Monthly Archives: September 2013

Laissez-faire: the environmental version

I tend to write a lot about messaging and sound bites [here and here, for two], sometimes with the simple sounding proposal that the environmental movement needs better and catchier phrases. (For instance, something less dull and abstract than “the environmental movement.”) So a sentence in a current post in one of my most favorite and least catchily-named blogs, The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, caught my eye: “Laissez-faire takes on a new meaning — it is the ecosystem, not the economy that must be “left alone” to manage itself and evolve by its own rules.”

What a neat twist on the religious-like belief in conventional laissez-faire, the doctrine that the so-called free market, if “left alone” – which is a near literal translation of the term — will provide the best outcomes.

A reasonable response to that orthodoxy is: the best outcomes for whom? Herman Daly, the renowned economist and author of that post, similarly turns the laissez-faire idea on its head by suggesting that it’s the environment, not the market, which should be left alone.

A closer translation of laissez-faire is “let do.” And that interpretation, I think, is even more suitable as an approach to the environment because, from our human point of view, it is what the environment does that is critical to our existence. Interfering in the environment’s ability, honed over millennia, to do things like purify water and air, and maintain the exquisitely balanced temperature of the troposphere, is in the interest of neither us humans nor that free market that supposedly makes our lives better.

So how can we co-opt the phrase or come up with our own (preferably in the authoritative tones of a foreign language)? Any of you French-speakers out there have suggestions? At the risk of trivializing another powerful slogan, and since I’m bound by my fluency only in English, my dangerously off-the-cuff first thought is “let my environment do.”

OK, I withdraw that suggestion. Contain your sighs of relief. But I stand by the idea, or rather Herman Daly’s idea.

Towers in the Block

A street in the Lower East Side. Photo by author.

A street in the Lower East Side. Photo by author.

My longtime neighborhood, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, represents for me some of the best qualities of urban living. Among its defining characteristics:

A Walk Score of 96 (out of 100, meaning I can happily exist without that American appendage, the automobile),

Density high enough to enable a richness of community and cultural vitality but not so high as to lose a sense of local identity,

Ethnic and economic diversity due to preservation of many of the low-rise century-old buildings, Street vitality and community arising from the varied possibilities for human interaction, and

A structural resistance to chain and big box stores due, again, to the existing building stock.

So I’ve been following with great interest the influx around us of high-rises in the past decade, a movement that will reach a crescendo with the proposal to finally build out a long contemplated – and long fought – massive redevelopment in the center of the LES.

For most of the previous 50 years or so, since the last of the post-Robert Moses urban renewal projects were completed, the LES retained most of its low-rise urban fabric of tenement buildings with mom-and-pop stores at the street level. True, the neighborhood was hit hard by the one-two punch of NYC’s fiscal crisis of the 70s followed by the epidemic of crack in the 80s. Though not as severe as the South Bronx, there were plenty of abandoned, sometimes burned out buildings interspersed with garbage strewn vacant lots. Both of the LES buildings I’ve lived in during my 31 years here had been empty and scheduled for demolition until early gentrifiers like me came in and gut renovated them.

The newer buildings, the mid-20th century urban renewal projects, generally adhered to the much maligned and discredited “tower in the park” approach to urban design in which high-rise apartment buildings were set back from the street and surrounded by open space. While there are some successful versions of this, such as Stuyvesant Town, the majority of them became characterless semi-isolated towers embedded in sometimes unsafe public space. The worst of them, like the infamous Pruitt Igoe project in St. Louis, had to be demolished because they were so dangerous. And from an urban vitality point of view, this concept of urban design abandoned the street, eliminating the activity, safety and community that looked messy and outdated to planners but, we discovered, are the backbone of urban neighborhoods.

Lower East Side "towers in the park." image credit Wikimedia Commons

Lower East Side “towers in the park.” image credit Wikimedia Commons

The more recent influx of development has taken the forms of both conventional towers fronting on the major streets (Houston and Delancey streets, and the Bowery, for the most part) and mid-block “sliver towers.”  The latter have been very controversial for their practice of buying up the “air rights” of surrounding older buildings and transferring the square footage to the mid-block site, thus allowing these new buildings to be far higher than the zoning would have permitted. More on that in a moment.

Amidst this, the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), one of the largest development sites remaining in Manhattan, is finally moving ahead. Following an RFP this spring, the NYC Economic Development Corporation awarded the entire project to a developer team (the EDC could have chosen to award any of the nine sites to individual developers, which might have resulted in a less monolithic look) and the proposed design was revealed a few days ago.

SPURA (Seward Park Urban Renewal Area) site. Image source NYC EDC

SPURA (Seward Park Urban Renewal Area) site. Image source NYC EDC

In some Op-Ed pieces (here is one of them) I wrote during the RFP period, I expressed concern about the urban aspects of the project’s criteria as developed by the EDC. While the local community board did heroic work in demanding affordable housing and limiting big box stores, my fear was that the design proposals would follow the common contemporary formula: whole block buildings with uniform street walls and slightly set back anonymous looking glass towers.

(This was in addition to my other objection – the EDC’s insistence on providing an additional 500 parking spaces beyond the maximum allowed by the zoning. This approach reflects a long-standing and outdated car-oriented policy of theirs. One result of it is the empty and soon to be demolished brand new parking garage at the new Yankee Stadium.)

The primary architect of the SPURA proposal is the hot firm SHoP. Their work is often fresh and interesting, as evidenced by local designs such as the Barclays Center. (Interestingly, that project could be seen as the opposite of SPURA in that the controversy there mostly revolved around demolition of existing housing and the dramatically increased density of the not-yet-built buildings that will adjoin the arena. Back here, most of the sites have been long vacant since the existing housing was torn down 50 years ago, and the open parking lots have been what I’ve termed the “black hole” of the Lower East Side. Since those sites are empty, no one is objecting to building there. The questions centered on how it would relate to the surrounding area and how it could improve the community.)

Renderings of SHoP Architect's SPURA proposed design. Images source.

Renderings of SHoP Architect’s SPURA proposed design. Images source.


SHoP’s renderings, while not as bland as the other nearest redevelopment project, Avalon Bowery, still succumbs to the whole-block building syndrome which, in spite of amenities like roof gardens, results in unrelenting forms that are devoid of relationship to their surroundings.

Bowery Avalon. photo David Bergman

Bowery Avalon. Photo by author.

Which begs the question: what’s the alternative? Many would say (as in fact I have in other situations) that the approach should be to take the best of adjoining neighborhood – presuming there are positive aspects to the neighborhood – and improve upon them. This would have the effect of strengthening local roots rather than inserting a wholly new and out of character “intervention,” as this is sometimes called in archispeak.

The problem with this approach, of course, is money. Urban land is valuable and construction is expensive, so developers insist on density. On the community side, limiting the amount of housing inexorably pushes up prices, often forcing existing residents to leave.

So, as desirable as it may be from a contextual point of view, low density development is not realistic in urban cores. Is there a way to accommodate the economics without forsaking community character? There is and, though it may evoke outcries at first, it’s not far different from the sliver tower concept.

I first contemplated this conundrum – how to increase density without losing the appeal of older urban streets – in a design competition back in 1985 for urban infill housing in Harlem, “Reweaving the Urban Fabric: Approaches to Infill Housing.” My entry proposed filling in the vacant lots with new buildings similar in scale to the existing walk-ups, and then adding what in essence was a new layer of shallow towers above. The concept was that the lower level buildings would be primarily for families and the upper levels would focus on smaller apartments for singles, couple and seniors. Multigenerational buildings were not yet a topic, but it was implicit in the idea.

Competition Entry by David Bergman Architect for "Reweaving the Urban Fabric: Approaches to Infill Housing," 1985.

Competition Entry by David Bergman Architect for “Reweaving the Urban Fabric: Approaches to Infill Housing,” 1985.

Interestingly, the day after the SPURA design was released, I received a copy of the Yale School of Architecture’s annual publication Retrospecta in which the previous year’s student work is shown and discussed. One of the studios was taught by Gregg Pasquarelli, a partner in SHoP. The studio assignment was called “Bob and Jane Are Dead: Re-examining the Superblock.”  Bob refers to Robert Moses and Jane, as you might surmise, is Jane Jacobs, the two figures advocating opposite poles of 20th century urbanism. The first project immediately caught my eye. Titled “The Shroud and the Cloud,” the cloud represents the towers favored by Moses and the shroud is the contextual approach of Jacobs. The two students claim that either alone creates “architectural monotony.”

And so they set out to combine them in a “best of both worlds” approach that, strikes me as quite similar in concept to my proposal from almost 30 years ago: a street level urbanism Jane Jacobs might approve of with inventive and exciting new urban forms rising above it.

Yale School of Architecture student design "The Shroud and the Cloud," by Benjamin Sachs and Dinah Zhang.

Yale School of Architecture student design “The Shroud and the Cloud,” by Benjamin Sachs and Dinah Zhang.

shroud cloud 3Db

Which brings me back to sliver towers. They are generally attacked as uncontextual and unwanted intrusions, and both criticisms are usually accurate. But disallowing new construction and not providing needed new housing is not realistic. Except perhaps in the most significant of historic districts, it simply isn’t feasible to preserve neighborhoods in landmark stasis. Nor is it desirable. Cities cannot be stuck in their pasts as people, cultures and economies evolve. Even Paris, often cited as either the quintessential example of the ideal low-rise city or, conversely, as a tourist destination disguised as a city, is allowing high-rises.

A "sliver tower" under construction in the Lower East Side. Photo by author.

A “sliver tower” under construction in the Lower East Side. Photo by author.

So if new construction and increased density is inevitable, how can it be accomplished without sacrificing communities? And let’s go one better. How can it be designed to improve communities? We have a model at hand, and it involves using the often criticized “transfer of development rights” process to preserve the strong urban fabrics while allowing encouraging positive growth.

A friend of ours was approached a few years ago to sell his air rights to a developer putting together a mid-block high-rise a few doors away from his building. He held out as a matter of principal while his neighbors sold, and at the time we complimented him roundly. Now I’m not so sure I agree.

Yes, the building that resulted is architecturally heavy and, far from adding to the neighborhood, has become a nuisance in that it is a hotel with no connections to the community and its second floor rooftop parties can be hideously noisy. Indeed, a slightly earlier nearby high-rise hotel has exactly the same issues. (Who’d have thought we’d see glass tower high-end hotels in the Lower East Side?) But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Mid-block high-rise hotel in the Lower East Side

Mid-block high-rise hotel in the Lower East Side. Photo by author.

What we can have, I’m suggesting, is what I term “towers in the block.” Much as the Yale students recently proposed, and as I proposed much earlier, we can modify the towers in the park idea to correct its faults and simultaneously incorporate the wisdom of contemporary post-Jacobs urbanism.

But how does this work in the (increasingly rare) case of whole-block construction? SHoP’s renderings for SPURA are basically towers in the block. But, glass tower esthetics aside, by proposing block long buildings, they fail to create a good base over which to put the towers. The street is, to use Pasquarelli’s students’ words, architecturally monotonous. Its nod to contemporary urbanism, beyond some gestures to amenities, is present only in the setbacks on the plinths. Look at any new building like this, whether nearby in the LES, uptown on Broadway on the Upper West Side, in downtown Brooklyn, or any number of other cities, and the street level is devoid of local character and mindless of community.

This is, I want to stress, at least in part an architectural problem. Though zoning may mandate ground-level commercial spaces and setbacks (and hopefully may start to regulate the proliferation of chain stores and big box retail), in the end zoning is not the same as design, and it is designers who have the potential – and the responsibility – to provide the architectural bones in which street vitality and community can grow.

Architects need to study (and force their clients to look at) the banality of most new urban buildings, the unfriendly and unrelenting monotony of their creations. The towers in the block concept provides two related models for moving beyond this, one for blocks with existing strong urban fabric and one for larger scale blank slate sites. The latter needs to be informed by, without directly copying, the former.  For the latter to work, it needs to look beyond the expedience of large scale uniformity and the architectural hubris of the megablock. It’s not that Bob and Jane are dead. The lessons of both are very much alive and need to be combined.


If Overpopulation Isn’t the Problem, What’s the Question?

Overpopulation in the future? (image from Star Trek)

Overpopulation in the future? (Image from Star Trek)

In a commercial for Doritos some years back, the consumption-encouraging slogan was “Eat all you want; we’ll make more.”* That guilt free line, with some minor alteration up front, could also be the subtitle for Erle C. Ellis’s New York Times Op-Ed “Overpopulation Is Not the Problem.” Basically he says we can have as many people on the planet as we want because we’ll always find ways to make more food.

Sounds like music to the ears of an EcoOptimist, or at least an optimist: evidence that centuries of fears of overpopulation have been wrong and the idea of a “carrying capacity” is irrelevant. Problem is it’s neither correct nor an example of EcoOptimism.

In a previous post, I refuted an EcoPessimist. Now I need to refute a false optimist.

Since the end of the 18th century, when Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population, there’s been controversy regarding the concept of “carrying capacity,” or the maximum population that an ecosystem (or the planet as a whole) can support indefinitely. Carrying capacity can refer to any species, but what we’re usually talking about is humanity – how many people the planet can support.

Malthus and his followers concluded that, largely because the Earth is a finite system, there are only so many people who can be fed by its resources. The 1972 book The Limits to Growth expanded upon this and predicted, as population and consumption grew, we’d run out of other necessary resources as well as food.

When the estimated dates passed without the shortages and human calamities the authors described, opponents claimed that it proved the concepts of finite resources and carrying capacity were wrong. Economists had an economic explanation – that scarcity would drive up prices which would, in turn, create demand for more expensive or alternative sources. This is, in fact, what is happening with fossil fuels; “unconventional” fuels like tar sands used to be too expensive but now are becoming viable as cheaper sources of oil run out. The problematic assumption here is that there will always be interchangeable alternatives. Some resources are simply not replaceable. Try living without oxygen or water.

Other opponents had a different take. Scientific and technological advances, they said (and still say), will continue to bring us new solutions which will allow us to increase efficiency as well as find alternatives. Natural resources may be finite, but that doesn’t matter because our intelligence will always yield new ways around those limits.

This in short is Ellis’ thesis. “There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity,” he writes.

The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future…. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.

This inherently optimistic and appealing view has, though, a couple of fatal flaws. It is based on a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude that technology will always come to the rescue. While it’s true that human history has largely been one of advances leading to immense growths of population (as well as living standards), it’s a huge leap to assume that, unlike natural resources, our potential to think our way out of problems is limitless. Yes, technology has in the past changed the planet’s carrying capacity for humans (provided, that is, we ignore the long and continuing history of famines and overcrowding). Banking our future on this, however, is a form of blind faith.

But let’s take that leap and suppose that technology will always come to the rescue and provide ways to ever increase the amount of food we can eke out of the planet. Food is not the only limit on human population growth. The technologies that comprise modern industrial food production, and that have allowed us (or perhaps encouraged us) to increase the human population from 1 billion to 7 billion in little more than 2 ½ centuries, demand vast amounts of not just land, but other finite resources, most notably fossil fuels for energy, fertilizers and pesticides, along with fresh water. (Let’s leave the highly debated question of whether organic agriculture can feed us to another post.) Sure we’ve figured out how to make land more productive, but it’s involved adding a lot of additional energy and resources. Plus there are the crucial issues of pollution from the runoff of those fertilizers and pesticides, and soil degradation from intense monocropping.

And then there’s the not-so-small point that Ellis’ entire outlook concerns only human carrying capacity, not the ability of any of the other billions of species on the planet to survive. This isn’t just an altruistic concern; many of those species are essential to the functioning of ecosystems – the same ecosystems that enable human survival. Even in this newly-crowned Anthropocene Age, it’s not just about us. We may have the unique ability to alter the planet, to “transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves,” but that doesn’t mean we have either the right to do so for our sole benefit or the intelligence to do so with enough foresight.

Ellis’s rationale is both hubristic and dangerous. He’s betting that an historic pattern will continue, without acknowledging that the game has changed so the pattern no longer applies. A strong competing view says that the Industrial Revolution and the agricultural revolution that resulted from it were a once-in-a-species-lifetime event, enabled by a world that had a combination of relatively few people and plentiful, easily accessible resources. Neither of those conditions exists anymore and the latter will not happen again in any conceivable human future.

It’s not that we, the anthros of the Antropocene, are powerless. We have the ability to alter both the planet’s path and our own. On that, we agree. Is he advocating, though, that we should continue increasing the human population because, well, we’ll always have the ability to innovate and “make more” so it’ll all work out?

That’s an incredibly huge gamble and, furthermore, begs the question: why should we take it? Even if he’s correct in his wildly unsubstantiated claim that “There is no need to use any more land to sustain humanity — increasing land productivity using existing technologies can boost global supplies and even leave more land for nature,” why would we want to continue to increase the population? What’s the upside? Wouldn’t it be much wiser and more beneficial to not go down that questionable road and, instead, apply our unique innovating abilities to ensuring that future generations can not only exist, but be better off?

Overpopulation may not be the problem, but it certainly is a part of the problem. The famous (in some circles, anyway) equation I=P*A*T states that environmental impact is a function of the population times the amount and types of things people consume. What we have now is a rapidly growing population with a rapidly growing per capita consumption rate. Whether or not the planet’s ecosystems can sustain the exponentially increasing levels of environmental impact we are inflicting on it – and I can’t believe Ellis would say they can – diminishing that impact has to be a good thing. Maybe, maybe we can manage to figure out ways to feed everyone, but what about all the additional demands that accompany a larger and more affluent species.

If we extrapolate from history as Ellis claims we can, it’s obvious that the demand for “stuff,” whether it be basic food and housing or designer jeans and the latest electronic gizmo, is increasing at least as fast as the number of people demanding that stuff. How that can possibly be construed as anything sustainable or “not the problem” is incomprehensible. The two-fold solution involves reducing both consumption and population growth, resulting in a wholly desirable scenario that, as EcoOptimism espouses, leaves us all better off and happier.

As with the Doritos line, Ellis says we’ll just “make more.”  He’s almost certainly wrong — we can’t continue infinitely to make more, no matter how imaginative and innovative we are – but moreover, making more is the wrong response. It’s not the route to “creating a planet that future generations will be proud of.” We need to make better – better things, better food, better education, leading to better people — not more.

* Fact checking this slogan, it appears that it may have been “crunch all you want”, not “eat,” but hordes of people including me remember it as “Go ahead. Eat all you want. We’ll make more.”

Density Part 3: Kenneth Jackson’s “Future” of New York

[This post is part of a continuing series within EcoOptimism analyzing the pros and cons and different types of urban density, beginning with the post Height vs Delight and continuing with Density: It’s Not the Sky that’s the Limit.]

The urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson is a towering figure among New Yorkologists, so it seems appropriate that he’d be a supporter of towers themselves. In an Op-Ed this Sunday in The New York Times, he takes to task the opposition to the proposed upzoning of East Midtown in Manhattan.

Illustration from the Municipal Art Society in its response to the rezoning showing “how the height of the new buildings the City is hoping to see realized around Grand Central Terminal will impact the area.”

Illustration from the Municipal Art Society in its response to the rezoning showing “how the height of the new buildings the City is hoping to see realized around Grand Central Terminal will impact the area.”

Historic preservation, he says, has gone too far. “Its goal seems to be to preserve anything that will maintain the streetscape, whether or not the individual structures have significance….Presumably, its leaders would be happy to stop any change at all between 59th Street and 125th Street.”

New and taller construction is necessary, in his vision of NYC’s future, in order to maintain the city’s pre-eminence. Buried in this belief are two huge and, I believe, mistaken assumptions. The first is the basic premise that NYC must be pre-eminent.  While it sounds irreverent and disloyal to say otherwise, the fact is that NYC is but one of many major 21st century urban centers. We are no longer in a world dominated by New York, London and Paris, and haven’t been for a while. (Though midtown Manhattan is still the largest central business district in the world, at least according to Wikipedia.) True, NYC is still seen as the financial capital of the world, but in many ways this is vestigial in a digital and globalized scenario and, furthermore, it’s highly questionable whether it’s in the city’s best interests to remain focused and therefore dependent on a single “industry.” Many have argued for the economic diversification of the city, with an eye to the income and job generators of the future: creating more baskets for the eggs, etc. Potential growth sectors that have been discussed, in addition to silicon alley, include sustainable design and related industries, distributed manufacturing (MakerBot originated in Brooklyn), biotech, urban agriculture and, of course, the arts.

The second assumption Jackson makes is that the solution to securing the city’s future is in the clouds. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mean the digital cloud, in which information is dispersed, but the physical clouds encountered at skyscraper heights, in which people are concentrated. Jackson laments “Of the 100 tallest buildings in the world now under construction, only three are in New York and only one is in East Midtown.”

But why are height and the city’s ranking in numbers of tallest buildings the determinant of growth and importance? The essential defining property of a city is density: a concentration of people that enables commerce, community and exchanges of ideas.  But like most things, there is a point at which density (of people, buildings and traffic, not to mention bank branches, Duane Reades and Starbucks) reaches diminishing returns and begins to undermine the attributes that constitute the vitality of a city.

Jackson claims that density in Manhattan has decreased from a population of 2.3 million in 1910 to 1.6 million today. But that’s a very misleading way to define density. It excludes the additional 1.6 million people who commute to work in the city every day, as well as the number of tourists. And the East Midtown upzoning plan is not designed to increase residential space; it’s for commercial towers. This will effectively worsen a basic problem of Manhattan and many cities in general: the separation of working and living areas. This results in what are perhaps the two greatest problems of modern cities:  expense of living and transportation congestion. According to an NYU Wagner Rudin Center report, “Manhattan is the top work destination in the country for ‘extreme commuting,’ work trips that are more than 90 minutes long each way.” And as many of us are all too aware, NYC is the most expensive place to live in the US, all of which would lead to the conclusion that the city needs more living space, not office towers.

Regarding transportation, Jackson blithely puts aside another extreme: the crowding on the existing east side transportation infrastructure, claiming the MTA “could handle more, not fewer, riders” based on the statistic that ridership has fallen since 1947. Try telling that to any rush hour rider. In a breath, he ignores the fact that there were two more train lines on the east side then (before the Second and Third Avenue Els were demolished) and merely says that the long-awaited and far from finished Second Avenue subway will relieve some of the congestion on the crammed Lexington line.

There’s a more convincing argument for upgrading midtown’s office spaces. A study by the eco-consulting group Terrapin Bright Green concluded that the bulk of the mid-century office buildings in midtown are outmoded in terms of both space and energy efficiency and, more significantly, cannot be viably upgraded. The singularly most devastating finding, from the point of view of either environmentalists or historic preservationists, is that these buildings would need new skins – the old curtain walls are energy sieves – but the structures of the buildings cannot support the weight of better insulated facades. That’s in addition to the fact that their low ceilings with many interior columns are not “Class A” spaces, the most desired type. (At least, that is, for conventional financial institutions with trading floors and old-school work cubicles. The newer growth sectors have more varied needs.)

The city’s thinking is that replacing these buildings is not economically viable for developers given the existing zoning limitations. Given the coziness between developers and the Bloomberg administration, one has to take with this a grain of salt.

Like the city (and most economists and politicians), Jackson seems to wholeheartedly swallow the “growth is good” Kool-Aid. We have to be very careful how we define growth. Growth is not the same as betterment, and the opposite of growth is not stagnancy. Jackson writes:

Is New York still the wonder city, the place that celebrates the future, the city that once defined modernism? Or should it follow the paths of Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston and Savannah in emphasizing its human scale, its gracious streets and its fine, historic houses?

The answer for a metropolis competing on a global scale must be no, because a vital city is a growing city, and a growing city is a changing city.

Leaving aside the question of what’s wrong with the human scale and gracious streets (btw, I’d substitute “livable” for “gracious”) of Boston or Philadelphia – or, for that matter, Paris — Jackson has reduced this critical issue to a false dilemma. The choice is not solely between economic vitality and quaint neighborhoods. Nor is it between unbridled development and historic preservation. For cities to succeed economically, environmentally and socially, we have to look at a wider, more holistic picture than simply the one that gives us the tallest buildings and the most claims to the “greatest city.” We have to include affordability, reducing inequity, increasing livability and, yes, a sense of history. These are not the constraints Jackson seems to regard them as. They are the sources of our future “growth” and our flourishing as individuals, as communities and as a world.