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Building The City We Need

Bennett Baumer Jul 6

Issue 237

New Yorkers dislike many things. Subway delays. That smell during summer. But what New Yorkers really dislike is real-estate development.

That new building either blocks your view, gentrifies the block or brings those people to the neighborhood. Two new books on architecture and urban studies make the case for sustainable real-estate development.

City University of New York Spitzer School of Architecture professor Michael Sorkin’s What Goes Up is a series of pithy and piquant essays on the twin problems facing New York and many other large cities: affordability and climate change.

Self-styled progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio won election in 2013 on a “Tale of Two Cities” campaign and central to his election and re-election was his affordable-housing plan. The mayor’s ten-year plan to create and preserve 200,000 “high-quality, affordable homes” is his administration’s legacy project and he updated the goal to 300,000 units in late 2017. The plan depends on enticing private real-estate developers to opt into inclusionary zoning bonuses (greater density in exchange for some permanent affordable units) and billions in public and quasi-public money in low-interest loans to construct or renovate affordable housing. The plan, in theory, would provide housing for over half a million people, as many as now live in public housing or receive Section 8 rental assistance.

In his essay “Ups and Downs,” Sorkin lauds de Blasio’s plan but laments that the burden to produce and preserve housing falls on cities, as decades of conservative federal power has greatly diminished public housing funding. Also, he adds, “there’s a huge elephant in the room, which is the possibility — indeed, probability — that even with the complete success of [de Blasio’s plan], the net number of affordable housing units in the city will fall, and substantially.” The city government has to work against both right-wing attacks on public housing and the state’s slow phaseout of rent regulations. It does not set the federal housing budget or have power over the rent laws. That leaves a city mayor with only zoning incentives and municipal money to entice affordable housing production. Sorkin proposes Jane Jacobs-style “incremental change, community participation… infrastructures of all kinds, and design.”

Buildings are the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in New York City, comprising 67 percent of total emissions. What Goes Up argues for requiring carbon neutrality, outlawing oil-fired boilers and vastly reducing traffic. The city already bans No. 6 oil in boilers and plans to phase out No. 4 oil by 2030, but many landlords will just switch to natural gas — another fossil fuel. Sorkin thinks deeply about architecture and design, offering hot takes on new buildings — he likes the Oculus but says it cost too much — but would do better to think about the environmental effects of building operations, such as how we will heat and cool spaces. In writing about Hurricane Sandy, Sorkin recognizes “real but painfully slow” progress on greening buildings, but warns that we may “wind up so many Canutes, bashing away with our feeble swords at the relentlessly rising seas.”

What Goes Up cites urbanist Jane Jacobs and makes the requisite White Horse Tavern reference, but Columbia’s Center on Capitalism and Society senior fellow Richard Sennett’s new book, Building and Dwelling, gives a fuller treatment of Jacobs’ ideas.

Sennett’s urban landscape is composed of the ville (the built environment) and cité (city living). He posits that these two concepts became divorced, creating closed cities marked by the dominance of vehicles, segregation, regimentation and control. Building and Dwelling seeks ways to open cities. Most people know the story of Jane Jacobs’ criticism of Robert Moses’ mega-planning schemes, but Sennett is more interested in the rivalry between Jacobs and mid-century socialist architectural critic Lewis Mumford. Jacobs championed local decision-making, gradual development, “eyes on the street” to combat crime and spontaneous street life à la her beloved low-rise Greenwich Village. Mumford thought that stressing local decision-making and action could not address the scale of New York City, as infrastructure projects that affect the entire city need more than a “bottom-up, cellular framework.” He argued for garden cities and democratic-socialist planning for all aspects of people’s lives (health, shelter and work).

Building and Dwelling can at times be opaque and perhaps even “incoherent,” as Sennett himself has acknowledged. The author writes of the flâneur meandering through a city, taking it all in, and at times the book meanders. He does, however, address the long-term threat of climate change — and warns against what he calls “stoicism of the bad sort, i.e. try nothing because nothing can be done.”

What Goes Up, The Right and Wrongs to the City
by Michael Sorkin
Verso Books 2018

Building & Dwelling
by Richard Sennett
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2018

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Photo credit: Colin Poellot.