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Report Back from the 2011 Jane Jacobs Forum

jane jacobs forum 2011 new yorkLast week’s fourth annual Jane Jacobs Forum focused on the impact of three books, published within three years of each other (1961-63), written by women: Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson and Betty Friedan. These books—and the activism of their authors—changed the conversations of their time and spurred movements of global significance: urbanism, environmentalism, and feminism.

Attended by almost 300 people and held at the CUNY Graduate Center, this year’s Forum was moderated by Robin Pogrebin, a reporter on the Culture Desk of The New York Times and included panelists Roberta Gratz, Urvashi Vaid, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Sally Helgesen.

Urban critic Gratz focused primarily on the contribution of Jacobs – whose trenchant critique of post-war urban planning was met with derision and personal attacks. Paraphrasing Robert Moses, Gratz reported his dismissal of Jacobs’-led resistance as “just a bunch of mothers.” Activist Vaid outlined the class and race factors that privileged Jacobs, Carson and Friedan, asking why Ella Baker or other women of color were not also included in the title of the session. Vaid suggested that even the title of the Forum – Women “as” Public Intellectuals – projected once again that seeing women in any role other than domestic is a surprise.

Academic and journalist Harris-Perry spoke about the promise of Jacobs’ ideas of cities still not being realized in her new chosen city of New Orleans–where planning and land-use decisions made in the 1970s (and perpetuated in the post-Katrina environment) continue to marginalize women, and African American communities. Leadership author Sally Helgesen suggested that women are often better able to critique societal problems because they have a more holistic view and are able to see where the gaps or disconnects are.

This year’s Forum, which was supported by The Rockefeller Foundation at part of the Jane Jacobs Medal programming, made it quite clear that women continue to occupy a central place in the conversation on issues central to the livability and resilience of New York and other cities. Video from the Jane Jacobs Forum will be posted online in the coming weeks.