Philadelphia, what are you taking for your Jane Jacobs Complex?

Philadelphia, What are you taking for your Jane Jacobs Complex?

by Paul Aylesworth, Community Contributor 

Can there be such a thing as soliciting public input for the wrong reasons, and can that be harmful? Today’s urban planners, myself included, too often suffer from what I call the “Jane Jacobs Complex” – a set of desires to do right by residents by gathering their input and to use our professional expertise. Planning fatigue and distrust set in after neighborhoods are subjected to repeated input sessions and see few results, while planners feel ineffective. Can we planners develop structures and plans to make a more just Philadelphia, and what would that look like?

A few weeks ago I had a disturbing thought: soliciting resident input to inform neighborhood revitalization plans is not always a good practice. I was reading a transcript of a community input session and some of the comments from the residents of this struggling Philadelphia neighborhood were unsurprising. “We have too many nail salons and no nice places to eat!” and “At night people dump trash in that lot,” were common sorts of comments. Much more unsettling were statements from those who’d participated in a plan for the neighborhood several years prior and were either happy with the ideas in the old plan, or were apprehensive about planning again. The planners of the old plan evidently created resident buy-in, but the plan hadn’t achieved its goals. The residents’ frustration and apathy seemed justified. Re-engaging them felt in-humane. But there they sat, back at square one.

Why do we spend so much time and money writing community plans promising revitalization, with their requisite public input components, when (a) they rarely deliver as promised and (b) when they do, the results can mean displacement of low income people due to gentrification?  Why do funders underwrite these plans and often require them as prerequisites for accessing larger funding streams to implement projects and programs? The answer, at least in part, lies within a larger urban planning personality disorder that I call the Jane Jacobs Complex.

Planners have suffered from the Jacobs Complex since at least 1961 when its namesake published her famous reprimand of modern planners, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  The Jacobs Complex is a combination of guilt, due to planning’s history of being out of touch and unable to understand the complexities of communities, and entitlement because our expertise should allow us to make plans and decisions. Fifty years after Jacobs’ book debuted planners are frustrated, especially those concerned with social justice. Gathering public input has become the most important part of the plan and end in itself. This often doesn’t produce any outcomes at all.

In a recent article Thomas J. Campanella, a planning professor at UNC Chapel Hill, claims that Jacobs’ influence has made planners into plan-stamping bureaucrats (we’re mundane) and facilitators of public arguments (we’re impotent). To reclaim our planning mojo, according to Campanella, planners should concentrate on technical and design aspects of planning and subordinate social justice concerns. But think of Philadelphia, with the highest poverty rate of any big city in the country—won’t subordinating social justice concerns make planning less relevant? We should place social justice at the forefront and negotiate the Jacobs Complex by looking forward, not just borrow models from planning’s glory days.

Enter Susan Fainstein, planning professor at Harvard (she’s speaking here tonight!—wish I could make this blink or give it jazz hands or something).  Fainstein is interesting because she cares about social justice and has moved past the Jacobs Complex.  Like Campanella, she’s tired of planning that settles for public input as an end of its own. However, Fainstein proposes a novel goal for planners and policy makers: they should identify what people commonly understand to be social justice outcomes in a city and enact plans to achieve them.

That sounds like a good idea, so how can planners and policy makers apply it in Philadelphia?  First I would confront all issues that ignite planners’ Jacobs Complexes and make plans to better address the underlying social justice concerns.  Many of them involve the intersection of planning and public input.  Take the Zoning Board of Adjustments (ZBA), for example.  The ZBA is currently Philly’s most critical planning entity and an important civic institution.  Note: planners loathe the ZBA so the previous statement might get me defrocked. At the least I am rapidly losing Facebook friends! The ZBA is where one goes when one is trying to develop land and needs a variance, which in Philly is nearly always. Thus the ZBA is powerful, and is a point of leverage for neighborhood groups—the threat of a vocal display at the ZBA can be enough to make developers negotiate. Planners dislike a strong ZBA because they are not well represented in its membership (sometimes it includes bakers (!) and no planners), and its rulings often differ from what planners would decide.  The ZBA trips planners’ Jacobs Complexes because they feel like they could make better decisions than those being made by a body of non-planners relying heavily upon public input.

The current zoning reform process was very participatory in its work to replace the zoning code and marginalize the ZBA.  In fact, the zoning code rewrite is nearly complete and City Council will soon vote on it. If, as promised, the new zoning code enables more development to occur without ZBA decisions, neighbors and civic groups will be disempowered. In Philly’s gentrifying areas especially, where new market rate development continues to occur, the absence of a strong ZBA will make it harder for civic groups to shape development to be equitable to longtime residents and the disadvantaged.

Does our concern for social justice mean that we should fight for the ZBA and undermine the Zoning Reform movement?  No, because the frequent use of the ZBA is indicative of a broken system, but we must replace it with available opportunities to afford citizens more straightforward and effective means of achieving equitable development and social justice. One good opportunity is the work being done by the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land* that would form a municipal land bank and several community land trusts in order to transfer vacant, blighted parcels (acres of them) to these new community based institutions to achieve just purposes including affordable housing, open space and playgrounds, urban agriculture, small businesses, etc. Planners and policy makers should show leadership by working with Philly’s residents to create these institutions.

I wonder what Susan Fainstein will prescribe as treatments for the Jacobs Complex in her lecture tonight?


Paul Aylesworth is a planner who works as the Housing/Resource Developer for the Women’s Community Revitalization Project

*Disclosure: The Women’s Community Revitalization Project is a member of the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land.  


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