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

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Jarrett Murphy

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.

  • ohhleary

    “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.”

    It’s incredibly tone-deaf that someone can write an 800-word op-ed about density in New York while casting off affordability as an afterthought in one sentence. If there are “many options,” what are they? Which does your organization prefer? Will any other options help solve the crisis of affordability in this city without increasing density? Will any other options do it on the necessary scale that the mayor’s proposal will?

    • mikecherepko

      It sounds like the Chair of Tribeca Trust’s solution to affordability is “Let them live in the Village!”

      I exaggerate. I have never heard a proposal from these types that has amounted to more than “Go back to Ohio!” and when reminded that people can still move to New York, “well, they shouldn’t.”

    • David

      Very well said.

      A necessary condition of a critical perspective of DeBlasio’s plan would be something concrete on how you’re going to get as much affordable housing some other way, but it’s perfectly obvious the author doesn’t care. This is just generational/class warfare, hiding behind aesthetics and blaspheming Jane Jacobs in the process.

  • AlasdairB

    I hope that this is some form of sponsored content for which City Limits is getting well paid, because this airy and substance-free “op-ed” is a jarring contrast to the otherwise very serious writing I turn to City Limits for.

    First, no one but no one that I’m aware of is calling for “bristling, super-tall, towers everywhere, mostly via cheap modular construction imported from China and assembled by de-skilled construction unions.” Show me the elected official, developer, or plain old human being with a brain who is calling for Hudson Yards and the 57th Street mega-tower corridor to be the model for NYC’s built environment outside of a few very specifically zoned areas. This is a straw man argument, and as Dorothy can tell you, straw men don’t have brains.

    As disingenuous a straw man as this is, however, Ellsworth’s conflation of Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin and Mayor DeBlasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Housing Quality and Affordability proposals is flat out intellectual dishonesty. Ms. Ellsworth, please tell me exactly how the mayor’s proposal to require the construction of rent-regulated apartments as part of any future rezoning action is at all similar to a nearly century-old theoretical plan to bulldoze central Paris and build 60-story apartment blocks. As propaganda this is first rate, but as a contribution to a serious debate it is sorely lacking.

    Not only is Ellsworth’s argument lacking in substance, her proposed solution is both nonsensical and insidious. She writes that “…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.” First, with the exception of those last two items, this is exactly what city planners do already. This is not some new urban planning paradigm. Second, why does Ellsworth want to dictate “who does the building, with what pool of money”? This smacks of xenophobia, as do most NIMBY arguments when you scratch the surface just a little.

    • AlexWithAK

      She also advocates giving the Community Boards veto power. Contrary to what their name might imply, Community Boards are frequently not representative of their designated communities, rather they’re stacked with well-connected folks who often hold the seats for years or decades and see fit to use their bully pulpit to block progress. They are advisory and should stay that way for this very reason.

  • livingcity

    Bravo. One could quibble with details but essentially the choice between a Big Real Estate/hyper density vision vs a Human Scale density vision and top down vs democratic process is exactly right. The need for affordable housing is the cover but the mayor’s current affordable housing strategy will lose more already affordable units through harassment and demolition than provide new units out of affordability reach of people displaced.