ULI New York Blog

Women as City Builders: ULI WLI Co-Presents the Jane Jacobs Forum

Every year, the Jane Jacobs Forum brings together leading women in the fields of architecture, planning, development and the arts for a conversation on urban issues and solutions as inspired by Jane Jacobs. With the theme “Women as City Builders,” this year’s forum took place on November 21 at The TimesCenter. The event was co-hosted by ULI Women’s Leadership Initiative, MAS NYC, AIA NY and ASLA NY and was moderated by Laura Flanders, host of the “Laura Flanders Show” on GRITtv.

Attended by over 500 people, the evening featured seven panelists who are movers and shakers in their own respective areas: Deborah Cullinan, Executive Director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; Peggy Deamer, the Assistant Dean of Yale School of Architecture; Gayle Farris, Principal at FB Farris Strategies Inc.; and former CEO of  Forest City Enterprises Science and Tech Group; Andrea Lamberti, Partner at Rafael Vinoly Architects; Mary Miss, Artist and Creator of City as Living Laboratory, Laura Starr, Principal at Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners; and Sheela Maini Sogaard, CEO and Partner at the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG).

The conversation focused on how Jane Jacobs pioneering concepts have changed New York from when she wrote “The Life and Death of Great American Cities” in 1961 to today.  The discussion started off on the topic of what makes a successful urban place. Olmstead’s Central Park and Bryant Park got high marks from Starr and Farris, while Cullinan gave the example of Halloween night as her ideal urban time and place that showcased a community’s generosity.  Of changes in lower Manhattan, Laura Flanders exclaimed “Soho used to be pleasantly scary!” The themes of diversity, mixed uses, collaboration, the shared economy and how it builds social capital were all explored during the lively discussion.

The panelists agreed that today, there are several Jacobian concepts that have succeeded in urban planning and are accepted as the norm. Gayle Farris believes that Jacobs’ ideas of mixed uses, which create an active street life, are now realized. She said “Festival marketplace is an accepted concept and very commonplace.” Likewise, according to Deamer, New York does not have to fight for density like Jacob once did- in fact it might be too dense.

However, there are ideas to which solutions still have not found, even 50 years after Jacobs’ “The Life and Death.” The panelists offered differing solutions. Cullinan offered that there is a need to integrate social systems into planning, and that more equitable social structures will bring about more equitable city building. “Artists are essential to the process,” she said.  Sogaard argued it is possible to plan to integrate those social inclusive qualities into new infrastructure and developments. She used BIG’s project Superkilen park in Copenhagen as an example of bringing diverse cultures together through the design process of urban infrastructure.

On the question of the role of public space in political protests, the panelists also have different views. As a landscape architect, Starr advocates to incorporate them into the planning process. Deamer countered with the example of Union Square and the fact that public spaces are rarely used for their planned purposes; sometimes they are just taken over. Nonetheless, they all agreed that the public has a role to play in the design process of cities, whether it is in setting design guidelines or participating in continuous conversations with decision makers.

The forum also addressed other ideas pioneered by Jacobs that might not be applicable in today’s ever-changing technological landscape. Flanders raised the fact that “Eyes on the streets” are not people anymore, but are now attached to devices like cameras and cellphones. Mary Miss agreed that this loss in in-person intimacy is regrettable, but for Farris, these technological spaces also create new communities and interaction that has the potential to create more intimacy.

Digging deeper into the topic of collaboration, an interesting question was asked by Flanders about whether a panel of men would have the same conversation as the panelists were having that evening. Deamer reminded the panel that this discussion is gendered, especially since Jacobs has a chapter on child rearing. Farris said that even though women are natural collaborators, collaboration itself is becoming mainstream. For Sogaards, “There is no more monopoly on either collaboration or power anymore as gendered concepts. Both men and women are free to claim them as their own.”

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