What We Think We Need From a City

In New York City, A Sense of Place, Utopia by Emma1 Comment

City planning is a peculiar thing, and I am in no way going to argue that I know anything about the complexities of population to acre ratio or the like. That said, I noticed in reading both of the arguments about StuyTown and Jane Jacobs’ writing that the general “ideal” of a city (that Jacobs argues against) does not appeal to what average city residents need. Jacobs writes about her experiences in the North End of Boston and her friend’s response to the space, bringing to light his contradicting thoughts on the neighborhood based on what we think we need in urban spaces “Here was a curious thing. My friend’s instincts told him the North End was a good place, and his social statistics confirmed it. But everything he had learned as a physical planner about what is good for people and good for city neighborhoods, everything that made him an expert, told him the North End had to be a bad place” (Jacobs 10).

This phenomena fascinates me, as it is one that plagues many disciplines that are meant to serve populations without actually acknowledging them (for instance museums and the visitor, which I have made my concentration for this reason). In terms of city planning, in the middle of the century when Jacobs, Mumford, and Moses were writing, there was an established way in which cities were meant to develop, accounting for population ratios and green spaces, but is this really what people needed? I found a comment by Mumford, a critic of StuyTown, to be especially amusing because of its complete lack of regard for the general population “My monograph on Stuyvesant Town has brought other letters, from tenants who wish to defend the apartments they live in against my criticism…the feel that they are in heaven…They praise Stuyvesant Town only because they do not know how much is missing from its design” (Mumford 68). While Mumford may be a quality theorist, how can he disregard the opinions of those actively living and interacting with the space in which he is finding so many problems?

In an attempt to clarify my thoughts, I would say I agree with Jacobs in that she wants to focus on the needs of the people who are living in the environment designed by the elite urban planners. That said, I would guess that she is against developments like StuyTown because of their interior courtyards, removal from the city streets, and isolated community structures, and I do not think I am against them. I will admit, I am a current resident in StuyTown, and I have also lived in Peter Cooper Village. To my understanding, many of the residents of the development, especially families, find the space to be a good balance of the city and a residential space (and I personally love not having to deal with a five story walkup). It is difficult to establish a perfect medium, a utopia space within the ever evolving city, but if a city planner successfully does it is because he or she listened to the people rather than relying on statistics or ideals established by “experts”.


  1. Hi Emma,

    It’s interesting to hear the view of someone who actually lives in StuyTown after reading its critiques. I agree with you on your question about how Mumford can disregard the opinions of people living in the area. I’ve been to StuyTown, and felt confused and lost by its design- however I’ve also heard from some of the residents that they appreciate this space. It brings to light the question of how to look at the concept of utopia- from the side of the “experts” or the side of the residents. Great post!

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