Op-Ed: In Defense of a Human-Scaled New York

Citylimits.org | December 17, 2015

New York City is in the throes of a grueling contest for our hearts and minds over two competing visions for its future. The two visions differ starkly about what kind of city we ought to build for ourselves and for our children. They also differ over whose voice should count the most in deciding: developers or city residents?

In the moneyed camp, we find Mayor de Blasio, his top appointees, and the lobby for big real estate known as the Real Estate Board of New York. Their vision for us is called “hyper-density” and is the same one that Bloomberg had for us. That means bristling, super-tall, towers everywhere, mostly via cheap modular construction imported from China and assembled by de-skilled construction unions. It is a vision right out of Disney’s recent movie, Tomorrowland, and represented best by the corporate glass world emerging at Hudson Yards in Chelsea or the immense towers coming up along 57th street.

Immensity is part of the idea. Advocates of hyper-density even invoke the anarchic towers of Beijing, Shanghai, Dubai, and Singapore as examples of what we should copy here in New York. And in a grim boomerang of history, the notorious 1925 Plan Voisin for the destruction of historic Paris turns out to be explicit inspiration for New York’s hyper-density advocates. The Plan Voisin was thankfully defeated in Paris, but unluckily for us it lives on in the two zoning proposals pushed by our mayor. These zoning proposals are coming up for a City Council vote in January.

Hyper-density is hostile to the past, to historic districts and landmarks, and rejoices in the proliferation of out-of-scale towers. Former head of New York City Planning Joe Rose described the out-of-scale tower problem as “a race to the top that does violence to our city.” Hyper-density is also a short-term vision, for it treats sunlight, the air around us, and views of our parks and rivers as resources to be grabbed and privatized by developers. Ultimately, it is a vision of unfettered real estate capital run amok, with the starchitecture design industry as handmaiden.

The process of building out the city in the hyper-density paradigm means we get stuck with a host of problems that we aren’t accounting for. Economists classify them as externalities and market failures. Parks are seized. Current residents and small businesses are aggressively displaced. History, beauty, and civic culture are destroyed. This means that hyper -density is also a vision of democratic failure, of a government so captured by one interest group that the intelligent objections of resident New Yorkers get brushed aside because residents have no power, at least until the next election.

The competing vision is of a human-scaled city. The human-scale vision is being pushed by a coalition of 84 civic groups from all five boroughs. The late Jane Jacobs was its most famous modern advocate, but its roots go back millennia. In a human-scale New York, we build out the physical space of New York with beautiful, human-scale neighborhoods – the kind of places where people want to raise their children and grow old. It is, as the song goes, a vision about “the sunny side of the street.” The human-scale city is the opposite of glass-deadened high-rises with corporatized streetscapes that we merely endure out of economic necessity, career convenience, and because literally, all the other options have been demolished.

The human-scale New York is something we once had and can have again in many parts of the city – if we decide we want it. And if we do, we will have to do some real planning, not just zoning. For in addition to figuring out where to put housing, human-scale planning calls for trains, streetcars, shuttle buses, bike lanes, parks, dog runs, libraries, markets, schools, streets, community centers, museums, small businesses and places of worship. And given how thoughtlessly we have already ruined some parts of the city, we must also ask: how do we share our dwindling sunlight and shrinking views towards trees, grass and rivers? Access to nature is a key component of a healthy and happy life. We can’t just reserve such access for the rich who can retreat to penthouses and country homes for their air, light and for a glimpse of trees and grass. What about everyone else?

To be sure, we need to build, and sometimes up, but we need to plan at a neighborhood, regional, and citywide scale about where we build, at what density exactly, at what scale, where the transit goes, who does the building, with what pool of money. And yes, of course we need more affordable housing, but there are many options for to deal with the problem other than the mayor’s beloved hyper-density.

If we want a human-scale city, what should we do? To start, New Yorkers need to tell their city councilmembers to accept the will of the city’s community boards, the vast majority of whom have voted no last week on the Mayor’s hyper-density zoning proposals. Instead, the city council should organize a public referendum that asks: which vision of our city do we want?

Lynn Ellsworth is the co-founder of New Yorkers for a Human-scale City, the Chair of Tribeca Trust, and the founder of Friends of Duane Park.

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