Monday, September 28

More on the hyperdensity of Manhattan

Hudson Yards proposal. Picture from Curbed NYC
Vishnaan Chakribarti visited University of Virginia to give a lecture: "Hyperdensity and the Future of Manhattan." Chakribarti, who now teaches real estate development at Columbia, served as the head of the Manhattan office of the New York Department of City Planning from 2000 to 2005. Through such projects as Hudson Yards and the Moynihan Station around Penn station, Chakribarti would like to see a considerable increase in the density of the island of Manhattan. This would require taller buildings and many more of them, as well as robust transportation infrastructure to move large numbers of people through a small area.
"If you love nature you shouldn't live in it. Instead of driving an S.U.V. to go camping, take the subway to a skyscraper."
In essence, Chakribarti is telling New York that the road to sustainability is not to cut back but to continue doing what it has always done best, grow bigger and bolder. Recession or no recession, grow up instead of out. Mitchell Joachim, another Columbia professor, has a similarly big ideas, to move America's more populous city toward complete self-sufficiency, a strategy ranging from growing sufficient quantities of food in vertical farms to solar energy production on rooftops throughout the city. As provocative as these thinkers are, it's worth remembering how provocative something like the Empire State Building must have sounded in the midst of the Great Depression.

As I expressed last week, I have my reservations about the Manhattan model of density applying widely. Good urbanism has more to do with what happens at the street level, the connections between buildings and the human scale of the living environment, and less to do with the height of the buildings themselves. A certain degree of density is necessary, but it's not the whole show. Besides, central Paris, even with it's height restrictions, is just as dense as Manhattan. Matthew Yglesias and Beyond DC sparked this conversation a couple of months ago from a Washington D.C. vantage point.

While I have an open mind concerning all of the new design prototypes coming out for "eco-skyscrapers", I'd like to see more hard numbers about energy-efficiency (including the embodied energy from construction). I still tend to go back to Christopher Alexanders' famous four-story limit and a human-scale for architecture. Do we learn from traditional practices that evolved during a time when energy had to be conserved or do we forge ahead with technological solutions to environmental problems? Probably both strategies will be attempted, and I'll look to New York as America's laboratory for hyperdensity.


Benjamin Hemric said...

Daniel, As usual thanks for the very interesting link! Some comments:

Some quick comments

1) Although I'm all for high densities (as one can probably tell from my past posts here and elsewhere), I’m skeptical about the vision expressed by Vishaan Chakribarti, which seems to be one of misguided centrally PLANNED high densities.

2) I agree that what happens at street level is of extreme importance, and it seems to me that planners and orthodox modern architects have a tendency to ignore what happens at street level. Look at the streetscape formed by today’s Manhattan skyscrapers (both commercial and residential ) and compare them to the streetscapes of the skyscrapers built in the before WWII. (I disagree with what I understand to be the Christopher Alexander position though.)

3) While I agree that a city doesn’t HAVE to be as dense as Manhattan to succeed as a city, I don’t think there is anything wrong with allowing Manhattan like densities to occur.

4) I’m skeptical that Paris is as “dense” as Manhattan or, if true, that such a statement has the meaning that people think it has. Which parts of Paris and which parts of Manhattan are being compared? Could Manhattan have a lower density because of more abundent park land? Is the density that is being discussed solely residential density or is it overall density (including offices, warehouses, factories, etc.)? Even among solely residential areas, which areas are being compared? Also what are the size of the apartments being compared?

Mon., 9/28/09 -- 7:15 p.m.

Daniel Nairn said...

Benjamin. Insightful comments as always.

I'll get back to you on the Paris density. I don't know the answers to your questions, but I probably should. You're right that those are important distinctions.

LH said...

Here is a link to the world's largest metro regions, sorted by population density - The first US metro region shows up at #90, and it is (surprise!) Los Angeles. Somewhat artificial, I know, since they're looking at the whole region and not just the city boundaries; but interesting nonetheless.

Daniel Nairn said...

LH, That's a great list. It makes sense to make these comparisons by metro region. Otherwise, it's very difficult to account for the differences between residential, and commercial/industrial use. I suspect that's the problem with what I heard about central Paris. It might only be accounting for population residency by square mile, which is not fair because so much more employment is located in Manhattan.

LH said...

Daniel, Paris actually scores well in terms of regional population per square mile. I've never been, and my European geography is, well, non-existent, but I seem to remember hearing that its suburbs are relatively dense. That's why this metric can be somewhat misleading: high regional population per square mile could come from either really high density in the central city and less density in the surrounding suburbs (New York City = 2,050 pp/mi2) or from choking sprawl throughout an entire region with very few pockets of skyscraper-level density (San Jose = 2,300 pp/mi2). That's two very different land use patterns with roughly the same regional population per square mile.

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