Limited Equity: Stable Communities, Affordable Housing

The Amalgamated Dwellings in New York City. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

I have a new article published at TAC’s New Urbs blog, about the history and legal structure of New York City’s limited-equity housing cooperatives, which continue to provide surprisingly affordable, high-quality housing units in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the United States. The piece tells the story about how limited-equity co-ops got started; their philosophical roots; their early successes; why the model declined in popularity; and how an approach that recovers its best qualities might be be compatible with various subsets of the polarized political landscape of contemporary America.

I think there’s little question that the shortage of affordable housing in the regions with the best economies is a major driving force in the structural inequality that characterizes our current moment; and that the biggest beneficiaries of this status quo are rent seekers, rather than actors who contribute anything dynamic or innovative to the economy. Taking the role of speculation out of the equation can do a lot to keep prices in line with what residents can actually afford. For the reasons described in my article, I think this is an important idea that deserves to be recovered and applied in today’s metropolitan real estate economies.

Kunstler, Techno-Ambivalence, and the Social Arts

The City Rises. Umberto Boccioni (1910).

The American Conservative’s New Urbs section has an insightful new piece by James Howard Kunstler, entitled “The Infinite Suburb is an Academic Joke“. In a dryly funny essay, Kunstler takes on the group-think of elite urban planning schools for its one-sided techno-optimism (or, as he calls it, techno-narcissism). Among other errors, he cites the willingness to buy into an anodyne vision of driverless cars, drone deliveries, and “smart” suburban neighborhoods (whatever those may be), as the emerging vision of default American settlement patterns. He also notes a continuing obliviousness to energy considerations; and a subtle disdain for traditional urbanism (in spite of its time-proven viability). It’s an important piece, worth reading.

Like Kunstler, I find it increasingly difficult to abide the almost willfully-blind optimism of those who believe that the answers to humanity’s most profound civilizational challenges will be found through information technology. Faith that IT can be used to solve our most intractable problems is fast becoming the 21st century’s version of the faith in social science (and its attendant ideologies) that led to so many catastrophes in the last century. Both have a common origin: an intoxication with the recent achievements of human ingenuity supporting a fallacious belief that our technical genius can somehow (and soon!) be systematized into processes that will resolve human problems (e.g., individual psychology, law and culture, and political economy) that have always plagued civilizations; and that have always been best addressed through social arts that draw, in the words of Holmes, on experience — not logic.

Techno-optimism doubles down on the essential fallacy of the 20th century, while a close study of tradition — including traditional urbanism, in the world of planning — learns from the mistakes of the past. By no means would I advocate a blind adoption of past practices. But a conscious adherence to those that have worked is defensible. Techno-optimism, on the other hand, is the product of a broader fallacy of conventional wisdom in our time: one which holds that because we now have the tools to do things that people in the past have been unable to do (or, similarly, because we have access to information that previous generations did not have), we are ipso facto smarter than any generation that has lived before us. And yet, in fact, the opposite may be true: because information is so readily available, we commit less actual knowledge to our memories; and because we have advanced, technical tools that carry out so many repetitive tasks, we learn fewer hard skills, and fewer of the granular nuances of those that we do learn. A more cautious approach would acknowledge that the more rigorous demands presented by the technical limits of the past may have honed a more refined set of skills in the practitioners of those times, and that we may have much to learn from studying the time-tested arts of social customs.

The traditional Western social arts include law, religion, philosophy, rhetoric, fine arts (to an extent), politics, and (sadly) war. To these I would add business, which was not studied as an art in Classical or Renaissance/Enlightenment times, largely because it had not yet emerged as a topic of legitimate inquiry. Nevertheless, business clearly fits with the other social arts more than it does with any of the hard sciences. I use the term social arts here, intentionally, to make a point. These studies are much broader and more flexible than the modern social sciences. They are studies of how human behavior can be influenced, managed, or changed. They are understood to be skills that draw on long experience; the art in these fields consists of having gained the sophistication to intuit which tools to use for particular effects in a certain set of circumstances. It is presumed that their subject matter is too complicated to be understood with total precision, or to be addressed by a universal approach. In some ways the work of a social artist appears to resemble the work of a magician more than it does the work of a scientist. A judge’s gavel, an architect’s pencil, or a priest’s censer may seem more like a wand than like a tool. Legal, aesthetic, and religious doctrines may, at times, seem more like spells or superstitions than hard knowledge. And yet the practitioners who know something about their craft are able to achieve results. Urban planning, too, is a social art — not a first level social art, like those named above; but a subordinate hybrid of fine arts (i.e., architecture) and law. Today, because of zoning and other factors, politics and business have taken on much greater influences than they traditionally held. Religion has become an increasingly peripheral factor in Western planning. Nevertheless, the attempt to turn urban planning into a science gave us strip malls, cloverleaf interchanges, and Euclidean zoning; urban planning, properly treated as an art, gave us Pompeii, Venice, and the great cities of the Victorian period.

The abandonment of the time-tested wisdom of the social arts in favor of the radical, but more technical (and therefore apparently more sophisticated) experimentation with the social sciences was not entirely stupid or negative; it was likely a necessary step in the process of incorporating the sudden flood of new knowledge and experiences that had come with the rapid expansion of science and industry in the 19th century. But it was too one-sided, and it became a prime example of a proverbial baby being thrown out with the bathwater. At least some of the nihilism and anomie of the 20th century can be attributed not just to the pace of scientific change, but to the dumping of cultural knowledge that might have helped to ground individuals, communities, and their institutions while those larger technical changes were being processed. It is not an unrelated phenomenon that, over the same time, buildings devolved from cathedral architecture to Brutalism; or that governments devolved from kingdoms and representative democracies to include fascism, communism, and consumer capitalism. The danger of our current intoxication with technology is that we may go through a parallel, and perhaps greater, dumping of valuable cultural knowledge to the one that took place in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The value of studying the traditional methods that have worked throughout history is that they can provide a context for processing rapid change.

Shaping the Urbanism of Victorian America


I’m happy to report that The American Conservative, in its New Urbs featurehas published my article about the key factors that shaped Late Victorian urbanism in the United States. My piece focuses on this period before zoning, and explores the physical, legal, economic, and cultural phenomena that drove neighborhood development in the absence of comprehensive plans. I chose this period because it has intrigued me for a long time; and because so much of the New Urbanism of today seems to be imitating the forms of that era without necessarily asking the important questions about the larger context that created them. TAC deserves credit for taking a lead in discussing the important dynamic between urban form, society, and sustainable communities. Here’s a nice piece by executive editor Lewis McCrary about the walkability of New Jersey shore towns, many of which I have walked through, and many of which have an urban fabric that dates from the same period that my article describes.

The Jewish Roots of Planned Green Space

Howard's concept of the Garden City, visualized.

Howard’s concept of the Garden City, visualized.

A recent piece in The New York Jewish Week looks at the Torah concept of migrash. Rabba Sara Hurwitz’s description reads like an early outline of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. I also find it interesting that the financing structure Howard proposed is much like the one described by Herzl in Old New Land, and the one used to fund the original limited-equity coops in New York City (which grew out of Jewish labor unions on the Lower East Side).

New York City: A Century of Zoning

The Equitable Building from Nassau Street. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

The last straw. The 1913 Equitable Building led to passage of the 1916 law.

Today is the 100th anniversary of New York City’s original zoning ordinance. In commemoration of a century of land use regulation (it was also America’s first zoning law), the local chapter of the AIA has published Zoning at 100, which includes a number of essays by top architects, planning officials, and scholars, looking back, and looking forward. (Thanks to H. for the link!) Authors include Robert A.M. Stern, Bill Rudin, Carl Weisbrod, and Gina Pollara. Looking forward to finding some time to read these.

Here are a few more pictures I’ve taken of the massive 1913 Equitable Building, located at 120 Broadway, which put the issue of development massing at the forefront of city politics, and led to the law.

Where Every Street is Named 60th

Kevin Walsh has a useful primer on the enigmatic pattern to Queens street numbering at Forgotten NY, and how it becomes all Sorcerer’s Apprentice in one section of Maspeth.

The 1920s decision to number almost every street in Queens is a great early example of a 20th-century planning initiative where ambition outstrips logic. I mean, if the various neighborhoods of Queens had simply been allowed to retain the street names that they’d had as the towns and cities that once composed the western portion of Queens County, Long Island, then their character would have been better preserved over the years; and people would have been no more lost in Queens than they are today. Moreover, new streets could have been added to these locales with their own unique names, deepening the character of these places.

Instead, we have this:

So communities, some of which date from the time of New Amsterdam, are robbed of an important part of their history to create a system that adds almost no logic or clarity to the layout of the modern city. The irony is that the one potential benefit of this grand attempt to ensure that no two places in the borough would share the same address might have been the establishment of a unified post office for the borough. Yet Queens remains the only New York City borough without a unified post office. So, for example, people there still have their mail addressed to Long Island City, Flushing, Jamaica, or Far Rockaway, rather than, simply, Queens, New York. The legacy of the old towns survives; just not in very many meaningful street names.

I’m inclined to think that a lot of these old street names will be recovered soon, especially in historic town centers, as real estate values increase and sellers want to highlight examples of local history and character.

Venice, Urban Canals, and the Sea

GreatStreetsJacobsIn my free time, I’ve been reading Great Streets, the 1995 urban design art book, by Allan Jacobs — and a great birthday present from Honey :). Jacobs dedicates an entire chapter of Great Streets to Venice’s Grand Canal, making the case that certain cities’ urban canals are essentially liquid streets: as thoroughfares, places for public gathering, retail business, the showcasing of architecture, and cross-cutting neighborhood vistas.

Now, Google seems to have taken Jacobs’s position, offering extensive and striking StreetView images of the canals of Venice, treating them as the equivalent of city streets. Here’s a view of the Grand Canal, near the Rialto Bridge:

Here’s the Campanile di San Marco, seen from the water:

And here is a satellite view of the entire old city, surrounded by the Lagoon.

It’s fitting that the outline of Venice looks like a fish.

Now, in some ways, the canals of Venice are more than just technically streets. One could argue that in light of the role Venice played in the emergence of the modern commercial world the patterns of urbanization that developed there actually served as an early prototype for the growth of modern cities. The traffic flows in the city’s canals were not so different from those of land vehicles in modern or ancient cities. But the liquid nature of these streets presumably allowed for one less break of bulk between the arrival of goods in the city and their delivery to local end users — and this was good for the productive economy. In Roman Ostia, vast warehouses were used to store shipments of olive oil and wine amphorae that had been imported from Africa, Greece, and Spain. Each shipping company had its own branded warehouse, from which it sold goods to merchants one step down the supply chain, or stored them until its own distributors were ready to take them to market. Much smaller quantities were then transported, separately, up the Tiber to the city proper; or over land to other Italian cities and towns. This made for a supply chain with a lot of middle men, barriers to purchasing in bulk, and, presumably, high markups between the seaport and Roman workshops.

In Venice, the innovation would be that these points of delivery could be distributed throughout the city, rather than concentrated in a single seaport. In Venice, the urban fabric and the seaport became one, a development that predicted the more distributed pattern of industrial space in modern cities. Canals and their branches and slips would, of course, continue to be an important part of city-building for years to come, but only a few cities would have both the topography and trading frequency to justify the kind of extensive canal building that took place in Venice. Amsterdam comes to mind. More commonly, the post-Renaissance economy would interpret the lesson from Venice in another way: The most successful cities to be founded after the Renaissance would be those built on sites where natural waterways conveyed an almost Venetian advantage, and allowed for distributed delivery points. Think of New York City, with its miles and miles of natural waterfronts. Likewise, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Sydney. Finally, the pattern of distributed industry would really be broken open, in the 19th century, by the railroads, which would slice through the fabric of every European and American town and city as thoroughly as the canals sliced through Venice.

Another interesting point is that Venice is also arguably more of a direct continuation of the Roman tradition than Byzantium was. That is to say, while the Eastern Empire may have carried on the apparatus of the Roman state from Constantinople until 1453, is was essentially a Greek cultural entity for its entire history; but Venice was founded in the fifth century by Italian Romans who had taken refuge from the fall of the Western Empire in an inaccessible Italian swamp, and who went on to preserve a slice of distinctly Latin culture — eventually building a city that carried on many parts of the Italian Roman tradition, and served as a unique cultural bridge between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages and, ultimately, the Early Modern age. This is a simplification of Venetian history, but it illustrates the important thread. Because the plan of Venice — and especially its canals — more literally captures the tradition of Western commercial cities growing out of the sea, than almost any other example of European urbanism. From Ostia to Venice, and from Amsterdam to New Orleans, the mercantile tradition in the West has a long tradition of shaping a maritime urbanism in which the riches brought by sea trade have driven extensive urban growth on the land around the ports. And this growth has always been premised on the trading patterns of the merchants within the seaports.

The sea has always been a saturating element in trading cultures. Look at the Odyssey. Look at its haunting omnipresence in this Roman wall painting of Perseus and Andromeda, on view at the Metropolitan Museum, found in Boscotrecase, near Pompeii:


Perseus and Andromeda, from the Villa at Boscotrecase. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Amidst its clear references to religion and fantasy, it is the sea, and not Vesuvius, which might consume all. I thought of this painting recently at work, where I’m writing decision letters for a post-Sandy recovery project here in New York City. Three years after that storm, the conflict between the city and the ocean is still being sorted out, block by block, house by house. Some people are selling their land back to the state; some are elevating their homes, with or without public subsidies; many are keeping their fingers crossed and going on as if nothing had happened in 2012.

The same forces of commerce, greed, politics, and ambition that built the world’s port cities are now driving the global climate change that threatens them. New Orleans was nearly wiped out in 2005; Venice now deals with flooding on a regular basis; in New York, Manhattan seems mostly oblivious, but the sprawling coastal neighborhoods of the outer boroughs are not looking very healthy. The paradox of mercantile cities, the wealth that they draw from maritime trade, and the ever-present danger of the sea, will not go away. It is only getting stronger.

Should America’s Condo Laws be Reformed?

432 Park. Source: Macklowe Properties / CIM. (Fair use.)

432 Park. Source: Macklowe Properties / CIM. (Fair use.)

Matthew Gordon Lasner, who teaches at Hunter College, believes they should. (He also provides a nice, succinct history of residential shared-ownership arrangements in the United States.) There has been an uptick recently in the amount of ink spilled about luxury condominiums as cash-stashes, rather than residences. The Times has been running a series called ‘Towers of Secrecy’, and New York magazine had a long-form article last June about the same phenomenon. The statistic that struck me most from the New York article:

The Census Bureau estimates that 30 percent of all apartments in the quadrant from 49th to 70th Streets between Fifth and Park are vacant at least ten months a year.

So, in a city with no affordable market housing, much the best residential real estate sits almost completely vacant. Wonderful. If the laws can be tweaked to discourage this, they should be. Lasner suggests limits on the numbers of absentee or anonymous buyers — I think those kinds of measures could help.

Still, the results of this development trend are a mixed bag for New York City, even in the realm of social equity. When I worked on Mount Laurel analysis at Rutgers (for New Jersey’s constitutionally-mandated affordable housing programs), one of the factors that we analyzed was filtering — or, the tendency of new, market-rate units to take some of the price pressure off of the existing housing stock. In theory, at least, a larger number of units in a particular region will bring down the degree of competition for housing units, across the board. So, even the development of incredibly expensive luxury units ought to have some knock-on effect for housing affordability in the local market, by taking wealthy buyers out of competition for (and gentrification of) existing units in the same city.

111 West 57. Source: SHoP Architects. (Fair use.)

111 West 57. Source: SHoP Architects. (Fair use.)

Finally, on a purely aesthetic level, I do like the architecture of many of the city’s new sliver skyscrapers. Vishaan Chakrabarti, in particular (who led the design of 111 West 57th Street, above), has an incredible eye, and a vision of urbanism that goes far beyond luxury investment units. Technology allows for the development of slender, elegant towers that were physically impossible in the past. They represent the forefront of engineering and design, and some of them are truly striking. Beautiful architecture — even if it contains private spaces — can still bring value to everyone who spends time in the city.

Urbanism Through the Ages

The Roman Forum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Roman Forum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This week, a lot of media outlets covered anthropologist Scott Ortman’s recently published paper, Settlement Scaling and Increasing Returns in an Ancient Society, which analyzes the growth of cities in ancient Mexico to argue that the efficiency incentives that are driving urbanization today were also intrinsic to the growth of cities in ancient times.

I’m not sure I buy the authors’ basic assumption that the scale of monument construction can be used as a reliable metric for the incentives of urbanism. (This strikes me as a classic social scientist’s attempt to quantify something that should have been analyzed more liberally.) But, apart from that, the paper highlights something urbanists intuitively understand: cities become more productive, and dynamic, with growth. And Ortman’s work adds to the evidence that urbanists crave, namely, that people have long been drawn to urban settings by their opportunities, as well as by their mystique.

The urbanism of the Classical world offered lots of (non-numerical) ancient examples of large cities as better engines for economic and cultural output. Athens, in the fifth century B.C., was the largest city in the Greek world — and also the center of learning, artisanship, and trade, within that universe. Likewise, Alexandria was the economic and cultural capital of the Near East, during Hellenistic times; and Rome, for the entire Mediterranean basin in the first and second centuries, A.D. Modern examples might include London in the 19th century, and New York in the first half of the 20th.

The Future is Lighted with LEDs

LED lighting at fountains in Trafalgar Square, London. Photo: David Iliff, License: CC-BY-SA 3.0.

LED lighting in Trafalgar Square, London. Image: David Iliff (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Fast Company has an article about the future of LED lighting, and its potential to alter the settings in which it’s used. The piece seems like a bit of a plug for Philips, and its Hue platform, but the substance is really on the cutting edge. One could easily imagine complex and creative lighting schemes becoming a major component of of the design and aesthetics end of urban planning. International Dark Sky Association already has a model lighting ordinance; the potential for outdoor mood lighting, productivity lighting, and safety lighting just adds to the scope of the artificial lighting questions that will inevitably be considered and mediated by land use laws. And it will dovetail quite nicely with other aesthetic components — what I would call mood-zoning (color palettes, scent design) — that can permit very creative distinctions between planned places. This piece is sure to get anyone’s imagination going.

Does NYC Need Middle-Income Housing?

Seth Pinsky, who headed the NYCEDC under Mayor Bloomberg, says no, according to an article in this week’s Real Estate Weekly; and he hopes that Mayor de Blasio’s delayed affordable housing plan will focus mainly on creating units for low-income residents, who really have no market options remaining.

Pinsky’s is an interesting analysis. Basically, he seems to be saying that if the city builds a lot of middle-income housing, it may deflate the housing market pressures that are causing middle-class relocation — a phenomenon that should be sustained, because it improves the city’s marginal neighborhoods. In so doing, the city may also take some pressure off the poor, but only by leaving them in their current, decrepit units. If, on the other hand, the city builds a lot of low-income housing, then the very poor will get fresh new apartments, which will represent an improvement in their living standards; and the city’s middle-class will continue to respond to the increasing expense of prime locations by relocating in patterns that improve the city’s marginal neighborhoods. At first glance, the first approach sounds self-defeating, while the second approach sounds like a win-win.

The problem is that, historically, we’ve tried the second approach. We’ve had the experience of building large numbers of fresh, clean units for low-income residents, and this did not work out very well. The housing projects of the 1950s-70s enjoyed very short honeymoons before they turned into urban dystopias. Sociologists had a number of theories about what went wrong (e.g., the scale of the developments, their concentrations of poverty, elevation from the street, lack of ownership). We don’t really know what combination of factors went wrong in public housing, which is all the more reason to be cautious about making the same mistakes, again. As a counterpoint, middle-income housing in New York City (and elsewhere) has worked — whether in the form of Mitchell-Lama rental apartments, limited-equity cooperatives, or simply market-built modest housing units in suburban-zoned neighborhoods. In addition, middle-income New Yorkers are not without options. Accordingly, they have some leverage, and the city’s housing policies ought to acknowledge it.

I’m sympathetic to Pinsky’s analysis, and I do think middle-class housing pressures have had a beneficial effect on many of the city’s formerly marginal neighborhoods. And obviously — as challenging as it can be to live on a moderate income in greater New York — the situation is much more desperate for those who are genuinely poor. But Pinsky’s approach strikes me as too simple, for a couple of reasons. First, there’s no way that even the most ambitious middle-class housing proposal from City Hall would result in enough new units, in a short enough time, to deflate the market pressures that are reviving the neighborhoods on the frontiers of gentrification — or to move those frontiers deeper into the city’s fabric. Second, there’s scant evidence, in the history of urban planning, that public efforts to develop large numbers of new housing units, exclusively for the poor, can result in the kinds of neat-and-tidy improvements to urban poverty that proponents of such efforts would like to see. In fact, these efforts almost always backfire.

Ideally, the regulation of land use would be liberal enough for development to keep up with demand, across the various tranches of the city’s real estate market. But it’s not, and this means that additional efforts have to be made to advocate for the development types that are most needed. Today’s city needs more housing for everyone.

How Cities Attract

A Phoenix NPR station, KJZZ, has an interesting conversation with Armando Carbonell of the Lincoln Institute’s Department of Planning and Urban Form. The questions revolve around how American cities are attracting – or repelling – the next generation. It includes some interesting discussion about how housing costs and cultural perceptions may be affecting migration trends; why Austin and Portland are unique among non-major cities; and how the expense and commercialization of New York City and San Francisco are apparently driving young people to more affordable regions.

A New Look at American Migration Patterns

Restless America, by Chris Walker at Vizynary.

A snapshot of Restless America, by Chris Walker at Vizynary.

Chris Walker at Vizynary has a very interesting project, Restless America, that shows the migration pattens between American states. It looks like Florida and Texas are still the main destinations for domestic migration. It’s interesting that both states have a lot of buildable land around their economic centers; and the largest city in Texas — Houston — even lacks formal zoning laws. I’m fairly sure that the lower cost of living in those states has been a major factor in people’s relocation decisions. And, of course, better climates.

I’d like to see a version that also includes net immigration, by state. Immigration accounts for the lion’s share of population growth in the states that are losing US-born residents, but still growing, overall. My guess is that as people from certain countries settle in particular regions, those regions become magnets for new migrants from the same places, bringing new waves of residents who seek out familiar people, customs, and languages, in their new country. But this new concentration of people who live in, say, New Jersey by choice drives up the generic cost of living here beyond what the native-born locals think is fair. So, a lot of US-born residents respond to migration-driven growth by relocating to states that have a lower cost of living, as well as what they perceive (or hope) to be more familiar cultural surroundings.

I think the interplay between land use policy and migration is the major factor that determines a region’s housing costs: Land use policies largely determine a region’s real estate supply, and migration patterns (including the purchasing power of those who come or go) largely determine regional demand. I think it’s strange that planning discussions tend to spend very little time on the nexus (and contrast) between semi-permanent land use patterns and the very fluid migration patterns of places like North America and Western Europe. I can’t think of any part of the real estate equation that’s more central to questions about sustainability, affordable housing, and infrastructure than this dynamic. The more we can learn about who is going where, and why, the more intelligently we can address the whole host of land use planning topics. Restless America is a good start.

Repurposing America’s Rust Belt

The Lincoln Institute has a pretty interesting slideshow and report about what it calls America’s legacy cities — generally, old industrial cities that haven’t found their footing in a less industrial economy. Cincinnati is on the list — a mostly ungentrified old American city whose building stock looks oddly like New York’s:

One intriguing aspect of the report is how it quantifies the different assets in these older cities. Features like universities, hospitals, waterfronts, and parks are broken out and listed for the surveyed places. One takeaway seems to be that Pennsylvania’s legacy cities are coming back to life faster than some others. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are doing better than most. But I wonder if Philadelphia should even be on the list. It’s virtually a coastal city; its region has a concentration of colleges and hospitals that’s comparable to Boston’s; and Center City is fewer than 90 miles from Midtown Manhattan. That’s a pretty different game from Cincinnati’s.

Sustainability After Sandy

Sustainability principles have become such a fallback in discussions about developing new neighborhoods, and redeveloping old ones, that they’ve almost become cliches. Still, I think it’s important to ask the questions that get raised by basic sustainability analysis — and I think there remains a lot of room for planners and developers to go beyond stale platitudes and explore new ways to build fairer and stronger communities. Hurricane Sandy tested each of the three big elements of the sustainability triad: environment, economy, and social equity. Now that it’s been almost a year since the storm hit, it’s an interesting time to take stock and ask: How has Greater New York responded to the post-Sandy crisis?

Post-Sandy Manhattan. Source: Hybirdd, via Wikimedia Commons.

Post-Sandy Manhattan. Source: Hybirdd, via Wikimedia Commons.

The current issue of BOMA magazine has a brief article on this question, as it relates to commercial landlords. (Flip through to page 26, where it begins.) Many of the points discussed have to do with creating workable action plans for before environmental disasters — a simple but apparently crucial adaptation measure. A lack of communications was apparently a major stumbling block in the post-Sandy period, even at the top of the city’s economic pyramid.

In a twist of irony, poorer communities sometimes benefit from the inherent sustainability of their older urban infrastructures in ways that suburban communities do not. The different proportions of residents who lost power in East Orange (a streetcar suburb whose neighborhoods mostly date from around 1900) and West Orange (more of a Gatsby-era suburb, with a lot of post-war development), in the weeks after Sandy, was a great example. There still hasn’t been much talk about finding the money to bury utility lines, though.

Irish Vernacular

Irish Vernacular

Dominic Stevens, an Irish architect, built a house for just €25,000.  He’s a proponent of what he calls the Irish Vernacular, a DIY, back-to-the-basics take on architecture in which decent housing is recovered as a product that resourceful individuals can create through self help and cooperation. Stevens’ is a small house, but it looks like a good deal for the price. (Although, I think I’d go for a more traditional visual effect.) The cost doesn’t include the land, but the footprint is modest. From his web page:

The model that we have become used [to] now places the house as a way of driving the economy – we build houses as a method of making money not in order to house people well. The vernacular tradition produces houses in another fashion, here people build their own house, not with help from the bank, rather with the help of their neighbours. The by-product of house production is an interdependent community, instead of lifelong debt to the bank.

The web page also includes instructions about how to build such a house. My favorite:


It’s interesting how much this concept overlaps with those that drove both the limited-equity (LE) co-op model from New York City in the mid-20th century, and also the prototypical Garden City model that (as noted before) the NYC LE framework so closely resembled. The difference here is that the cooperation proposed here is more organic, and personal, and therefore lacks the formalizing legal framework of the more ambitious co-ops of the past. But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be made to work between less-intimate acquaintances with the introduction of certain contractual and property-rights assurances. The BBC also interviewed Stevens as part of a video report on alternative housing frameworks throughout Europe, including land-free boat housing that people have set up in the waterways around Amsterdam, and co-housing-type arrangements in both the youth punk scene and among upper-middle-class professionals in Berlin.

It’s also interesting how much this concept overlaps with the traditional American housing patterns of the 19th century. One thing I’ve learned from watching the Civil War lectures lately is just how much the Free Soil-Free Labor ethos in the Northern states was driven by the idea that — in the absence of slavery and its devaluing effect on labor — the vast expanse of the American continent provided an almost endless set of opportunities for anyone who was willing to work. In that concept, one can see the roots of various interpretations of the American Dream. But to appreciate the original democracy of its promise, in a time long before the New Deal or Levittown, one must also acknowledge that this dream would not be financed by banks or limited by zoning boards or designed by architects and planners with elite credentials. Instead, the small towns and urban neighborhoods along the westward-moving frontier grew because they offered a chance to combine free (or very cheap) building land with abundant, life-sustaining resources (farmland, timber, stone, etc.) and sweat equity — and enough individuals had the building skills to make it work.

A certain amount of this is not so long gone. My mother once told me that when she was growing up in upstate New York, in the 1950s, the men who lived on her block — all World War II veterans — worked together on building projects, taking turns to finish attics into livable spaces, and paving all of the driveways on the block. By the time I was growing up, the only house-skill that most boys seemed expected to learn was lawn mowing. Still, you figure things out. There’s a pretty interesting book called Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture that covers some of these concepts through a diverse collection of writings on folk architecture. I looked at it in the Rutgers bookstore last year, and I’ve been meaning to read it more thoroughly because it seemed to shed some light on the context that allowed for the variety and individuality of structures that characterized American building patterns pretty much down to the Great Depression. When one considers how banks and lawyers have managed to turn simple housing into both a major expense, and a key component of an increasingly calcified economic landscape, one can’t help but recognize the inherent power that exists in frameworks that would allow individuals to recover their housing options on more autonomous terms. And imagine the benefit to the economy as a whole if all of the rent-dollars and interest-dollars were redirected to more productive ends. There are a lot of interesting ideas beginning to bubble up. Stevens definitely has one of them.

“A Chicago Every Year”

Over the next 12 years, the Chinese government plans to relocate 250 million people from the countryside to brand new urban developments, in order to build a new middle-class, urban consumer culture. These stories about planning in China are always bracing. There’s something deeply impersonal and anti-individualistic about the way citizens are treated like movable commodities. But, even so, contrasting the ambitiousness of the Chinese vision with the petty resistance to things as practical as affordable apartments and small business space in the American suburbs, I sometimes feel like I’m on the wrong continent for city planning.

Apartments in Suzhou, China. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Apartments in Suzhou, China. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Books: Cities of Ancient Greece and Italy

I recently read J.B. Ward-Perkins’ 1974 Cities of Ancient Greece and Italy. The author starts with the premise that because the classical world was an essentially urban civilization, planning was a fundamental part of its identity. He surveys the towns of the archaic Aegean shores, then delves into the record of Hippodamus of Miletus — the fifth century (BC) planner of Piræus and the Magna Græcia colonies. (A contemporary of Plato, he is also the oldest planner to be remembered by name.) After a brief look at urbanism in the east during the Hellenistic period, Ward-Perkins devotes the rest of the text to describing the development of cities in the Roman west. It’s a great quick read: The entire book is just 128 pages, and more than half of these are maps, photos, or endnotes. The maps cover all of the greatest hits of Greco-Roman urbanism, including Athens and Ostia, and a couple of my personal favorites: Lepcis Magna and Pergamon (seen below). I suspect that this book was one inspiration for Diana Kleiner’s amazing Roman Architecture class at Yale; she uses another of Ward-Perkins’ books for a lot of her assigned readings.


A Tale of Two States


The Bergen Record has a piece that describes the differing responses by New York and New Jersey to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In New York, the Cuomo administration is intent on pushing a buyout program in Long Island that would pay homeowners the pre-storm market values for their properties, and encourage the abandonment of flood-prone areas. In New Jersey, the Christie administration is providing $10,000 subsidies to those who will rebuild and return to the Shore. For what it’s worth, I think Cuomo’s approach is the more sober of the two. But the emotional appeal of Christie’s plan is undeniable, and possibly irresistible in the aftermath of such devastation.

Fire and the Skyscraper

Triangle FireI found this chilling contemporary account of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, from a 1911 issue of McClure’s magazine. In addition to providing a minute-by-minute description of the tragedy (which killed 146 garment workers — mostly young Jewish and Italian girls from the Lower East Side — and spurred the rise of the labor movement in New York City), the article offers an incredibly detailed description of the use and misuse of industrial buildings in Manhattan, and the building codes that existed, at the beginning of the twentieth century. As heartbreaking and infuriating as the story is, I couldn’t stop reading it.

New Jersey Land Use Update

Scales and Lamp USSCThere were no reported land use or zoning decisions from the New Jersey appeals courts this week. Among unpublished cases, there was just one that centered on land use: Ingenito v. Point Pleasant Beach Z.B.A., a January 22nd per curiam opinion from an Appellate Division panel. It was actually a pretty interesting case. It began as a dispute about whether one of two structures on a residential-zoned parcel could be used to carry on a home-based business, without its owner first obtaining a D-variance from the local board. The plaintiffs, neighbors, pleaded their case on the theory that the business, a yoga studio, was being conducted in an accessory structure, rather than in the primary one, and that the use therefore failed to meet the precise definition of a home-based business. The trial court agreed with the plaintiffs and sent the matter back to the Z.B.A. for a variance proceeding. The court then accepted the variance that the Board subsequently issued. The plaintiffs appealed. Here, the A.D. sided with the defendants — the property owners and the Z.B.A. — finding that the business was being conducted in one of two primary structures, and that, accordingly, no variance had ever been required. In addition, the panel held that even if the variance had been required, the trial court’s blessing of that variance had been proper. The temporary New Jersey Courts link is alive for now, but the opinion will be archived at the Rutgers Law Library next week.

Where Are the Housing Bubbles Now?

In Canada and Hong Kong, apparently. It’s interesting. I’m kind of suspicious of these straightforward economic analyses of housing, though. They never seem to account for the artificial shortages that are created by calcified land use regulations in otherwise thriving regions. All of the supposed bubbles are in densely-populated, highly-regulated regions. I’m not an economist, but it seems to me that the combination of growing demand and constrained supplies will distort the prices of individual units upward; and that when one’s social and professional ties are concentrated in a particular region, then housing there is not a very elastic commodity. That is to say, cheaper housing that lies beyond the socializing/commuting frontier is just not a plausible alternative. Also, while creating a ratio between rents and purchasing costs might make for a useful rubric, the apparent disparities between the two may simply represent discrete snapshots in time, along a continuum of alternation between the two eternal models of housing occupancy. Right? Thoughts from readers more quantitatively-inclined than I am — and that would be most — would be appreciated.

New Jersey Land Use Update

There were no published New Jersey decisions on land use this week. In the unpublished world, an Appellate Division panel affirmed the trial court’s holding in Bisceglie v. Oz, et al. in favor of the defendants. The plaintiff, a next-door neighbor, sued the Ozes, whose newly-planted cedar trees had obstructed his view of the New York City skyline. The plaintiff claimed that the trees constituted an illegal fence under a borough ordinance. The original case was not decided on its merits, but on a finding that the plaintiff had not exhausted his remedies with the Cliffside Park Z.B.A. The A.D. affirmed, noting that the plaintiff had sought more than just an interpretation of law, and that a number of fact-specific questions could have been developed through the zoning board process. The original opinion is available (for now) from the New Jersey Courts website, and will be archived at Rutgers next week.