Wednesday would be the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs if she had not died in 2006. Saturday at 1 p.m. is my third tour of Providence’s new riverfront for Jane’s Walk, the international conspiracy to spread her urbanist wisdom around the world, now in its ninth year (the conspiracy, not the world).
The image above is from my second Jane’s Walk tour. The tour was rollicking good fun, with people like Barnaby Evans of WaterFire fame asking me hard questions about my controversial architectural views. Barnaby is stroking his beard next to Bill Warner’s fancy banister. That’s me in the yellow shirt.
In 2014, some 40,000 people took part in Jane’s Walks in 134 cities on six continents. Each was free and led by a volunteer. Here is a passage about it from Wikipedia: “The walks are led by anyone who has an interest in the neighbourhoods where they live, work or hang out. They are not always about architecture and heritage, and offer a more personal take on the local culture, the social history and the planning issues faced by the residents.”
Well, they will be about the architecture on my walk, but that includes the culture of building and development in Providence, which has had, shall we say, its highs and lows over the years, and especially recent years. I’m still covering these issues, as I did for three decades at the Providence Journal. Roger Williams founded Rhode Island on the original waterfront, but I was not around to cover that. The waterfront designed by the late Rhode Island architect and planner Bill Warner is the high point of a more recent history. The encroachment of modern architecture around its westernmost extent, Waterplace, is certainly the low point. We will discuss this on Saturday.
Jane Jacobs, if she is looking down from above, must be proud of Warner, who very much stood in her shoes as the proponent of a safe, active and indeed beautiful urban riverfront. Jacobs fought New York’s longtime master planner, Robert Moses, when he tried to ram a highway through Washington Square. That sounds bad enough, but Jacobs was not involved when Moses planned low bridges along the parkways leading to Jones Beach, off Long Island, so that buses would not be able to get there from the city – because bus was how most blacks might be expected to arrive.
Jane Jacobs and Bill Warner would never have wanted to do that, but the blog BLDGBLOG is reporting on a call being put out for entries in a competition to design a computer game that will enable players to erect such bridges if they so choose. The competition, as conceived by Tim Hwang, of the Infrastructure Observatory blog, would use Robert Caro’s breathtakingly detailed 1975 biography of Moses, The Power Broker, as the template for such a game. It sounds very exciting, but there’s a frisson of danger because some modernists want to bring Moses-style megaprojects back after decades in which the influence of Jane Jacobs has made it harder for cities to blow out ethnic neighborhoods in order to install towering prison-like housing for poor people. (Hardly an exaggeration.)
Of course, Bill Warner’s Providence waterfront was a megaproject – a megaproject for the ages and the angels. Jane Jacobs is not spinning in her grave at the influence of Bill Warner. And yet a return of the megaproject as the default operating system for U.S. city planning is something to be wary of. Not every city can boast a Bill Warner – or a Jane Jacobs.
(By the way, check out BLDGBLOG and see how its font makes it seem like BLOGBLOG (or BLDGBLDG). Very neat. Today I put this blog, run by Geoff Manaugh, on my “Blogs I Follow” so readers can tap right into it.)