Recap | Women as City Builders: Jane Jacobs Forum 2013

On the evening of November 21, a week after Rockefeller Foundation President Dr. Judith Rodin presented the 2013 Jane Jacobs Medal to Bette Midler and Ian Marvy, the Municipal Art Society convened seven “city builders” in an annual forum to discuss the challenges and successes in carrying forward the legend of author, urban theorist and activist Jane Jacobs. This year’s forum, titled “Women as City Builders,” was moderated by the quick-witted Laura Flanders of GRITtv. The panelists represented cultural programmers, academics, developers, artists, architects, and landscape architects, a group of professions Flanders characterized as “city builders, city dwellers, and city wreckers.” All eight, including the moderator, were women — a fact that went largely unspoken in the 90-minute program, despite an introduction by MAS President Vin Cipolla that primed the audience to interpret the proceedings through the lens of gender. Cipolla began by asking how Jane Jacobs’ gender may have affected the way she saw the city and, while recognizing the obvious changes in the role of women in the city since the ‘60s, how the practitioners on stage might answer the same question. The women on stage engaged in conversation about their role in the city and the embedded possibilities in the urban condition as if channeling Jacobs. Each represented herself foremost as a city builder, all but dismissing the gender question.


Vin Cipolla introduces the forum. Photo by Mariel Villeré

In the spirit of the Medal — which is intended to acknowledge individuals, regardless of gender, whose work honors Jacobs’ “principles and practices in action” — the evening’s discussion was foregrounded by the question of how to use the urban environment creatively to make New York City a place of hope. While not discussed in detail, the program established post-Sandy resiliency planning as New York’s biggest challenge today, as urban highways and tower blocks were for Jacobs. As ambassadors of their respective disciplines, the panelists addressed the question of citizen and professional engagement in their own city-building endeavors.

Peggy Deamer, Assistant Dean and Professor at the Yale School of Architecture, emphasized “getting the right people at the table” for the process of shaping the city. Sheela Maini Søgaard, CEO and Partner at BIG, spoke about the role of the architect as not only to “achieve the client’s vision” but also to understand and respond to existing conditions with imaginative projects. Andrea Lamberti, Partner at Rafael Viñoly Architects, inserted the architect’s advocacy agenda into the client-public equation, referencing her firm’s unrealized proposal for the contested Domino Sugar Factory redevelopment. Gayle Farris, Principal of GB Farris Strategies Inc. stressed the possibilities in public-private partnerships and expressed her optimism for a democratized city building, or “placemaking,” process. Without the productive integration of arts, creativity, and collaboration, this process, for artist Mary Miss, overlooks possibilities for “urban enchantment.” Deborah Cullinan, the Executive Director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, brought success stories of this integration from San Francisco, a productive counterpart to New York.


The panel of city builders. Photo by Mariel Villeré

Art, the panel seemed to agree, is a motivating factor for changing social systems — building community while making places. In the midst of this lively conversation, Flanders interjected, “Would men in city building be having this same conversation?” and rendered the group speechless. Laura Starr of Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners broke the silence with her observation that the planning community is looking more like America, that is, diverse. Gayle chimed in to say that the collaborative style of women is becoming mainstream, and furthermore, men should aspire to operate in dialogue, negotiating differences in backgrounds and opinions, following the example set by the panel. Clearly, women need to have a place at Deamer’s metaphorical table, as do other historically disempowered populations. Some city builders, dwellers and wreckers are still struggling to achieve their goals, whether in egalitarian placemaking or gender equity.

The panel concluded that this “struggle to achieve” defined Jane Jacobs’ life and career. If Jacobs were still living, she would see still more work to do, despite the success of individual projects like the High Line or progressive, parking-protected bike lanes, and despite the advancements of women, whether assumed or actual. This city still has community building to do, and this work may begin within the “city building” professions. To both democratize the city building process and get the public a seat at the table, Mary Miss and Gayle Farris wrapped up the evening with the message of taking action: “Get out, do it, don’t ask for permission, but beg for forgiveness if anything goes wrong.” Eventually, small, creative, citizen-driven interventions can aggregate to shape an equitable, integrative, and resilient city.

Mariel Villeré is a designer, researcher and writer who recently returned to Brooklyn after spending two years in Somerville, MA earning a Masters of Architecture Studies in History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture & Art at MIT.