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Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

As its title suggests, this biopic is a eulogy to a woman whose legacy is almost superheroic to the collectivist mindset.

Born on Star Wars day in 1916, the journalist Jane Jacobs was one of the most famous residents of 1960s Greenwich Village, at a time when icons were ten-a-penny. Her love of the bustle of highly populated city life fuelled a defiance that served as the antithesis of the top-down city masterplanning enforced by the story’s pantomime villain, the city planner Robert Moses.

Moses’ tunnel vision sought to regenerate New York’s poorer neighbourhoods, seen by the authorities as disease and crime-ridden, by bastardising Le Corbusian urbanism, crucially substituting the Swiss architect’s high-rise offices and workplaces for high-rise social housing. Jacobs presented the opposing argument, notably in her magnum opus, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which deserves wider recognition than solely the urban theory textbooks of human geographers. It eloquently describes her enthusiasm for the successes of supposed slums, such as the active local economy, street level socialisation and natural surveillance from medium-rise tenements as a form of crime prevention.

History has shown Moses’s bulldozing methods and imposed new residences to be unpopular, culminating in similar city planners’ admission of failure with the watershed moment detonation of the Pruitt-Igoe buildings in St Louis, Missouri, by the early 1970s. It’s an evolution emotively told through Citizen Jane.

As its subheading says, the opposing ideologies represent a ‘Battle for the City’; Luke against Darth; Jane against Goliath. While the billing might be a little hyperbolic and the weight of her influence overplayed by the talking heads interwoven with grainy footage, telling tales such as Jacobs’ is vital to avoiding historical repetition. Such opposition is rightly championed as an important part of challenging rampant city authoritarianism, giving voice to those who were being unsubtly swiped aside by urban modelling concepts half-baked in boardrooms. It may over-glorify aspects of the story, but its narrative is neatly placed into wider contexts of more famous counter-cultural movements that shaped the decade.

It is a narrative that tarnished city planning’s name and reputation, changing the way planners operate. Moses’s tactic is synonymous with the era’s focus on quantity, but his free reign over public sector budgets and excesses of construction were his downfall. Indeed, Moses’s major undoings were a pair of proposed futuristic expressways piercing through the heart of the city, although, having already completed numerous highways as part of the automotive city vision, his contribution to the subsequent era of suburbanisation had already been completed, heralding the mass car use that has latterly become a reliance and obsession.

Far from being an isolated disagreement of its time, Citizen Jane’s message is as important to the political climate now as it was then. Circumstances continue to show that Jacobs’ fears of the negative impacts that follow on from forcibly severing communities have been illustrated through the atomising silo living of gated clusters of unscrupulously-priced private flat blocks.

Since Moses’s excesses, the lineage of city life can be traced through to today’s privatised world of neoliberalism, with cash-strapped city planners often in thrall to the whims of developers. Once again, the onus is on proactive activists to sway the pre-application narrative during consultation stages to persuade developers that their plans need to be amended or refashioned entirely.

Citizen Jane Battle for the City film

Manchester has its share of unwelcome or unpopular development proposals, some of which can seem very top-down in their formulation and process. Gary Neville’s luxury towers were sent back to the drawing board, but the Ordsall Chord is among the schemes juggling with the city’s heritage. Compared with Moses’s advocacy of private transport freeways, the changing shape of Manchester is at least favouring more sustainable transport modes, but casualties including the Cornerhouse and Star and Garter, set to make way for the expansion of Piccadilly station and eventually HS2, naturally provoke unrest.

Even so, the question lingering at the end of the film was: does Manchester need its own Jane Jacobs and would such a person attract enough support to influence decision-making?

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