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Retrofit for the Future
The American suburbs are the next fertile ground for architectural and urban experimentation
The last twenty-odd years may have seen the remarkable comeback of cities, but the next twenty might actually be more about the suburbs, as many cities have become victims of their own success. The housing crisis—a product of a complex range of factors from underbuilding to downzoning—has made some cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, a playground for the ultra-wealthy, pushing out long-time residents and making the city unaffordable for the artists, creatives, and small businesses who make vibrant places.
While it is impossible to cast a national generalization, in a broad sense, the cities’ loss could be the suburbs’ gain. Many young people and poorer residents are moving to the suburbs, although not necessarily because they want to. This is creating a market on the fringes of the city for a more vibrant mixed-use development based on public transportation and urban amenities. The traditional American suburban model of sprawling single-family homes and clusters of retail is not necessarily the only way these territories are developing, as even the big box mall models are taking new forms.
In some ways, the urban and the suburban are flattening, as Judith K. De Jong argues in her book New SubUrbanisms. Culturally, formally, and conceptually, they share more than we typically think. While suburban residents crave quasi-ersatz urban experiences, many in the urban areas are living as if they are in the suburbs, in more insular developments that minimize their interactions with the city and other citizens. In the suburbs, on the other hand, there is potential for an increase in mixed-use and mixed-experience living.
Adding to this new “intersectional suburb,” which we consider in our feature, are the demographic shifts that are continuing to upend the notion of classic post-war suburbs. We examine how a recent report by the Urban Land Institute surveys the new landscape on which the formation of new suburban projects will take place. A recent study by urban planner Daniel D’oca and his students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design even called this phenomenon “black flight.”
What makes these changes so loaded with potential to provoke new types of suburban development and living is that the suburbs already cover an enormous amount of land in the U.S. University of Michigan professor of landscape architecture Joan Nassauer cites Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2007, a 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service study that shows that 3 percent of all land in the U.S. is covered by “cities,” while upward of 5 percent is taken up by suburbs.
This means that while there are new tracts of land being built, much of this experimentation will be transforming what is already there, but with new technologies and understanding of what a healthy urbanism looks like environmentally, culturally, and economically. It is an incredibly fertile ground for architecture and urban design to imagine how to retrofit the suburbs and make them part of the next generation of cities.
When discussing his vision for the future of cities, Vishaan Chakrabarti cites Paul Baran’s 1962 diagram “Centralized, Decentralized, and Distributed Networks,” which argues that a distributed, rhizomatic network of nodes and connections is the most resilient way to organize a system. If the affordability crisis in urban areas drives more people out of city centers, then maybe mixed-use centers could be located all around a periphery, creating new conditions that are very well suited for the new technologies and environmental challenges that face the suburbs.
As the suburbs adapt to technologies—such as self-driving cars and solar power—to update their inefficient and problematic infrastructures, they will have new opportunities to address new transit options that connect them to the rest of the urban landscape. They will also be fertile ground for more industrial and commercial uses.
These changes in the suburban landscape can only be fruitful for architects and urbanists if they allow themselves to see the suburbs not as a “deplorable,” ecologically destitute place, but rather as a design challenge that offers a culturally rich and diverse set of problems that can help a variety of families in varying socio-economic conditions. Once we shed our preconceptions, we can start to analyze them on the terms that have already been set, and we can start to remake the suburbs in the image of a progressive, 21st century city.
Just In Times
Snøhetta's Times Square revamp is finally complete
Year In Review 2016
2016 was god-awful, but are here are 13 feel-good stories to ring in the new year
Partisan political discourse still pretends as if there’s a climate change “debate,” yet the government is already acting extensively to prevent crises from rising global temperatures. Across the country, local and federal agencies are working with architects and planners to protect communities and redevelop neighborhoods in the aftermath of climate-related natural disasters. But what happens to residents who are too poor to get out of the way of storms—and too poor to return—and why is anyone rushing to live in disaster zones?
Catastrophic natural disasters share a common feature with accelerated processes of economic development: at vastly different rates, both can result in large-scale displacement. An article by Brentin Mock on environmental news site Grist uses a pithy phrase for the disparate impact climate change can have on lower-income residents: it’s the “ultimate gentrifier,” he wrote, citing the exodus of more than 300,000 low-income residents from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The description may be provocative, but studies by environmental scientists at the EPA’s Climate Change Division partly support the notion. Within the 6,000-square-mile area at high risk of flooding by 2100 due to a mid-range two-foot sea-level rise, almost 750,000 residents belong to the most socially vulnerable groups. These are most likely to be disproportionately impacted by storms and least likely to have the resources to move.
But are rich people really are moving into areas where low-income residents are being displaced by storms? Sadly, in some cases, yes. A New York Times story on high-rise condo construction in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, reports that, far from retreating from flooded areas, a building boom is driving up prices.
Currently, local and federal agencies only spottily provide the necessary infrastructure and policy frameworks to protect against climate-related catastrophes ranging from forest fires in Southern California, earthquakes along the Pacific Coast, tornados and flash flooding in the Midwest, and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Adequate planning, federal aid, and environmental regulations can and should prevent disparate impacts of climate-change related severe weather events on low-income residents. In practice, prioritizing where to improve infrastructure falls to local governments that have worse financial constraints and often carry an implicit economic bias toward the most financially important areas.
In Alaska, higher temperatures are increasing erosion and thawing the permafrost, causing homes to sink in the mud. More than a dozen Inuit towns have already voted to move, including Newtok, which has acquired a relocation site through an act of Congress, and the 650-person Bering Sea village of Shishmaref, which commissioned AECOM’s Anchorage office to study the feasibility of relocation sites. Yet the cost of these moves, estimated at $214 million for Shishmaref alone, is far beyond the means of the inhabitants; a UN report on climate change and displacement notes the lack of state and federal governance structures to support these moves.
Some low-lying neighborhoods in New Orleans are undergoing a similar policy of unofficial abandonment, swallowed up by nature through neglect. These places are not gentrifying—they’re simply disappearing.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), reorganized in 2003 under the Department of Homeland Security and reformed since 2009 by Obama administration appointee Craig Fulgate, now talks about what it calls a “whole community” approach, emphasizing participation and engagement of a wide range of stakeholders. It needs to do more.
“FEMA has changed its rhetoric,” said Deborah Gans, who has conducted planning studies for low-lying neighborhoods in New Orleans and Red Hook, Brooklyn, most of which flooded in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy. “They don’t really know how to do it yet, but at least they’re talking the talk.”
In 2008, Homeland Security established the Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant program to encourage collaborative emergency planning in America’s ten largest urban regions. In New York’s combined statistical area, which includes New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, the Regional Catastrophic Planning Team coordinated a series of Participatory Urban Planning workshops that included city and state agencies, nonprofits, community groups, private sector representatives, and even local Occupy affiliates to streamline emergency preparedness, housing recovery plans, and recovery processes in five types of communities.
In the New York area, Hurricane Sandy has increased the sense of urgency. “In New York, about a third of our housing is within our six evacuation zones,” said Cynthia Barton, who participated in the workshops as manager of the Housing Recovery Program for the New York City Office of Emergency Management.
Barton leads the FEMA-supported initiative to prototype interim housing units, designed by James Garrison, which would substitute for the improvised mesh of hotels that sheltered displaced low-income residents in the aftermath of Sandy. The interim housing units, IKEA-like prefab condo boxes that stack up to three stories high in various configurations, facilitate an urban density allowing vulnerable residents to remain within their neighborhoods in the aftermath of severe storms.
“The basis for the project has always been that none of the federal temporary housing options would work in cities and that it’s very important to keep people close to home after a disaster,” Barton said. “In terms of economic stability for people and for neighborhoods, it’s important to keep people close to their jobs. It’s important for mental health reasons to keep people close to schools and close to their support networks.”
But on the federal level, long-term infrastructure improvements are not adequately funded. In New Orleans, landscape architect Susannah Drake of DLANDstudio is working on a gray and green streetscape program for 20 blocks of the St. Roch neighborhood. “The issue is that the base condition was low in terms of the infrastructure that existed,” Drake said. “We’re adding basic amenities for what would be a normal streetscape in New York, but we’re also dealing with the challenge of having very little infiltration and having a lot of water to manage…They’re not things the federal government is necessarily willing to pay for.”
Without federal insurance and public investment in infrastructure, wealthy homeowners don’t tend to move into flood zones. But storm protection, unevenly funded by federal grants, frequently has to be supported by local real-estate development tax revenues that provide lopsided advantages to upper-income residents.
“There’s a historical inequity environmentally in a lot of these neighborhoods in need, and it’s exacerbated by climate change,” said Gans, who led a Pratt Institute planning study on how to locate emergency housing in low-lying Red Hook, Brooklyn. “New York City Housing Authority projects were generally located on land that wasn’t that valuable, and guess what? It tended to be low-lying and out of the way.”
The problem centers on whether to save the threatened neighborhoods or rezone them to exclude residential use. Shoring up a city’s flood defenses can become an opportunity to improve a neighborhood’s environmental equity, but using the prevailing market-based model, focusing stormwater infrastructure in a waterfront community will only push more housing into vulnerable areas.
“As long as we keep allowing people to build market-rate waterfront property, there will be gentrification,” Gans said. “Any development that takes place on the water will be so expensive that it will necessarily gentrify the waterfront. There’s just no doubt about it.”
In Red Hook and Sunset Park, AECOM recently released a plan to place 30-50,000 units of new housing on the waterfront—25 percent of it affordable—as well as subsidize a new subway stop, and implement green and gray infrastructure for coastal protection and flood management. Arguing for the plan as a boost to Mayor de Blasio’s OneNYC ambition to build 200,000 affordable units by 2020, the proposal also runs counter to the idea of limiting exposure to areas of growing risk.
“Why would you build more housing in an area that’s underserved by transportation and that’s in a really dangerous zone, a flood area,” asked Drake, who designed the Sponge Park concept as a green infrastructure element for the Gowanus Canal. “I’m not an economist, but I’m very pragmatic and down on building in flood plains.”
Officially, there is no means testing of emergency planning or recovery aid. Eligibility for the National Flood Insurance Program and high insurance rates affect individual decision-makers. Not so for public housing, where residents’ lack of access to resources makes issues of planning that much more grave. Because of its 6,500 public housing residents, two-thirds of the Red Hook is below the poverty line. Economically, the light-manufacturing industries scattered among its low-rises generate relatively little revenue for the city to justify hundreds of millions in flood protection.
The conflict between access to revenues and local needs seems to underlie the rapidly advancing East Side and Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency projects, sections of Bjarke Ingels Group’s winning Rebuild by Design competition proposal for the protection of Lower Manhattan up to 59th Street. The projects essentially erect a wall adorned with parks as a bulwark against the sea. They implicitly prioritize the centrally important economic drivers of New York City.
“Ultimately there’s a cost-benefit analysis,” said Drake. “I’m not saying that lives are less valuable in other parts of the city, but when you do an economic cost-benefit analysis between Lower Manhattan and Red Hook, and you’re looking on purely financial terms, then Lower Manhattan wins because it’s an economic driver of the city.”
If it can really be done for that amount, the estimated cost for the Lower Manhattan projects is negligible in comparison to the economic benefit. The Office of Recovery and Resiliency and the Economic Development Corporation of New York have dedicated $100 million to an integrated flood protection system (IFPS) for Red Hook. City capital is supporting a $109 million Raise Shorelines Citywide project that would mitigate sea level rise in Old Howard Beach, Gowanus Canal, East River Esplanade, Mott Basin, Canarsie, Norton Basin, and the North Shore of Coney Island Creek.
“Emergency planning should really be about future planning,” Gans said. “The way you avert an emergency is by making sure you have integrative future plans that don’t put people in harm’s way and mitigate all of the bad decisions you made historically.”
In contrast to the oblivious political climate change “debate,” local governments have already learned from recent extreme weather events that they need to act to improve their planning capacity and infrastructure. Federal agencies are also acting, putting limited resources into protecting against climate change-related disasters. Highly engineered solutions are possible, but they’re unwise as a long-term strategy in the absence of a leveling off of global temperatures and will be cost-prohibitive for low-income communities. Unless the next Congress is prepared to fund a national infrastructure program, the best way to equitably protect low-income residents will be to downzone vulnerable areas and build new public housing on higher ground. Otherwise, we’ll need to accept the fact that our celebrated revitalized waterfront is mainly for the rich.
Today it took the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) only an hour to rebuke some of the city's most powerful real estate interests by designating 11 new landmarks in Midtown East.
After hearing public testimony on the Ambassador Grill & Lounge and Hotel Lobby, the commission decided that the Pershing Square Building and the Graybar Building, as well as the Shelton Hotel Building, the Yale Club of New York City, and seven smaller structures, all between East 39th to East 57th streets, from Fifth to Second avenues, were worthy of landmark status.
As the neighborhood is rezoned to allow developers to build more Class A office space, preservationists are concerned that increased height and density allowances will threaten the district's historic architecture. To address the neighborhood's challenges in the face of impending change, in 2014 Mayor Bill de Blasio created East Midtown Steering Committee, a coalition of city agencies, reals estate interests, and nonprofits tasked with creating guidelines to shape growth. The LPC was asked to collaborate with the Department of City Planning (DCP) to make sure important historic items were calendared before DCP moved ahead with the rezoning.
Even as LPC commissioners praised the partnership between their agency and DCP as a "model" of future collaboration, groups with a financial stake in Midtown East especially opposed landmarking buildings like the Pershing Square and Graybar, which harbor key subway and commuter rail access points.
Although city officials who represent the district supported the landmarking of the Pershing Square Building, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), Grand Central Partnership, the Riders Alliance, and architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, the founder of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU), argued in July that landmark status would make it harder to upgrade the infrastructure underneath, a potential damper on the neighborhood's projected growth.
The Graybar Building faced a similar geography of public opinion. Despite support from the Municipal Arts Society (MAS), Landmarks Conservancy, and city officials who represent the district, the landmarking was opposed by the owners, SL Green.
In today's meeting, the LPC refuted the real estate and transportation groups' arguments with an appeal to history. The Pershing Square Building especially, said Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan, was developed concurrently with crucial infrastructure. “Mass transit is part of this building. The commission recognizes infrastructure improvements will take place, and historic buildings can adapt to that.”
"The city is undergoing radical transformation," said commissioner Adi Shamir Baron. Highlighting the massive construction site that will soon be One Vanderbilt, she added that even as demolitions represent the health and growth of the city, "the designation of these buildings, individually but especially in aggregate, these 11 go some way towards filling that gaping hole."
Remember the Alamo
The Astor Cube is back, along with plaza and streetscape improvements by WXY
Where Oh Where Will My BQX Go?
NYC unveils possible routes for Brooklyn-Queens streetcar
SCAPE turns Lexington, Kentucky’s long-buried water into an asset
Most Lexingtonians don’t know it, but the porous limestone landscape under their feet—called karst—created their bluegrass identity. The basic water that flows through karst reportedly makes their grass grow green, their racehorses grow strong, and their bourbon taste smooth. So when downtown Lexington held a competition to revitalize and re-pedestrianize the concrete, car-driven downtown, New York–based SCAPE Landscape Architecture chose to reveal and celebrate its geology. As SCAPE founder and partner Kate Orff said, the Town Branch Commons Corridor project is “a reinterpretation, a transformation of the karst landscape into public space.”
The ambitious project, which just received a major $14.1 million funding boost from the U.S. Department of Transportation, will carve pedestrian and bike paths through the heart of Lexington, creating new green spaces and linking with regional trails at both ends. To create freshwater pools—SCAPE calls them “karst windows,” in reference to similar naturally occurring formations—the design will tap old culverts (essentially large pipes) that previously kept Lexington’s karst water out of sight.
The trail will be narrow in some areas, but wide for the Karst Commons, a new public plaza and park at the project’s northern end that will feature multiple “habitat rooms,” an amphitheater, and recreation areas. The park can flood safely in a deluge. “There’s no site here, it’s a hybrid project,” said Orff. “Sidewalk here, empty lot there, parking lot there… The thread of water means each entity has to somehow come in contact with it and embrace it.”
The road to realizing the project—now in schematic design—has been long. After winning the 2013 competition, SCAPE worked with the University of Kentucky and the Lexington Downtown Development Authority to foster public support. They created a large model of the city’s hidden Town Branch Creek, paired with self-guided podcast tours, that generated excitement and helped propel the project. The karst, citizens realized, was part of the bluegrass identity they hold dear (and market to tourists). “Here it’s all about finding a unique identity framed around a cultural and geological history of a place,” said Gena Wirth, SCAPE design principal. “What’s replicable is the multipurpose infrastructure that unites the city, its story, and its systems.”
The River Delivers
$40 million expansion of Bronx River Greenway breaks ground
In a recent Crain’s New York Business editorial dated August 7, “Make architecture great again,” architect Garo Gumusyan argued, “architecturally, America isn’t great anymore.” He cited regulation as one of two reasons for a lack of great architecture in America. Regulation, he said, causes architects to suffer because of liability, too many oversight committees, and high taxes that make great architecture impossible.
This tired argument is made over and over by those opposed to regulation. More often than not, they are champions of market-driven private industry, which they believe can innovate us out of our problems, from the economy to the healthcare system. It is a position that never seems to go away, despite decades of evidence to the contrary in Europe, Asia, and even here in the U.S.
The New York Times recently published an article that provides quantitative evidence in support of regulation. “The Path to Prosperity Is Blue,” Jacob S.Hacker and Paul Pierson’s July 30 opinion piece, argues that, according to many economic and quality of life indicators—median household income, life expectancy at birth, taxation of the top one percent, patent rate, and number of citizens with a bachelors degree or higher—traditionally “blue,” or liberal-leaning, and mostly more highly regulated states perform better on these metrics.
How does regulation affect architecture? Like Donald Trump, Gumusyan’s claim first invents some kind of “Golden Era” when architecture was “great.” I wonder what he considers “great?” It is the robber baron estates or the postwar sprawl that brought us decimated urban cores and, later, suburban strip malls?
We aren’t sure why the author would claim that architecture is not “great” today. Here at the paper, we cover important and “great” architecture projects every day. Several very good—if not great—buildings have come online just in the last two months, including Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Columbia University Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center, BIG’s VIA 57 West condominium complex, (arguably) the World Trade Center Transportation Hub by Santiago Calatrava, as well as Herzog + de Meuron’s 56 Leonard, just to name a few.
It is hard to argue, as Gumusyan does, that taxes are making architecture suffer by driving up the cost of development. On the contrary, developers are chomping at the bit to develop each last plot of unused—and often used—land for the wealthiest one percent of the population. Often, these people are not even paying their fair share of taxes, let alone being burdened by them.
Condos are selling for record prices, and architecture is cited as one of the main drivers of the ultra-luxury market. And it is no coincidence that Douglas Durst will be living in the top of VIA 57 West. Regulation, especially design standards and reviews, is what would bring great architecture to the rest of us.
As for oversight, it could be argued that oversight and regulation by city agencies actually make architecture better. Amanda Burden is famous for having pressured developers into making better designs, resulting in buildings like VIA 57 West. They may otherwise have been the boring, developer-driven glass boxes that we see across New York City. It wasn’t the city that killed Frank Gehry’s Barclay’s Center—it was developer greed.
Gumusyan does rightly cite the bureaucratic shuffle as an impediment that architects must weave through—that can always be improved. David Burney and the Department of Design and Construction have made much progress in streamlining the process, which will we hope will continue to be improved under Mayor de Blasio and future administrations.
However, the author also claimed, “We are being left with blocks that blur together like rest stops on a godforsaken interstate.” It is an odd argument, as the land along the desolate stretches of the American freeway system is some of the least regulated, and thus the corresponding architecture is perhaps the ultimate expression of “freedom from regulation.” If there is a preferred site for outstanding architecture it is certainly not the highway off-ramp, but the downtowns of the U.S.’s largest and most regulated cities, like New York.
For a real test case, we would need to look to Europe. There, for the most part, everything from design to environmental standards are higher and more regulated than in this country. Norman Foster once famously said that he had been making buildings like the Hearst Tower for years in Europe. Everyday architecture there, from housing and civic buildings to urban infrastructure and parks, is of a higher quality.
More regulation is not only good for design innovation like the step-back New York skyscraper that came from the 1916 Zoning Law, but it is also good business for architects. What is holding the U.S. back from producing great architecture is a lack of regulation, not more.