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Density Part 2: Height vs Delight

Wouldn’t you know it. On the heels of my recent post, “Density: It’s not the Sky that’s the Limit,” a significant new book on the topic of urban growth has emerged. A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America is written by Vishaan Chakrabarti, former director of the Manhattan office for the Department of City Planning and currently the director of Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate as well as a partner at SHoP Architects. Chakrabarti, with a jaw-dropping background in architecture, planning, development and engineering, has had a major role in the rezoning and, in many cases, the complete re-imagining of entire sections of NYC.

chakrabarti cover

In an online excerpt from the book (I haven’t gotten my hands on the full book yet), titled “Building Hyperdensity and Civic Delight,” Chakrabarti posits the arguments for urban density and even for “hyperdensity,” which he defines as density “sufficient to support subways.”

“Compared to most forms of human habitation, dense cities are the most efficient economic engines; they are the most environmentally sustainable and the most likely to encourage joyful and healthy lifestyles.” As you might expect, no argument from me there.

He then goes on to ask: “how do we build delightful cities that make us more prosperous, ecological, fit and equitable?” Indeed, that’s the question that’s been asked (and usually answered in one form or another) since at least the manifestos of Jane Jacobs, since we got past the necessary goals of improving defense and basic sanitation, and since we realized that automobiles are not the life blood of cities. (It’s no coincidence that, in planning jargon, urban highways were often labeled arteries.)

Much of the debate about the “delightfulness” or the life of cities focuses not just on their density, but on the physicality of their density. In plain English, is the city made of high-rise or low-rise buildings? Chakrabarti says there is a bias against high-rises, which he attributes to their being (or perceived as being) the products of private sector, wealthy interests. Here in New York, it’s a common lament that the mallification of the city is a result of pro-development planning policies coming out of an administration led by a multibillionaire businessman.

At the opposite urban scale, we have the idealized, romanticized, street-scaled Greenwich Villages and Parisian Left Banks. Chakrabarti argues, though, that those are no less the result of private interests (“built by powerful development interests and typically fueled by unsavory capital”) and, furthermore, were constructed at lower, walk-up heights only because of the technical and structural limitations of the time.

Fine, but none of that negates the apparent preference for living in, say, Williamsburg (Brooklyn, that is) over Wall Street. And here’s where, for all his post’s strong points, he really loses me: he ascribes that preference to a belief that “tacitly or explicitly, [designers and planners] consider the growing hyperdense cities of Asia as embodiments of ‘bad density.’” He continues:

They generally deride places such as Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore as being too congested and characterless, the products of mindless real-estate development, inept urban planning and, of course, impoverished (read, non-Western) civic culture. Implicit in such parochialism is the proposition that only Western civilization can — and will — produce superior urbanism, indicating a willful contempt for the fact that many Asian cities are outpacing European capitals not only economically but also in terms of cultural production, mass transit, environmentalism, racial integration and other key metrics. It is unrealistic and irresponsible for any true urbanist to embrace European capitals as models for future development when they are among the most segregated urban centers on earth and have increasingly unstable finances characterized by debt-driven grands projets.

I think he’s off the mark here. First, most planners would see, not Tokyo or Hong Kong, but Houston or Dallas as the “products of mindless real-estate development” and not exactly evidence of some sort of Western superior urbanism. Further, how can he refer critically to European grands projets (didn’t those pretty much end after the Louvre expansion?) in the midst of the far, far larger projets of the Chinese new cities?

These weak points, though, are an unfortunate diversion from his broader and more significant observations on the high-density, low-rise cities that predate the new millennium versus the high-density, high-rise cities we now see evolving. Amidst the diagrams of various configurations of urban density, he makes the statement: “Today the global economy demands that we embrace large buildings….” However, we’ve heard mixed messages on this. On one hand the massive urbanization of the planet’s growing population pretty much demands that urban density increases. That would seem physically obvious; urban space is often limited so there’s no place to go but up. But what of the studies showing that less vertical cities – Los Angeles is the common example – may have higher densities than, say, New York? Or that the entire population of the planet could reasonably fit in an area the size of Texas?

Not that I’m advocating we build a Texas-size Los Angeles, or anything remotely like that. Gawd, no. But I don’t think he’s quite made the case for a Dallas-sized Hong Kong either.

There’s also the argument that urban real estate and development costs require intense use of land for profitability. But some question the actual numbers of that rationale.

To be fair, when Chakrabarti talks about the demand for large buildings, he’s referring at least as much to commercial structures. Most developers and planners, as evidenced by the recent news about rezoning midtown Manhattan, believe that older office buildings, with their smaller floor sizes, lower ceilings and outdated, inefficient mechanical systems are not upgradable to modern “Class A” standards. There are complex environmental and economic equations at work here looking at, among other things, the amounts of energy and materials already embedded in those existing buildings versus their demolition and replacement. Backing up the midtown plan, Terrapin Bright Green – a notably environmentally-minded consultancy — found that for many of the current buildings, their totaled drawbacks in terms of both usability and energy-efficiency outweighed the benefits of preserving and improving them. And it’s useful to point out that this is in the shadow of the mother of all preservation battles, Grand Central Station, as well as occurring simultaneously with a new push to rectify the mistake-we-learned-from: tearing down the nearby Penn Station.

Chakrabarti’s larger point seems to be that restrictions on high-rises have a direct relation to urban economic health. “[H]eight limitations have held back the Parisian economy in comparison to the forward-looking redevelopment of London, both at Canary Wharf and within its city center, which is now marked by a series of glistening and respectful new towers by Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. There is, in fact, a marked correlation between those European cities that have allowed skyscrapers and those that have successful economies.”

This comparison, though, focuses only on economic health, not social health — not what he calls “civic delight.” The gauge for that might be the simple question: which place would you rather live? As I’ve oft-stated, my own strong preference is for the low-rise, street- and community-oriented urban fabric found in places like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where I live and work. The concept of urban “walk appeal” tends to arrive at the similar conclusions.

But how then to incorporate urban population growth, along with its attendant office, retail and service needs, without resorting to forests of unrelenting towers — towers that serve to remove urban vitality from its place of community, the street , in favor of shepherding people through characterless lobbies to anonymous enclaves in the sky? How do we promote both civic delight and economic growth? It’s a question that demands an EcoOptimistic answer. Chakrabarti touches on one solution – what he refers to as “cap and trade zoning” – which has a strong relation to a solution I’ll outline shortly in Part 3.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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