Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Why Distance Is Not Dead Yet: New York’s Tech Start-up Scene

The belief continues to persist that the internet is rendering compact cities obsolete. The Cato Institute’s Randal O’Toole recently contributed to a discussion in The American Conservative on the fiftieth anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities with the assertion that “in the age of the automobile and internet...the value of living in close proximity to other people and businesses is steadily declining.” This may be true for some places and some industries, but I argue that New York City’s currently thriving software start-up economy is still benefiting from the advantages of proximity to other people and businesses. In fact, this is what will set it apart from Silicon Valley.

The software industry thrives on the generation of new ideas, investment and willingness to take risks. While both New York and Silicon Vally have lots of investment and deep talent pools, where New York excels is in the ease of face-to-face encounters. People who have not been to Silicon Valley often do not realize that it is a sprawl of low-slung office parks along an approximately thirty-mile-long stretch of Highway 101. Meeting someone who works at another company can involve an hour’s trip or longer along this highly congested road, so it is not something most people are going to be willing to do every day or even every week. In New York City, it is relatively quick to get together with other people by walking or taking the subway. Not only is this beneficial for the sharing of ideas and knowledge among fellow software engineers, but it makes it much easier for engineers to meet with those who hold what they refer to as “domain knowledge,” that is, expertise in some other field. In New York, a couple of examples of such domain knowledge might be banking or advertising. Thus, one edge that compact New York has over sprawling Silicon Valley is the ability of start-ups to cater to specialized business needs, rather than the more generic consumer-oriented companies (shopping and social media) that can flourish in greater isolation. If a company only relies on an idea and an ability to execute it, it can locate anywhere, so long as it has the talent to build its product. If, on the other hand, it relies on access to specialized knowledge outside its own employees’ expertise, it will be advantageous to locate near people who have that knowledge.

In July, Mayor Bloomberg announced a Request for Proposals to build a technology-oriented campus in New York, as a means to support the burgeoning software industry. A few days later, the New York Times published one of its “Room For Debate” discussions on the topic, and I was amazed at most of the contributors’ lack of understanding of New York’s unique advantage. Most of the contributors focused on Silicon Valley’s head start, and why that would continue to make the Valley a mecca for graduates of Bloomberg’s new campus. I agree that a school is not the key to creating a thriving local software economy. However, I disagree that New York will never provide significant competition for the best talent in the industry. It is a shame that even a prominent New York-based venture capitalist like Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, Inc., fails to understand his city’s unique advantage. He is right that that the internet will make us “see Apples and Facebooks get built in China, India, Brazil, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and plenty of other places.” I think there is a good chance that the next Facebook could come out New York - the city’s ability to attract talent and facilitate idea generation is unsurpassed. But there is also more to software than mass-appeal companies like Facebook. Many of the companies that come out of New York may not be the industry’s household names; their strength will likely come from being highly targeted to New York-specific businesses. New York’s software economy is uniquely poised to benefit from its proximity to other New York  industries, which themselves have grown up over the centuries by reaping the benefits of density and proximity.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Future of New York City: Community-Based vs. Comprehensive Planning

On Thursday, October 6, the New School’s Center for Community Affairs hosted a panel entitled “Community-Based Planning: The Future of Development in New York.” The discussion brought together a number of people with an interest in community-based planning in New York City, including Manhattan’s Borough President Scott Stringer, Vice Chair of New York City’s Planning Commission Richard W. Eaddy, and the Regional Plan Association’s Julia Vitullo-Martin. While all the panelists spoke strongly in favor of the importance neighborhood self-determination, the major focus of the discussion was the tension between such local self-determination and the need for comprehensive planning that considers the needs of the borough, the city and the region.

New York City has 59 community boards, each of which is authorized to present the city with a charmingly-named “197-A Plan,” (named for the section of the New York City Charter authorizing them), which is a neighborhood-level (occasionally borough-level) comprehensive plan. At the same time, New York is the only major U.S. city with no city-level comprehensive plan; even Houston, TX, famous for eschewing zoning, has one. The Bloomberg administration’s PlaNYC cannot be considered a comprehensive plan, as it was never officially adopted by the City Council. With no comprehensive plan and 59 community boards (not all of which receive input from trained urban planners), there is understandably a challenge to make sure that a neighborhood’s goals are balanced with the city's vision for its future.

Panel member and land use consultant Paul Graziano, who has advocated for lower-density zoning in several Queens neighborhoods, provided a glimpse into the complexity of this conflict. At first, such “down-zoning” (i.e., lowering of the maximum allowed density) might seem to be selfish NIMBYism. Keeping density low in Queens pushes development pressure into other neighborhoods and contributes to keeping many would-be New Yorkers priced out of the city. But a deeper look at the residents’ experience with development reveals a more nuanced story: the neighborhoods Graziano has worked for were zoned for higher-intensity development under the 1961 zoning resolution. These were areas in far northeast Queens, far from subways, and already built as single-family neighborhoods. The higher-density zoning did not include plans for any new transit or schools. Residents who wanted down-zoning were to some extent resisting change in the neighborhood’s character. But they were also responding to the burden that higher-density building placed on the neighborhood’s infrastructure and its impact on quality of life.

Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Regional Plan Association agreed that the 1961 zoning resolution did not make sense for certain low-density neighborhoods, but stressed that the reality is that some of those neighborhoods are simply going to have to be developed more intensely if New York is going to address what Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer referred to as the city’s “two million dollar entrance fee.”

This is of course the fundamental challenge to the city’s future: how can it continue to be the city that attracts the most creative and energetic people from around the world if housing stays so exorbitantly priced? How can it continue to grow without breaking the already-strained transit, education and sanitation infrastructure? How can it grow without destroying precisely that which people value about it? Obviously, it is easy to say that a comprehensive plan should be implemented that is flexible enough to evolve along with the evolving needs of the city, and that balances the city’s collective goals with those of its individual neighborhoods. How can this be done? First, the comprehensive plan should not be a rigid set of dictates. It must be subject to review and revision at determined intervals. The issue of balancing a neighborhood’s goals with the larger city’s is a little tougher, since neither is likely to enthusiastic about relinquishing planning authority. Julia Vitullo-Martin and Scott Stringer both talked about “Fair Share,” a provision of the 1989 New York City Charter that seeks to achieve environmental justice in placement and modification of facilities like waste treatment plants or bus-servicing depots. Expanded to account for other types of infrastructure like transit and schools, something like Fair Share should be part of a comprehensive plan. In fact, the equitable distribution of infrastructure makes the need for comprehensive planning even more urgent, since a neighborhood’s interests often end at its own borders. The planning process needs to involve players other than just the Planning Commission and the Department of City Planning.* In order to avoid the problems of infrastructure lagging behind zoning changes, the planning process needs to include other city agencies so as to be able to plan for schools and transportation improvements.

If you ask people what they value about New York or any other great city, they will likely mention the range of neighborhoods, each with a distinct character. Protecting that character, while allowing for change (a neighborhood is generally stagnant only as a prelude to deterioration) is an important and laudable goal of the community board system and its counterparts in other cities. Empowering neighborhoods with a say in their future is a great thing. But the larger city must also be allowed to determine how it will grow and change. A comprehensive plan should outline general goals, but it must make clear how specific neighborhoods will be part of implementing those larger goals. A city comprehensive plan needs to incorporate some of the provisions of the “197-A Plans.”

Failure to plan comprehensively could make New York less competitive in the future if it is unable - due to high costs, or quality-of-life concerns - to attract smart, creative people. The New School’s panel discussion today highlighted the necessity of reconciling community-based planning with city-level and regional planning, if New York City is going to continue to be the place that attracts people from all over the world.

*The Department of City Planning is the city agency responsible for planning, while the Planning Commission is the Mayor’s appointed commission on planning, whose chair is also the Director of City Planning.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Inside a pop-up: remaking an empty lot with art and community engagement

There has been a lot of buzz recently about pop-up urbanism. From New York to Vancouver, there are a number of new, small projects that reclaim a bit of underused space and turn them into public spaces. I have yet to find a really clear definition of “pop-up urbanism,” but the projects are generally small, often temporary, ways to explore creative possibilities urban space.

While such projects may not require the hundreds of millions in financing - or the years of planning - of major urban redevelopment projects, the term “pop-up” can belie the effort that goes into making them happen. Recently, I have had the privilege to get an insider’s perspective on a project that is a bit of pop-up urbanism, and I want to profile it here to give some perspective on what goes into making these pop-ups happen.

The Project for Empty Space (PES), a New York-based non-profit, brings contemporary art to abandoned or unusual urban spaces. The site is an abandoned, city-owned lot on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The newest installation in the space opened on September 13, and in the weeks leading up to the opening, I’ve watched it take shape, while talking to PES founders Jasmine Wahi and Meenakshi Thirukode about their goals, and what it takes to realize them. First, they had to find a plot of land to use. This alone took several weeks of working through the city bureaucracy. It turns out that this was an unprecedented use of land for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (NYCHPD), the agency that owns the space, so it took a while to process the agreement that allowed PES to use the site. Second, they had to raise money. PES raises money through sponsors (usually local businesses), grants, and an annual benefit dinner. They also spend a lot of time reaching out to local organizations, such as the Lower East Side Girls Club, because community involvement is so important to PES’s mission.

The abandoned lot at 181 Stanton Street in its original state in 2010 (photo courtesy of Project for Empty Space)

Their mission is to bring art into abandoned or unusual urban spaces as a way of revitalizing a neighborhood. Their goal isn’t just to put art in the space and walk away; the idea is that this will be a starting point for the community to reclaim the space for their purposes. By making something positive happen in the site (as opposed to staying a rubble-strewn gap between buildings), they hope to spark the interest of the site’s neighbors in making the land a valued part of the neighborhood again. They’ve been in the space at 181 Stanton Street for a year now, and this is the second exhibit. In that time, residents of the nearby apartment buildings have told them that it has transformed the neighborhood. People slow down as they walk by, peering into the space. Some stop to chat with the artist, curators or others who have stopped to see it. It sparks conversations, and gets people thinking about the space again. In the past, it was an eyesore, something to hurry by and not spend too much time looking at. PES’s hope is that the space will become a permanent community fixture, where the community will determine how it develops.

Opening day of Fall 2010 installation. Photo courtesy of Project for Empty Space.

Between the NYCHPD and a 50-year resident of the neighborhood, we pieced together a sketchy history of the lot at 181 Stanton Street. Until the early 1980s, there was a building on the site typical of many on the Lower East Side – probably built in the early twentieth century, with apartments on the upper floors. According to the long-time neighbor, the building deteriorated in the 1970s – like a lot of things in New York – and finally, when the last tenant moved out in the early 1980s, the building was knocked down so it would not be colonized by squatters. It’s not quite clear when the city purchased the site, but it was probably sometime in the early 1970s.

Since the building was torn down, the neighborhood has turned around considerably, but the space remains undeveloped. It is too narrow for current building codes, so it would require a variance to built on it again.* It might seem logical for it to become a garden or courtyard for one of the adjacent buildings, but only if the neighbors are willing to pay what the city considers to be market value for the un-developable land: $3.2 million. Even a future as a space curated by PES is not necessarily assured: NYCHPD has told PES that it wants to be relieved of administering the lot. If they want to stay in the space, they have been told, they must either buy it or find another city agency to take over its administration. But finding that agency will be PES’s responsibility, which means that Jasmine and Meenakshi have to try to persuade employees in the vast city bureaucracy to help their cause (or even just return their phone calls). Not surprisingly, they have not yet found any agency eager to assume a new responsibility. And at the laughably high asking price, the city has yet to find any buyers.

The PES Fall 2011 installation taking shape in early September. (photo: Meenakshi Thirukode, courtesy of Project for Empty Space)

In our current economic times, pop-up art installations, cafes and other public spaces are taking the place of larger projects. They are an innovative way of creating increments of urbanism in the face of economic reality, where larger, more permanent projects may be on the shelf for quite a while yet. But as you visit some of these pop-ups and enjoy them, remember how much work goes into them. Behind each of them is not a massive developer with huge coffers, but often just a couple of people who care deeply about their city and want to make it a better place, one piece of incremental urbanism at a time.

* The lot has a frontage of 18.92’. The narrowest frontages among neighboring buildings are at least 20’, and most are at least 25’ wide. Source:

Monday, September 12, 2011

How Government Policy Has Shaped American Love of Cars and Suburbs

This recent piece by James D. Schwartz got me thinking about two bits of conventional wisdom: Americans love their cars, and they prefer the suburbs to central cities. That so many Americans do live in the suburbs and commute by car is taken as proof. While it is true that Americans are making the rational economic decision given their available choices, the available choices do not reflect an unfettered market. Too few people realize how much government policy has shaped a supposed cultural preference.

Schwartz calls the government subsidization of driving socialism. That’s a pretty overused term these days, and I’m not interested in igniting political flame wars. But think about this: we used to consider ourselves pretty superior to the Soviet Union when we saw them lining up for some good, made artificially cheap by the government. We told ourselves that such a thing would never happen here, because the free market would not allow it to happen. But when cars line up for hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic on our roads, that is exactly what is happening: people are lining up for a good made artificially cheap by government subsidy. Whether you choose to label it socialism or not, the fact is that if individuals are not paying the full price for their goods, then the free market is not working. Schwartz lays out the ways that motorists benefit from government subsidy:

From subsidies given to oil companies to produce cheap oil, to government bailouts/ownership of auto manufacturers, to road construction and maintenance on streets that cost nothing to use, to highly subsidized parking spaces, to government health care costs associated with pollution from automobiles, to the detrimental health that results from sedentary lifestyle that cars promote, to the vast government policing forces required to enforce our streets: it is undeniable that driving places enormous costs on our society, and this cost is highly subsidized by our government.

The gas tax is an effort to make motorists bear some of the negative externalities created by driving; however, the fact that this money goes into funding more roads simply rewards the very behavior it is meant to limit. Furthermore, Americans pay some of the lowest gas taxes in the developed world; for one estimate of the full cost of a gallon of gas, see this video. The suggestion of raising the gas tax is a political non-starter. A higher gas tax is unpopular across a broad swath of the political spectrum, including among those who decry the socialism of public transit subsidies.

The other piece of received wisdom above - the American cultural preference for suburbs - is another choice made in a government-manipulated market. Federal policy skews demand through the mortgage interest tax deduction, subsidizing buying rather than renting. Municipalities skew supply through zoning codes: Edward Glaeser and Ryan Avent both write about the difficulty of building in places like New York and San Francisco, because of restrictions demanded by residents who don’t want any change. The restrictions limit supply in the urban core, making it more expensive. This in turn drives people to the periphery in search of affordable housing.

I certainly don’t deny the need for any government subsidy - I’m not sure there exists a public transportation network in the world that would be completely viable without some government subsidy (please enlighten me if one does exist). Nor do I deny that there exists - among some of the population - a strong preference for the suburbs. I do think it is wrong to use Americans’ preference for cars and suburbs to justify the continuation of policies that favor those things. It’s circular logic. The truth is that we really do not have the data to justify the conventional wisdom. In fact, recent data is showing a growing preference for walkable neighborhoods.

What I advocate is allowing for real choice - and asking people to pay more of the true cost of their choices. With less subsidization for an auto-dependent lifestyle, it would no longer be as cheap relative to living in the urban core. Only at that point can we start to make sweeping generalizations about Americans’ cultural preferences.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Density by itself is neither the problem nor the solution

Urbanists often present density as the solution to auto-dependent suburbs. Adding more people per square mile, they say, will bring about the critical mass necessary to support good public transit and vibrant downtowns, while simultaneously preserving open space. I argue that it is not density that we should be trying to sell, for two reasons: for one, it scares a lot of people. Secondly, it will not solve the problem that urbanists are trying to solve, namely auto-dependent sprawl.

Convincing Americans (outside of New York, San Francisco and a handful of other places) of the virtues of density is going to be a tough sell. For many, density is just another word for “overcrowded.” Countering with evidence that some of the most desirable city neighborhoods in the world are also among the densest is not all that persuasive. It is assumed that the rich will make themselves comfortable no matter where they are. Furthermore, such places strike many ordinary people as completely impractical for their needs, which may include raising and educating multiple children.

We need a better term for what it is that we are advocating. There are all sorts of long-winded ways of describing it: we want walkable, mixed-use, transit-served neighborhoods that accommodate a variety of ages and incomes. I propose that we borrow from the “Complete Streets” movement and promote the development of “Complete Neighborhoods.” A complete neighborhood - not simply a dense one - is the counterpart to sprawl. A neighborhood should be considered complete when it can accommodate multiple modes of transportation (including walking), house people at different incomes and stages of life, and be able to serve most of the daily needs of its inhabitants within the ideal walkable radius of ¼ - ½ mile. It is possible to have density without having these other components - just look at a low-income urban housing project or a middle-income suburban garden apartment complex for examples of localized density without the lively cafes, nearby grocery stores, or any of the other benefits that are supposed go hand-in-hand with density.

I am not arguing against density. In fact, it is inevitable that these complete neighborhoods will be denser than what many suburbanites and exurbanites are accustomed to. It is impossible to achieve the mix of uses, walkability and critical mass for public transit at exurban lot sizes, nor does it provide options across income and age levels. Thus a complete neighborhood will have a range of housing types, and because of its compactness, it will be moderately dense, anywhere from 6,000/square mile (example: Montclair, NJ) to 40,000/square mile (example: Hoboken, NJ). However, I think people may not even think of the density when they see places like this; certainly, it will not come across as something that will diminish the quality of life to which they are accustomed. For example, a neighborhood of single-family homes can be made more compact simply by shrinking the front lawn. Options for different income levels can be provided by allowing the construction of so-called accessory dwellings. A complete neighborhood would probably have townhouses and apartment buildings at its densest part. These changes would allow for a neighborhood to offer an array of housing types, use less land, and increase walkability.

Montclair, NJ (photo credit: Flickr user shutterbugMike)Hoboken, NJ (photo credit: Flickr user wallyg)

Rather than chiding Americans that they ought to live densely and walk more, we should demonstrate the virtues of a complete neighborhood. By that I mean the virtues of meeting people’s everyday needs better, not the virtues of lower carbon footprints and more sustainable land use. These are admirable things, but only selling points to a relatively small (and affluent) segment of the population. For the average person or family looking for a place to live, the challenge is going to be explaining that the tradeoff (in private space) to live in such places may actually make them happier. This is something that people have trouble imagining, and is what we need to address if we going to sell “complete neighborhoods” to people who previously would not have considered them.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Review of Manhattan's Reconfigured First Avenue

The reconfigured First Avenue, with bus in the dedicated bus lane, and bike lane in foreground.

Last Wednesday, I wrote about the dismissal of the Prospect Park West bike lane lawsuit. I stressed that while it was a victory for that particular bike lane, it is important to understand their opponents’ arguments. If there is to be successful proliferation of bike lanes, we need to understand what about them is working and not working. While there will always be some people whose minds will never change, truly good urban planning ideas ultimately achieve broad community support (for the record: I do not own a bicycle, but I support bike lanes as components of complete streets).

With this in mind, I set out to review another controversial bike lane: along First Avenue in Manhattan, between 34th and 59th Streets. This area is being reinvented as a complete street; in addition to a bike lane, it has a dedicated bus lane for the M15 Select Bus Service. As I photographed it, I took the opportunity to chat with some passersby about what they think the recent changes to the street.

One woman told me that taxis will not even stop on 1st Avenue anymore, because there is no place for them to pull over without entering either the bus or the bike lane. She also pointed out that intersections have become more confusing and dangerous, both for cyclists and drivers.

In the above photo you can see a bus waiting to turn left onto 37th Street. To the bus’s left (the right from our perspective) is the bike lane. There is no left turn arrow at this intersection; given that both streets are one-way, it was probably deemed unnecessary to install one. The bike lane complicates this: when the light turns green, drivers in the left-most vehicle lane will be turning left, but cyclists are often going straight ahead on 1st Avenue. Without a left-turn signal, both can legally happen simultaneously. Drivers are not accustomed to looking to the left for straight-ahead traffic when making left turns, which creates a dangerous situation.

Several people mentioned cyclist behavior as a major problem. The chief complaints were that they don’t always ride in the right direction (1st Avenue is a one-way street whose traffic moves in the northbound direction) and that they frequently do not obey red lights. I think any reasonable person would agree that these both create dangerous conditions for pedestrians and thus are legitimate complaints. How we address them is really the issue. I believe that enforcement of traffic rules is the right way, rather than ripping up the bike lanes. This is how we address the problem of scofflaw drivers; we don’t remove roads. Drunk driving, for example, used to be more of a problem. We significantly reduced the problem through aggressive enforcement of driving laws (which was much more successful than our attempt to eradicate undesirable behavior by banning alcohol).

I can’t really address the other complaints I heard, which were about traffic. One person was furious about the bike lane because of the traffic lane reduction (of course, the traffic lane reduction is not solely the result of the bike lane, but also the dedicated bus lane), and another claimed that the lane has created traffic jams were there were none previously. I did not observe 1st Avenue before its reconfiguration, so I can’t speak to this concern. At the time that I was there to photograph (late afternoon on a Friday), traffic appeared to be moving just fine, but that proves nothing, really. I can, however, point to an increasing body of data that suggests that narrowing or even disappearing roads do not lead to the predicted traffic apocalypse.

My overall take on the reconfiguration of First Avenue is that it is a worthy work in progress. There are some kinks to be worked out, such as the confusing intersections that are downright dangerous. I really don’t know whether the traffic and taxi problems are as bad as some of the people I talked to said they are. If they are, then these need to be addressed as well. Furthermore, if the select bus service and its dedicated bus lane represent an improvement over the previous M15 bus service, then I’d hate to have seen it before. As it was, it took almost 20 minutes to get from 14th Street to 34th Street on the bus (the buses do not have the ability to change traffic signals, as some buses in European cities do). Buses and bikes are both efficient alternatives to private automobiles, and it is encouraging to see that the city is attempting to accommodate them. I hope they keep striving to get it right; if not, then the opponents of the changes will have legitimate reasons for turning back efforts for more complete streets.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Victory, and a Victory with a Caveat for Complete Streets

Yesterday brought news of two victories for complete streets in New York. The first victory was Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s signing of complete streets legislation (press release here and to learn more about complete streets go here). The new legislation will require major transportation projects in the state to consider all street users - i.e., pedestrians, transit riders and cyclists - and not just automobile drivers. This is certainly a positive step, as many streets in the region are downright hostile to non-motorists. Building streets that essentially force people to drive even relatively short distances is one way that we have designed physical activity out of our daily lives, and contributes to the shockingly short distance that the average American walks each day. The new legislation only affects large transportation projects (ones funded on the state level), so it will still be up to municipalities to decide how to build and/or retrofit their local roads.

The second victory is for the bike lane along Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, which has been at the center of a contentious debate and become one of the most-scrutinized projects of transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn’s tenure. It is this victory that comes with a major caveat: the case was dismissed because Judge Bert A. Bunyan found that the bike lane opponents’ lawsuit was filed after the statute of limitations had expired. While this means that this specific bike lane now has a better chance of staying in place, it does not represent a precedent in favor of bike lanes in general.

This is important to keep in mind, because there will continue to be tension over bike lanes, as has been the case in Toronto. Those of us who are supporters of complete street measures need to engage in discussions with opponents. Rather than dismissing them as cranks, NIMBYs, or even just fearful of change, let's find out what the concerns are. Chances are there are some concerns worth hearing, and it does nobody any good to stay ensconced in echo chambers where opponents are simply anti-progress.

How can we more effectively demonstrate the benefits of complete streets? What are the concerns that need to be addressed? Readers, please share your thoughts - pro or con - on bike lanes, traffic calming, and other aspects of complete streets. The more we can learn about the arguments on both sides, the better we can move forward with efforts to make streets that truly deliver on the promise to consider all users.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What is Healthy Urbanism?

What is healthy urbanism? Since it is the title of this blog, I should probably define it. I’ll start by defining urbanism. This is a word that has been co-opted to serve different ideologies, to the point of nearly ceasing to have a neutral definition. As Brad Plumer points out in this piece, urbanism has “a P.R. problem.” Politically charged fear-mongering argues that urbanists want to enact policies to force unwilling suburbanites into crowded apartments in the urban core. Because urbanism’s most basic meaning is “the way of life of people in cities,” it is easy to see why the word can immediately put non-city dwellers on the defensive, thinking that urbanists want to remake all places in the image of Manhattan. It is unfortunate that the word has connotations that get in the way of its actual contemporary usage, so I’d like to explore what urbanism means today.

Urbanism is the interaction of the activities of daily life - working, shopping, commuting, learning, playing - and the spaces in which we do them. An essay in a book I am reading now   (the subject of an upcoming review) puts it this way: “urbanism is defined as that which exceeds the sum of its parts.” In other words, the parts (individual buildings, roads) do not exist in isolation; they relate to their surroundings and contribute to a whole larger than themselves: the public realm. When urbanists speak (generally pejoratively) of “sprawl,” they mean places where these relationships have broken down. The parts exist in isolation. Buildings do not attempt to relate in a meaningful way to neighboring buildings or to the street. Instead, private space is privileged over the public realm, and the public realm is degraded. When we think of urbanism in this way, as a quality of a place rather than a simple measure of its density, we realize that most human settlements - except for the most remote - can be discussed in terms of their urbanism.

Healthy urbanism is urbanism where the relationships of the parts to each other is strong, providing for a thriving public realm. It balances the health of the public realm with high quality private space - neither is privileged at the expense of the other. It seeks to create long-term value for land, rather than short term financial gain. It encourages connection and gathering, rather than separation and retreat (to the private realm). It supports an active and healthy rather than sedentary daily routine by being hospitable to non-automobile forms of mobility. It seeks to provide what sociologists call a “third place,” a place other than home or work for people to go and form social connections, which, as we are learning more all the time, are crucial to our mental well-being.  

This shopping mall, surrounded by vast parking lots, wide streets and no sidewalks, contributes to a poor public realm. Note that there is not a pedestrian in sight. Commercial activity that is hospitable to pedestrian activity. This picture is meant specifically to show that good urbanism isn’t necessarily about good architecture. While it would be nice to have a more attractive building here, most of the important components of a pedestrian-friendly environment are still in place.
This garden apartment complex privileges private space over the public realm; streets through the complex are private, and the buildings abut parking lots, not streets.The housing here is similar in many ways to the complex shown on the left, except that these multi-family dwellings directly face a public street with sidewalks.

In the next few weeks I will be giving more side-by-side examples (good and bad) that I hope will illustrate the concepts of healthy urbanism. I’d like to clarify a few things, though. I have chosen to call this blog “Healthy Urbanism” not because I believe that I have hit upon a radical new approach to envisioning our built environment. Rather it reflects my background in public health and my desire not to align myself with any particular brand of urbanist ideology (modernism, landscape urbanism, new urbanism, etc.). Secondly, I’d like to make it clear that I harbor no illusions about the power of the built environment to make us all into healthier or better citizens. I do think that the built environment can be supportive of behaviors that we value. More importantly, I think it is important to offer choice. There is too little choice for Americans - particularly those of more modest means - to live in walkable, transit-oriented places with attractive, thriving public spaces. Rather than robbing Americans of their way of life, increasing the available choice of living arrangements is completely consistent with American values.

Lastly, I’d like to expand on a point I made earlier: examples of good urbanism are not only to be found in the city, and not all examples of urbanism in the city are good. Over the next few weeks and months, I will be showing more examples of this, in the hope of making the point that we can have good, healthy urbanism without making every place into a sea of skyscrapers. Which leads me to my final point about healthy urbanism: places that thrive, and that are valued by those who live in them, are valued for what makes them special and unique. This is what urbanists often refer to as a “sense of place.” So to make every place in the image of some particular place would in no way achieve the goal of good urbanism. Instead, healthy urbanism would forge better connections among the parts that are valued, and bring the public realm back to a healthier state. This will not be an easy fix, but exploring some strategies for achieving it will be the subject of this blog.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Our Urban Future: Edward Glaeser explains why our future prosperity lies in our cities

Americans have a love-hate relationship with the city. They love the access to jobs, shopping, cultural and sporting events, but don’t regard it as a great place to live. We have now learned about the lower carbon footprints of city dwellers, but still the choice to live in the city is seen as impractical, a sacrifice made by the young and the eccentric. This attitude is more prevalent among older Americans. Having recently moved to New York City, my husband and I have encountered it from our parents. They implicitly regard this as a temporary move, assuming that we will ultimately come to our senses and buy a house in the suburbs. My mother’s face registered visceral dismay when she learned that we would be living in less than 1000 square feet, in a one-bedroom apartment to boot. The notion persists that the free-standing house with a yard is still the grown-up ideal. Your twenties are for getting the experience of urban living out of your system; your thirties are for settling in the more sedate suburbs, where you’ll pursue a more substantive happiness.

Edward Glaeser's recent book, The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, explains the upside of our choice to forgo private space for the sake of urban life. Glaeser provides a counter-narrative to the hackneyed version of the American dream where prosperity and happiness are found in suburbia. When asked about this by Jon Stewart, he replied “That’s a major reason why I wrote this book...I really hoped that we could move beyond thinking that the only American dream is a white picket fence in the suburbs.” Many of the advantages of the city are things long known and written about by urbanists, but this book has the potential to convey those ideas to a broader audience. Glaeser presents an economist’s view of the reasons that the city has persevered and flowered, along with an economist’s analysis of why sprawl has occurred.

Glaeser describes why density is a good thing, rather than a problem to be solved, as much of the policy and development for the last 50 years would lead one to believe. He shows us how density allows cities to be engines of creativity: people in close proximity to one another can share ideas more easily, ideas which build on each other and lead to breakthroughs. The great “chains of innovation,” as Glaeser calls them, all happened in cities, whether in the arts or in engineering. But the city is not just a great move for our careers. Glaeser also demonstrates some less obvious benefits of city life: the fact that it makes us happier and healthier. The latter, especially, will strike many as counter-intuitive. People move to the suburbs to keep their children safer. We are used to cities as crowded, dirty, noisy places. How could that possibly be more beneficial to our health than the free-standing house on a quiet, tree-lined street? There are a number of reasons, including less sedentary lifestyles and fewer automobile-related injuries and deaths, but a child born in New York City today can expect to live two years longer than a child born in America as a whole. This is a remarkable reversal of the situation of a century ago, and remarkable testimony to what humans can achieve when they cooperate to overcome major challenges. This is an important point. Glaeser reminds us that these great places to work, live and play didn’t just happen. There had to be major public investment in infrastructure - mainly the provision of safe drinking water - to lay the groundwork for the development of the London and New York City of today. This investment has yet to happen in many of the fast-growing cities of the developing world.

One of most important points the book makes is to debunk a common perception that sprawl has occurred in response to the demands of the market. It would be natural to assume that it exists because it’s what consumers want, and it certainly is what some people want. However, as Glaeser explains, it is also the result of government policy that favors low-density development. Two federal policies that contribute to sprawl are the mortgage interest tax deduction, which favors ownership over renting, and the bias toward highway building with federal transportation funding. The first policy is a government subsidy for a lifestyle choice - home ownership - that is distinctly anti-urban, as the homes available to be owned are predominantly outside urban areas. The argument against using gas tax-funded transportation funds to build (mostly) more roads seems obvious when Glaeser spells it out, but I must admit that it had never occurred to me that it was anything other than unfair to urban dwellers. It is also rewarding the very behavior that it is meant to be discouraging. The gas tax is an attempt to get motorists to pay for some of the negative externalities they create by driving, e.g. congestion, pollution and traffic accidents. By using the funds from this tax to build more highways, the government encourages more driving, not less.

It is when Glaeser takes on the role of historic preservation in stunting denser development that I think he takes the argument to an absurd extreme. He argues that historic preservation keeps neighborhoods short and prices high. The preservationists, he says, “can be the great enemies of change...building taller, newer structures would reduce the pressure to tear down other, older monuments.” Here I think he misses precisely what makes historic neighborhoods attractive not just to preservationists, but to their residents and visitors. Often it is not “monuments” that makes these places special. We cherish the harmonious and pleasing streetscape created by the concentration of similar buildings, none of which is an architectural masterpiece in its own right. Glaeser cites the brownstones in his childhood neighborhood on the upper east side as an example of buildings that could be replaced with high-rises to “allow many other children to experience, as [he] did, the wonders of growing up in New York City.” But the high premiums that people pay to live in the brownstone neighborhoods of New York do not simply reflect the scarcity of available space, as Glaeser implies, but the value people place on such low-rise, human-scaled places. Replacing brownstones with high-rises does not provide more supply of desirable space; most would agree that this would fundamentally change precisely what people value about such neighborhoods. Furthermore, at almost 71,000 people per square mile, Manhattan is already one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Arguing for more density there doesn’t make a lot of sense when there is so much well-situated and transit-served land nearby - in northern New Jersey, and in the outer boroughs - that could easily stand to add more density. With so much low-hanging fruit for increased density, we’re a very long way off from even having to discuss building skyscrapers in Manhattan’s protected historic neighborhoods.

The block of the upper east side where Edward Glaeser grew up. He would replace these brownstones with high-rise apartment buildings if it would “make it possible for many other children to experience, as [he] did, the wonders of growing up in New York City.” (photo from Google Maps Street View)

Triumph of the City is a passionate and well-reasoned account of the virtues of city life, beyond the oft-touted ecological benefits. Glaeser’s fascination with the city’s many incarnations - from New York to Singapore to São Paulo - comes through clearly, giving life to the underlying economic arguments. This is an important book that shows us why America’s urban centers - many of which have been hollowed out by more than a generation of car-dependent sprawl - are not only still relevant, but vital to the country’s future economic competitiveness and influence. While the trend towards suburbanization is starting to reverse, as more young people choose a more compact, urban environment over classic suburbia, there is much work to be done in making cities hospitable to more than just the ultra-rich, the young and the childless. As Glaeser concludes, no less than “our culture, our prosperity, and our freedom” are at stake. We need to continue to improve upon the strengths of our cities, and address their weaknesses - affordability and education - so that more people can access the benefits of mankind’s “greatest invention.”