‘Look What We Have Built’: Should We Manage Our Businesses from the Top-Down or the Bottom-Up?

Jane Jacobs

‘Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.’

I recently watched an excellent documentary about the writer, activist and urban theorist, Jane Jacobs (‘Citizen Jane: Battle for the City’).

Born in 1916, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jacobs moved to Greenwich Village in New York when she was 24. She fell in love with the vitality of the city: the stoops, streets and sidewalks; the parks and public spaces. She began writing magazine articles about different New York neighbourhoods, pointing out the complex interactions at the heart of thriving urban life; remarking on the security delivered by ‘eyes on the street’; celebrating ‘the diversity of kinds of work, the diversity of kinds of people.’

Jacobs did not have any formal training in urban planning, but she was observant, intuitive, empathetic. In her 1962 book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities,’ she set out her understanding of what makes cities work.

‘It is a complex order… This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance - not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.’

Jacobs’ theories were at odds with the orthodoxy of the day: the modernist school of urban development embodied by the New York planner and ‘master builder’, Robert Moses.

Moses considered himself a progressive. He began his career before the Second World War commissioning swimming pools, parks, bridges and beaches, seeking to improve the lot of the urban poor. After the War, in the face of growing concern in New York about overcrowding, public health and housing, he embraced high-rise towers as a logical expression of the machine age; and the car as a liberating force in American life.

‘We wouldn’t have an American economy without the automobile business. That’s literally true.’

Robert Moses

Moses’ urban renewal projects in places like East Harlem and the Bronx swept aside neighbourhoods to make way for expressways, highways and high-rise housing. And he wasn’t afraid to break a few eggs in the name of progress.

‘You have to move a lot of people out of the way of a big housing project or a slum clearance project. A lot of them aren’t going to like it. Plenty of them are misinformed.’

Increasingly Moses displayed a condescension towards the people his schemes planned to displace, and for the old city neighbourhoods he intended to bulldoze.

‘I’d say that you have a cancerous growth there and it has to be carved out.’

In ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities,’ Jacobs exposed the damage that Moses and the modernist developers were doing to the fabric of the city.

‘Look what we have built…Low income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity…This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities’

Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s Jacobs joined local communities in their fight to preserve New York’s West Village, Washington Square Park, Soho and Little Italy. Ultimately they prevailed over Moses and his feared Lower Manhattan Expressway.

In reviewing her philosophical differences with the utopian urban planners, Jacobs was sceptical about an expansive, top-down mentality that professed to know what’s good for people.

‘I have very little faith in even the kind of person who prefers to take large overall views of things.’

Jacobs believed in bottom-up decision-making; in realising the creativity of the communities most engaged with issues.

‘Historically solutions to city problems have very seldom come from the top. They come from people who understand the problems first hand because they’re living with them and they have new and ingenious, and often very offbeat, ideas of how to solve them.’

I wonder, in the leadership and management of modern businesses, are we inclined to pursue top-down or bottom-up strategies? Is our instinct for centralised control, or democratised empowerment? Do we feel more comfortable with utopian, abstract schemes, or organic, chaotic complexity?

Are we, like the urban planners before us, seduced by grand designs and visionary thinking; by the elegance of detailed computer graphics and the authority of infinite data-streams?

Or do we observe how our organisations work in real life? Do we properly embrace the knowledge and knowhow of the workforce; the wisdom of colleagues?

It’s important to recognise that Jacobs had her critics. Some have suggested that her success in preserving old city neighbourhoods precipitated the gentrification that drove lower income residents out. Some have observed that, though Moses may have been wrong about high-rise and highways, cities do need infrastructure; they do need utilities and public transport. Cities need planning.

Having said this, Jacobs teaches anyone involved in organisational change some critical lessons: that the best organisations have a soul worth preserving; that preservation is critical to genuine progress; and that all progress should benefit the many, not just the few.

The challenge for contemporary leaders is to develop visionary, far-reaching plans for their business that are rooted in a deeper understanding of what colleagues want and need; to run at the future armed with the expertise and creativity of our staff; to find a path to progress that retains the company’s vital organic culture.

‘People make cities, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.’

No. 141