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Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (2016)

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Writer and urban activist Jane Jacobs fights to save historic New York City during the ruthless redevelopment era of urban planner Robert Moses in the 1960s.

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Writer and urban activist Jane Jacobs fights to save historic New York City during the ruthless redevelopment era of urban planner Robert Moses in the 1960s.

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21 April 2017 (USA)  »

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Untitled Cities Documentary  »

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$31,451 (USA) (21 April 2017)

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$31,451 (USA) (21 April 2017)
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Jane of Arc(hitecture)
27 April 2017 | by (Canada) – See all my reviews

It's a cliché to write that everyone involved in or studying urban development and planning should see this documentary, because of course they should. And of course they should read Ms. Jacobs' books. But as I witness, or at least fear, the gradual decay of the city I live in - which happens to be the city Ms. Jacobs lived in for the last 20 or so years of her life - I see that the wisdom of this saviour of cities does not seem to be a core part of Toronto's current urban- planning scheme. Maybe that's because, as Ms. Jacobs pointed out, cities develop organically as they are an independent life force. So you can't apply one set of rules for every city as every city is a unique entity. It was obvious to me though after watching Citizen Jane: Battle for the City that there are some enlightened guidelines that everyone responsible for urban development should be aware of. But in the lofty battle of what's good for the city vs. what's bad for the city, Ms. Jacobs' vision of what's good for cities - while noble - was not all-encompassing, not to be used as a blueprint for development, but rather as a compliment to a greater blueprint.

One glaring omission from this documentary was the mentioning of public transportation and how good public transportation plays a key role in making and keeping neighbourhoods and cities vibrant. Ms. Jacobs focused on two antithetical ways of getting around - walking and driving. Highways being thrust into the hearts of cities tends to destroy neighborhoods and result in horrible urban decay, but people need to get around, and walking is not an option for most people when they're traveling more than a kilometre or two on a regular basis. Ms. Jacobs downplayed traffic gridlock as if it were a secondary problem. Happy cities are all about people living in vibrant, safe neighbourhoods, she believed. But what about the essential need of the urban masses to travel outside the neighbourhood in a reasonable amount of time? Ms. Jacobs' nemesis in the documentary - the developer Robert Moses, presented as the single greatest destroyer of the soul of the American city during the post-WW2 Era in the US - at least pointed out in the doc that traffic gridlock is a very bad thing, and needed to be dealt with. Though his solution - highways through the city - was a terrible one, what was the alternative? Ms. Jacobs was so focused on quality community living that she didn't take into account the profound, widespread need for people to be able to move from one community to the next. But at least New York City has an excellent public transportation system. As I see condo after condo going up in my city, the traffic getting worse and worse, and not nearly enough being done to improve public transportation, I wonder what Jane Jacobs would have to say about this sort of urban decay going on. A lifetime of fighting the good fight for urban health and ten books later, and wouldn't you know it, she didn't take everything into account in her grand equation. Alex Marshall writing about Ms. Jacobs: "Jacobs makes virtually no mention of...the New York City subway system in her masterpiece and most influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This omission points to something Jacobs didn't get, which was infrastructure: the big systems that make a city work. Jacobs not only didn't talk much about the New York subway system, she didn't talk much about the water system, an engineering marvel whose pipes snake hundreds of miles into the Catskill mountains, bringing fresh, clean liquid to millions of people. She doesn't talk about the power grid. It's almost as if she assumes the dense urban neighborhoods she loved just materialized organically on the banks of the Hudson, not the product of massive infrastructure systems usually financed or directed by big government."

So is Jane Jacobs really the Urban Studies visionary hero that she's been canonised as? Maybe or maybe not, but she still did a lot of good, and won huge battles against evil. This is well portrayed in Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.


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