On New York Urbanism
As New York prepares to bid adieu to Michael Bloomberg, our erstwhile Mayor-for-Life, retrospection flourishes and the bag is decidedly mixed. Wonders have been worked for public health and the environment, ranging from a ban on public smoking to the planting of 750,000 trees, to transparency about fast food content, to sizable emissions reductions. The bike share programme (love it!) has finally been rolled out along with 450 miles of new lanes. There has been a dramatic drop in crime. And there has been construction: 800 acres of parks and hundreds of buildings have been built.
The administration has also published an exemplary statement of sustainable intentions in its PlaNYC and responded vigorously to the challenge presented by climate change in the aftermath of Sandy. For us Bobos, life is good.
Less so for others. Bloomberg’s stop and frisk policy has resulted in five million humiliations of mainly minority New Yorkers − for whom this harassment is the leading ‘quality of life’ event in the public realm. Half the city lives at or near the poverty line and levels of inequality are higher than at any time since the Great Depression: the fabled one per cent of wage-earners take 39 per cent of New York’s income, with a 55 per cent increase in our wealthiest neighbourhoods − an income gap on a par with Sierra Leone or Swaziland. And deep ambivalence must greet the administration’s greatest planning initiative, a massive rezoning of the city that has conjured huge new densities (and development opportunities) from our collective thin air. Critics have called this the enabling legislation for gentrification.
Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of Columbia’s real estate programme and partner at SHoP Architects, has just published a timely retroactive manifesto for Bloomberg. A Country of Cities is a chipper compendium of bien pensant environmental wisdom and a vigorous anti-suburban screed, arguing for the environmental, social and economic advantages of ‘hyperdensity’ of 30 or more residential units to the acre.
He suggests this vision of a nation of ‘trains, towers, and trees’ can be achieved with an ‘infrastructure of opportunity’ consisting of mass transit and the greater fungibility of air rights: exactly the Bloomberg agenda.
Chakrabarti argues that this policy will not just engorge developers but will conduce greater equity. Here, he channels the Gordon Gekko-esque ‘growth is good’ mantra of his mentor, former city development tsar, and current Bloomberg Inc CEO, Dan Doctoroff, who vaunts a ‘virtuous cycle of economic development’ in which more construction yields more people, hence more revenue, hence more services.
‘Bloomberg’s stop and frisk policy has resulted in five million humiliations of mainly minority New Yorkers’
To fully haberdasher his prescriptive hat trick, Chakrabarti suggests that this urban renaissance will be realised by adding the extensive use of modular construction (he calls SHoP’s efforts along these lines ‘brilliant’) and by the elimination of the Federal mortgage interest deduction.
But he never explains why this added density won’t be crammed with uniformity, why today’s modularity will succeed better than it did in the past century, what will guarantee the equitable distribution of benefits, how cities can retain real difference and finesse their mix, or how urban hyperdensity will cause the suburbs to wither.
These unanswered questions are deeply political and the book lacks any account of the process by which the public is to be involved in producing urban space, ignoring the fact that, immemorially, spatial redistribution always includes some style of expropriation or subvention, whether outright theft from native Americans in the land rush, subsidy schemes in postwar policies to build the ‘burbs, or the collective right to sun and air manipulated in zoning and bulk transfer.
Nor is any serious argument offered for the superiority of transferring subsidy from homeowners to developers beyond a certain, supply-side, market-knows-best vibe. The deep fallacy is in thinking that the reconfiguration of space directly produces a realignment of rights and opportunities: equity is always distributive but not always spatial.
Glossing over who really pays and profits, there’s nothing in Chakrabarti’s prescription to suggest − particularly given the example of the Bloomberg years − that the combination of bigger buildings, factory construction, and a tax hit on mortgages will have the slightest effect on the way we distribute our social and financial capital. Can anybody spell ‘trickle down’?