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Empty Lots, Grand Visions

This article originally appeared on onearth.org here.

There’s an interesting civics lesson taking place at the moment in the New York City neighborhood known as Chelsea, an area of Manhattan sandwiched between the high-rises of Midtown and low-slung, picturesque Greenwich Village. Appropriately enough, the lesson at hand requires us to ask an important question: How do we go about balancing the vertical density that makes any city feel urban with the scenic, spirit-reviving respites that make it feel, well, human?

At the heart of the issue is a vacant, weed-strewn lot that locals would like to see converted into a pocket park: one of those delightful miniature oases that urbanites always feel blessed to chance upon as we wend our way through the city’s concrete canyons and glass-and-steel stalagmites. Melissa Stern has lived in a building directly across the street from the lot, on a quiet block of W. 20th St., since 1990. She would often make friendly small talk with workers from the New York City Department of Sanitation, which maintained an office next door to the lot for many years and whose employees used the quarter-acre space for parking. Back in 2005, one of these workers mentioned that his branch was awaiting a transfer out of Chelsea; if and when that move took place, he intimated, the parking lot next door would likely become the footprint for a new high-rise residential building. Curious, Stern began calling her local representatives, trying to get the 411 on the city’s plans for the space. “They kept saying, 'We don't know anything about that,'” she told me in a recent interview.

Stern didn't give up, though, and continued to query them regularly—to no avail—for the next four years, right up to the day in 2009 that one of her sanitation worker friends announced that the department was moving to Queens … later that week. Furthermore, he told her, from what he had heard, the high-rise project was already something of a fait accompli. The tiny lot next door, as it was later reported, had been used as a bargaining chip during negotiations over a much bigger land deal between the city and developers. As a result, the city agreed to turn the now-vacant lot into a 75-unit residential building for middle-income New Yorkers.

Now: You’ll never hear me or any other sustainable cities advocate argue against increased urban density, especially when it comes to housing. And under most circumstances, in most other cities, the decision to put 75 apartments atop a relatively small parcel of land that was previously home to parked cars (and currently houses little more than gravel and beer cans) would be a no-brainer. But in a city already famous for its density, and in a part of town that consistently ranks near the very bottom in terms of public green space, a question arises: Which amenity confers the greater benefit to the greater number of New Yorkers? Are 75 units of new housing in a tight housing market appreciably “better” for New York City than 10,000 square feet of parkland in a neighborhood that is demonstrably starved for parkland and—though it’s home to 2,000 children—hasn’t seen a new playground built in 45 years?

Were he alive today, John Stuart Mill would have relished the conundrum. The 19th-century British philosopher is widely regarded as the intellectual father of utilitarianism, the branch of pragmatic philosophy that asks which of our acts, private and public, represent the greatest good for society as a whole. The debate in Chelsea is pure utilitarian catnip: an irresistible riddle that asks us to weigh the social utility of two possible outcomes, and then asks us to choose between them based on which of them would provide the maximum “good.” One outcome would prove to be of immense, immediate benefit—but only to a couple of hundred people, at most. The other outcome would provide a more diffuse benefit, but would be experienced by many thousands of Chelsea residents, workers, and visitors.

Here are the data points behind the dilemma. On the one hand, researchers at the University of Illinois have looked at more than a decade's worth of the science and concluded that as urban green space increases, physical and social ills decrease—crime, domestic violence, even symptoms associated with attention deficit disorder. The American Planning Association, a consortium of city planners dedicated to pursuing urban smart-growth policies, released a list of two dozen case studies from cities all across America that illustrate just how important urban parks of all sizes are to community cohesion (including this community in New Orleans, where a vacant lot became a pocket-park garden whose produce, harvested by local children, goes to a non-profit cafe providing free meals to needy families).

On the other hand, of course, is the fact that housing for middle-income families in nice neighborhoods is hard to find. But here’s where Mill might start to squirm a little as he began crunching those utilitarian numbers. As this February 2013 report from the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a New York-based group working to expand the pool of local affordable housing, makes discomfitingly clear, the whole notion of "middle-income" in many of Manhattan’s more expensive neighborhoods (including Chelsea) is so skewed that households of any size—including just one person—who report an income of $190,000 still qualify for subsidized housing. (Just for example: among the 168 units in the Elliott-Chelsea, a 22-story building erected in 2012 only a few blocks northwest of the W. 20th St. lot, are 45 two-bedroom units earmarked for these very middle-income earners. The subsidized rent for these apartments begins at $3,421 a month: a figure that will probably strike many people who consider themselves middle-income as not exactly “affordable.”)

As it happens, the lot on W. 20th St. is located just one block away from OnEarth’s editorial offices. About a month ago, I walked across Sixth Avenue to talk to Stern about the lot, its past, and its future. We spoke, coincidentally enough, on Park(ing) Day: an annual event in which artists, designers, and engaged citizens all across the globe temporarily occupy metered parking spaces on urban streets and convert them into miniature parks. In participating communities, advocates cordon off lengths of curb and install benches, Astroturf, and scale models of trees and playground equipment, all to help people visualize just a few of the biophilic benefits that can come from punctuating our urban settings with more green space. As we spoke, Stern’s colleagues from Friends of 20th St. Park, the advocacy and outreach group she co-founded, enlisted passersby to take part in a postcard petition directed at Mayor Michael Bloomberg and intended to show him the level of grass-roots support for a park in that spot.

Stern pointed out to me that among her W. 20th Street neighbors are an AIDS hospice and an eldercare facility. Imagine, she said, the impact that a visit to a pocket park down the block—filled with trees and grass, birds and squirrels, the sight and sound of children at play—could have on a terminally ill patient, or on an elderly person who can no longer get out of the city and experience nature. (Actually, you don’t have to imagine. Scientists at the University of Helsinki have already done the research, concluding that “interaction with plants, in both active and passive ways, beneļ¬ts the health of the elderly. Ensuring access to a green environment for the elderly in long-term care would likely promote positive health outcomes.”)

Chelsea, Stern told me, “has just exploded, in terms of building and population, over the last five years.” At the same time, she added, “there has been no provision for any new green space. None of the developers has done a setback, a pocket park, anything that provides a natural respite." She is quick, however, to reject the characterization of her fight as some sort of Manichaean struggle between noble naturalists and ignoble developers. “No one is against affordable housing,” she assures. “What we're in favor of is sustainable, thoughtful urban development—which involves green space.”

According to her group, there are at least 27 city-owned or derelict properties in or near Chelsea that the city could choose as alternate sites for middle-income housing developments, leaving the lot at 136 W. 20th St. free to fill the community’s green-space and/or playground vacuum. Official reaction to the group’s 4,000-signatures-and-counting petition has been a frustrating combination of mutedness and mixed signals—a function, no doubt, of the political uncertainty that colors all decision-making in an election season. Mayor Bloomberg leaves office on January 1st. The current front-runner in the race to replace him has made affordable housing a signature issue of his campaign, and while his campaign website touts a number of impressive environmental accomplishments, it makes no mention of the role urban parks and green space might play in any larger plan.

As more and more cities set about reclaiming their once-abandoned urban cores and debating the wisdom of building-height regulations, it will serve them well to follow the fracas in Chelsea and to see how New York City ultimately resolves this utilitarian conundrum. Will it choose to erect yet another residential high-rise to be occupied by no more than 75 households—many (if not most) of which will be reporting taxable incomes of up to $200,000 per year? Or will it decide in the end that the greater good would be achieved by giving Chelsea—and the whole city, for that matter—just a few of the easily achieved, eminently calculable, and relatively low-cost benefits that come from putting an urban park where one is sorely needed?

“There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realised until personal experience has brought it home,” observed John Stuart Mill. Densification and affordable housing are important goals toward which all cities should aspire. But if a high-rise residential tower does indeed go up on W. 20th St., it’s easy to picture the lucky folks who get to live in it waking up one sunny morning and—like thousands of their neighbors—wishing there were a nice little neighborhood park they could visit.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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