Of the grid and ghostowns
Earlier this month a panel of experts assembled by the Forum for Urban Design and the Lincoln Institute reflected on the exhibit Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream at the Museum of Modern Art, where teams of architects, economists, and artists re-imagined five areas devastated by the 2008 housing crisis. The hotspots in New Jersey, Florida, Illinois, southern California and Oregon are all primarily suburban environments, though not as far-flung as the zombie subdivisions of the Southeast and Intermountain West, and surely not as stark as the ghost towns of China.
Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of Reinventing Suburbia, Joseph B. Rose from the Georgetown Cos., Phoenix attorneyGrady Gammage Jr., and national homebuilder Ara K. Hovnanian all agreed that the proposals, which ranged from cascading green buildings to the retrofit of an abandoned factory, were what curator Barry Bergdoff called a "provocation." But the panelists also agreed that reinventing housing and changing development patterns will involve an understanding of market demographics, complex attitudes toward density, and nuts-and-bolts fixes like reforming restrictive zoning.
The task at hand is retrofitting -- going back to landscapes that have turned out wrong. That was in stark contrast to another outstanding exhibit in New York right now -- The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan for Manhattan 1811 - 2011, at the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibit chronicles the way New York planned for growth, from lower Manhattan to 155th Street, above which was thought to be too hilly and rocky and wild for development. The planners confronted a number of decisions about the length of street blocks, the size of periodic parks and squares, and even informal settlement, with shantytowns along what is now Fifth Avenue -- but mostly they had to make the fundamental calculation, based on a certain minimum density, population growth and a fledgling real estate market, of how much the city would grow. It brought to mind the work of Solly Angel, who in the seminal report Making Room for a Planet of Cities points out that there will be a doubling of urban population and a tripling of land area over the next 30 years in cities primarily in the developing world. To accommodate millions of people who will continue to stream in from the countryside, Angel recommends planning for ample urban land, infrastructure needs on a decades-long time horizon, and a framework of arterial streets one square kilometer in size.
An expanded consideration of these themes -- "Foreclosed" as an example of reaching too far and perhaps not planning adequately, "The Greatest Grid" a tribute to a more orderly, and ultimately wildly successful, urban growth -- can be viewed at The Atlantic Cities.