preceded them as they truly did advocate for better cities according to their ideologies. Perhaps the greatest difference between them lay in their view of the fundamental role of planning and its relationship with the communities within which they served. 

DIFFERING VIEWS OF THE PLANNER’S ROLE

Indeed, planners are fascinated with this debate because it unearths many of the core issues at the heart of the profession. A key tension of the debate, and perhaps one of the reasons it is being reassessed today, is the question of who is in charge of planning or designing the city. The tension emerges from the inherently different philosophies both of them held about what it meant to plan a city. Jacobs saw the city as “an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success.” She argued that planners should observe the real workings of cities and not act mechanistically in the pursuit of efficiency gains. In fact, the inefficiency of cities is what made them appealing and informed the way Jacobs looked at planning. According to Jacobs, planners should let cities have a life of their own, and much of her advocacy was rooted in protesting the very top-down, institutional planning that Moses has grown to symbolize. In contrast, Moses had very little patience for citizen neighborhood organizations. He believed in messy public works and felt that he was carrying the tradition of serving the public interest and advancing human progress in the great American city. The problem was his tendency to “glory in the devastation”, and his belief that destruction and displacement were prerequisites for development and growth. 

This leads to perhaps a more complex issue than it may seem for today’s planners. If Jacobs calls for planning that allows for diversity and provides cities the space to change on their own, what is the role for planners? Furthermore, is it possible to plan for diversity, or do we expect the market to do it on its own? These weaknesses within Jacobs’ argument are some of the reasons why Moses seems to remain an important figure in discussions of the role of the planning practice. He represents the antithesis of Jacobs’ style of thinking when it comes to the societal role of planning and its relationship with citizens. Moses was productive in New York City specifically because he wielded much of the power to make decisions. In addition, his lack of interest in both aesthetics and citizen participation meant that he could shape the city however he wanted, perhaps leading some to think his leadership translated to municipal efficiency, despite long-lasting negative societal impacts especially on low-income communities. 

If planning came of age alongside the car, 

its role in the growth and development of cities would be hotly contested.

ENGAGING THE DEBATE TODAY

It might be too simple to say that Jacobs’ view was ethically and morally correct. Clearly, planners should strive to ensure that the will of the people is represented adequately and equally in the plans put forth by developers and local governments. The issue, though, is that Jacobs criticized city planning, but not the “big economic and social forces” that originated many of the projects she opposed. In other words, Moses wasn’t completely alone in his undertaking to shape New York City. There were powerful vested interests behind his actions as well, and his accomplishment was the ability to “get things done” in a manner that most wouldn’t expect of municipal government. If planning is often criticized for being too slow, and even when communities are involved the equity results remain suboptimal, Moses seems to represent an alternative, more efficient approach. 

Skepticism of a perfunctory model of citizen participation, which still often rests in procedural and consultative arrangements, may be the reason behind the rehabilitation of Moses and the shifting of the narrative underlying the debate. Perhaps within a context of an ever-changing world that is obsessed with instant gratification, Moses as “America’s greatest builder” is seen as the type of planner needed in order to quickly and efficiently improve current conditions, whereas Jacobs is seen as the “champion of stasis”, content with the status quo and seeking to stifle inevitable change and progress. To some, the Jacobean ideology of community-based planning might represent a decline in the authority and influence of the planner, leading to a nostalgic longing for the golden age of Moses, when planners were considered masters of their domain and free from the bureaucratic shackles that often limit large-scale developments.  

Ultimately, the Moses and Jacobs debate remains relevant to planners today because it serves as a proxy for the power and limitations of citizen participation. If the planning sphere often links Jacobs’ life and work to a recently emerging style of communicative action planning, the criticisms of the approach are part of the reason Moses’ legacy is being rewritten. To some, Jacobs’ ideologies have led to a style of city planning that is too cautious and self-reflective, and Moses’ top-down methods symbolize planning that asserts itself in order to focus less on process and more on outcomes. If not slightly alarming, this shift in narrative should lead the planning profession to ask itself a difficult question which lurks within the shadows of this debate: what do we value more, the effects planning decisions have on communities and people, or the physical act of building and getting things done? 

Christopher Moon-Miklaucic is a native of Washington, D.C. currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Michigan. Prior to graduate school, Christopher worked at the World Resources Institute conducting practical research in urban mobility, energy efficiency, and land use to help cities implement projects such as bike sharing, electric buses, and Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).