Density, destiny and other convenient anagrams

by Misha Lepetic

“The architect is primary… is the real cornerstone of any culture, of any society.”
Frank Lloyd Wright, 1958

Fountainhead What is the responsibility of the architect or designer within the contemporary context of urbanism? If we’re to begin with the preceding quote, taken from an interview with an astonishingly anti-urbanist Frank Lloyd Wright, it is an unconditional, Roarkian supremacy. If these sentiments had prevailed, of course, Le Corbusier would have ensured that today’s Paris would look very different.

Wright, his avatar Howard Roark, and Le Corbusier exemplify extreme, or perhaps extremely self-aware, instances of one of the great struggles in architecture: the uncomfortable fact that the world is full of people, and that architects are primarily educated in the total discourse of buildings. However, the increasing urbanization of the human race relegates the efficacy of architecting individual buildings as, at best, proofs-of-concept and as, at worst, vanity projects. And many such buildings placed in proximity to one another do not add up to a coherent urban solution.

This is not to say that architects and planners have not frequently thought on a comprehensive, urban scale. Christopher Wren’s plans for London following the Great Fire, mostly unrealized, and Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s revision of Paris, mostly enacted, show us otherwise. But these plans revolved did not concern themselves with the citizenry as such. In the case of Wren, the self-interest of the merchants and landowners in fact prevented the plan’s execution. And despite the net benefits, the social consequences of Haussmann’s plan for Parisian identity are still hotly contested: the destruction of over 20,000 houses and buildings was not just about making room for the wide boulevards, but also led to the displacement of untold thousands of the poor to the suburbs of Paris, while speculators grew wealthy from flipping the new apartments to the rapidly rising bourgeoisie (see Balzac’s The Rise and Fall of César Birotteau for a particularly wonderful account of pre-Haussmannian property speculation and bankruptcy).

Haussmann’s plan anticipated what has become a major concern of modern urban planners and theorists: the concept of density and what is to be done about it. The growth of cities as incubators of commerce, culture and innovation has become the dominant urbanist rhetoric of our time, perhaps best characterized by Edward Glaeser and, to a less imaginative extent, Richard Florida. The libertarian Glaeser revels in the riot of complexity and interaction that can only be created by a dense urban area, and notes that one of the surest signs of a city in decline is a decreasing population. Consider these reports on Detroit:

The flight of middle-class African-Americans to the suburbs fueled an exodus that cut Detroit's population 25% in the past decade to 713,777, according to Census Bureau data released Tuesday. That's the city's lowest population level since the 1910 census, when automobile mass production was making Detroit Detroit…

“While we expected a decline in population, we are confident these figures will be revised,” Mayor David Bing said in a statement. He told reporters that if the city could account for a total of 750,000 people, it would meet a threshold for receiving more federal and state money.

Detroit is perhaps an unfairly obvious example. So consider David Leonhardt’s comments on the consequences of de-densification of Cairo and its connection to development:

It would be easy to look at the images coming out of Cairo over the last few weeks and think of Egypt as a highly urbanized society. It would also be wrong.

When Hosni Mubarak took power in 1981, Egypt was indeed more urban than the rest of the world. About 44 percent of its population lived in cities. In East Asia, by comparison, only 26 percent of people lived in cities.

Since then, the cities of Asia have expanded rapidly, drawing in millions of peasant farmers looking for a better life — and, more often than not, finding it. Almost 50 percent of East Asians now live in cities. And Egypt? It is the only large country to have become less urban in the last 30 years, according to the World Bank. About 43 percent of Egyptians are city dwellers today.

This urban stagnation helps explain Egypt’s broader stagnation. As tough as city life in poor countries can be, it’s also fertile ground for economic growth. Nearly everything can be done more efficiently in a well-run city, be it plumbing, transportation or the generation of new ideas and businesses. “Being around other people,” says Paul Romer, the economist and growth expert, “helps make us smarter.”

If we consider the role of architects and planners to be one of enabling play rather than bounding relationships, we can proceed to move away from the ideological rigidity of Wright and Le Corbusier’s. In the words of Robert K. Steel, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, City of New York, “Our job is not to find the next thing, but to create the conditions to make sure that it happens in New York City” (RPA, at 41min 51sec). However, this leaves us with the even stickier question of, Up until what point do we design?

Rogers_2 A possible indication of attitudes toward density is the way in which any given city solves the problem of mobility. In Cities for a Small Planet, Richard Rogers proposes the idea of the Compact City, in which density is encouraged within a polycentric context, and overlapping activities and multiple transportation options are meant to de-emphasize the importance of the automobile. These are virtues that Jane Jacobs would clearly recognize and applaud.

Rogers elaborated his principals in a proposed master plan for Lu Zia Sui, an area across the river Huangpo from the center of old Shanghai. Originally, the site was meant to be a single-use financial district, à la Canary Wharf in London, and the development was envisioned as not dissimilar to Le Corbusier’s and Wright’s tower-in-a-park typology. Rogers took the opportunity to create a vision that was dramatic and well-informed. Six of these “centers” are arranged in a radial fashion around a large central park, with careful consideration given to pedestrian and bicycle modalities as well as an underground mass transit system linking the six centers to one another and to Shanghai in general. While a quick look at Google Maps shows Rogers’s plan, like Wren’s for London, as mostly foregone, more planners are evaluating the malleability of a city’s functionality by means of reforming its transportation network.

The work of Fabio Casiroli’s group, Systematica, is an excellent example of calling attention to the importance of mobility in planning. Systematica tries to understand the “size” of a city as a function of its accessibility via automobile and via public transit. By setting a 45-minute travel time as a criterion, the design consultancy generates “heat maps” that radically reshape urban boundaries based on the access that different modalities enable. This in turn provides great insights for planners who are trying to understand how residents interact with the urban environment, and where opportunities for further densification might lie.

It is important to emphasize a major difference between Rogers’s vision of Lu Zia Sui and Systematica’s work, since the former was proposed as a greenfield development, whereas the latter is more concerned with retrofitting existing cities. Similar to my earlier contention concerning the utility of designing individual buildings, greenfield development of new cities will be experimental or bizarre, but in any case certainly infrequent.

The fact is that the cities we have now are the ones that are already dense, and becoming ever more so. Edward Glaeser, during the keynote address to the recent Region Planning Association annual meeting, noted that a direct proxy for density is the relationship between the number of local building permits granted and the prices paid for housing (RPA, at 29min 31sec). He points out the quite astonishing irony that, as a result of Jane Jacobs’s beloved Greenwich Village being utterly “encased in amber,” now only “billionaires need apply” for the townhouses where she and her neighbors once shared such a rich urban life. But I would contend that Greenwich Village, like Chelsea in London, or the Marais in Paris, is doomed to remain this way forever, and should be considered an outlier – a stubborn inflection of whatever curve economists like Glaeser enjoy drawing. Of greater interest are the aspects of the city that are still heaving with growth and development.

A recent joint study by IIED and UNFPA on urban density points out an intriguing phenomenon. Evaluating several Karachi settlements of varying informality, the authors found that dense neighborhoods organically created their own economies, and the vast majority of inhabitants either had or intended to run their own businesses, either from within their own homes or by renting out spaces in the neighborhood, preferably in the same building. The original settlements, generally of one or two stories, then become gradually extended upwards and outwards, as families grew and wealth accumulated. The inhabitants of these neighborhoods continue to express the preference to live close to where they work, which should not surprise us as it is really no different than city dwellers most anywhere else. Since the majority own their homes, they are free to build upwards – exactly what Glaeser would like to see.

The fact that these results may not be on a breathtaking scale, or aesthetically jaw-dropping, would be missing the point – a point better made by the World Bank’s disastrous development project in Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s most extensive (and best-studied!) slums. In this case, the World Bank constructed blocks of rental flats without any commercial space available on the street level. The flats themselves are poorly built and badly maintained, and the residents have no stake in ownership; they now have the additional hardship of having to commute to their old places of employment. In essence, the World Bank has successfully built a bedroom community inside a slum, repeating the same mistakes made by public housing planners the world over.

In contrast, the IIED study’s authors recommend working within the community to help builders and homeowners develop their expansions responsibly and safely, thereby avoiding the massive disruptions caused by slum clearance and dispossession (à la Haussmann), and preserving the identities that people construct for themselves as recent urban dwellers. It is a reasonable recognition that these communities are not only permanent features of the contemporary urban landscape, but are in addition resourceful and necessary and therefore should be respected in the own right, and made to function well within the larger urban context.

IMG_2203-bearbeitet So where do planners fit in? One possible answer goes back to Robert Steel’s remark – that the responsibility is for planners to mold density into opportunity, that is, density must become an asset and not a liability. Designing for mobility is a perfect response to this need, although certainly not the only one. As a final example, consider the benefits that the recently implemented Metro Cable (gondola lift) systems being developed in Medellín and Caracas, which have effectively begun integrating the hilltop favelas with the more established portions of these cities and are now regularly transporting tens of thousands of people on a daily basis. While it is still too early to judge their ultimate impact on their respective cities, more Metro Cable systems are being planned for other cities in similar circumstances, such as Kohima, India.

The premise is both simple and elegant: whereas the slum regions of cities originally had no choice but to occupy the less desirable geographies – steep hillsides without services, prone to landslides and crumbling if not non-existent roads – the Metro Cable paradigm wholly reverses this liability and turns it into an asset. Suddenly slum dwellers are connected via a rapid transit system that elides the need for automobiles. In fact, the higher the hill and the more densely populated the neighborhood, the likelier that a favela will receive a station. Furthermore, it instantly generates the kind of polycentricity that Rogers sought in his Shanghai design, but without the need for a wholesale master plan or the destruction of existing settlements. The capital costs are not insubstantial, but the benefits may well be long-lasting and unanticipated. Only time will tell to what extent the Metro Cable stations themselves become anchor points for local commerce, banking and socializing. At a minimum, the design of such structures promises to create a new field of play for inhabitants to further construct their own economic and social identities. And perhaps Haussmann himself might have recognized these boulevards in the sky as sharing a certain kinship with the ones he brought to fruition on the ground.