Robert Moses, the great builder of New York in the Twentieth Century is often criticized for his extreme methods of city planning. Indeed, the man did displace an estimated 250,000 residents of New York, who wore removed from their homes at the hands of eminent domain (PBS). The result of this campaign is described by the New York Sun, which reports that Moses “built 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds, and 150,000 housing units, spending $150 billion in today’s dollars”. That is an outstanding achievement that cannot be ignored, and would be truly difficult to accomplish in today’s society. But what also cannot be ignored is that the citizens who were displaced were not given the opportunity to fight for their homes. Moses single-handedly had the ability to decide what was best for the city, rather than the residents who were being effected.
Today’s planning process would not have allowed such construction to occur in already-developed land. Citizens have the ability to speak out in City Hall against construction, and most planners act out of the “public interest”. In Contemporary Urban Planning, John M. Levy notes that “The days when people used ‘you can’t fight city hall’ as an expression about accepting the inevitable are long gone. A population that is better educated, more affluent, less deferential to authority, and possible more generally suspicious of ‘the establishment’ than it was decades ago is not going to sit passively on the sidelines”. The issue at hand is really who decides what the public interest is. The 250,000 residents that were displaced for the sake of urban renewal would have certainly differed with Robert Moses. Yet, Moses saw the need for new infrastructure across the city that would support a new generation. He clearly did not build the parkways and bridges to fulfill his own needs, as he did not even have a driver’s license. Rather, Moses acted as he did to preserve New York. He understood that cities without adequate roadways would not survive. To encourage people to continue living in the city, some residents would have to sacrifice their homes.
But even for the citizens that were not represented, Moses still built playgrounds and pools in their neighborhoods. Even though he had no problem tearing down neighborhoods, Moses still saw the importance of supporting all communities; he just believed that he knew what they needed the most. The problem is that minority groups are often misrepresented in the planning process. Even in modern day America, citizens rarely make appearances in City Hall to testify against projects to planning committees. Though citizens may feel strongly about changes in their neighborhood, they will seldom fight new development in the parameters of legal justice. Some people do not feel comfortable doing so, some may not have the time, and some might just simply feel that it is not worth their time. But people underestimate just how much of an effect their voices have in the approval of new development.
There is a need to encourage people to advocate for their neighborhoods more. Citizens need to embrace positive change in their neighborhood, and also need to be a part of the decision-making. Too often, city lawmakers or real-estate builders are the only actors in local planning. The people that are effected by development need to be involved as well, though. Local neighborhood advocacy groups and public interest groups need to be informed that represent the true opinions of local citizens in a city. Without such organizations, there will forever be a lack of real public interest expressed in City Hall. In the meantime, developers much like Robert Moses will continue to build – communities will be torn apart, but cities will live on.