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Zoning and the Physical City

Lincoln Institute of Land Planning - NYC Department of City Planning, New York
November 15th, 2011

I think it goes without saying that economic development, equity, and sustainability, the themes that Dan, Rosanne and Rohit have addressed, can’t be considered apart from each other, and that the issue of the physical city can’t be considered apart from any of them. If there could have been any doubt that these are not separate and unrelated issues, this fall’s Occupy Wall Street movement put them to rest. We have seen, and lived with, a significant protest about the lack of economic equity, conducted in public space in the physical city—well, in privately owned public space, clarifying the meaning of this particular distinction in the public mind as never before—and with sustainability and economic opportunity as a part of its agenda. Whatever else we can say about the significance of Occupy Wall Street, it was an event that underscored the currency, not to say the urgency, of many of the issues we are here to talk about today, and reminded us that they are not just the province of data-driven planning studies, but are issues with profound social implications.

And even without Occupy Wall Street, it has been clear that the physical city cannot truly be considered apart from the values it represents. It’s impossible to discuss a subject such as housing, for example, without thinking of it in terms of equity, sustainability, and economic development as well as physical form. But if we try to separate out the physical city for the purposes of this discussion, I think we can say that there are five key challenges moving forward. Every one of them connects to an area in which there has been progress over the last decade, in some cases rather substantial progress, so much of the challenge of the 21st century will be in finding a way to assure that momentum is maintained under what, as we all know, are less than ideal economic conditions.

Let me first say what I think the challenge is not. Twenty or thirty years ago, I thought that the main challenge facing New York in terms of its physical form was going to be gigantism—overbuilding, building too many buildings that were too big. In fact, I remember writing a cover story for The New York Times Magazine back in the early 80’s called “The Limits of Urban Growth,” that said we were threatening our future by building too much, at too large a scale. I don’t mean to excuse what’s been built since then, a huge amount of which has been awful, but I don’t really think that was the issue—or at least I wouldn’t any longer put the issue in those terms. The city needs to grow, and it needs to change, and it has a lot more physical capacity than I thought it did thirty years ago. Now, I would put the challenge differently. It’s not in holding back growth, and it’s not in avoiding large buildings. It’s in figuring out how to build ambitiously in a way that maintains what we value as New York’s essential qualities: street life, neighborhoods, social and economic diversity, and public space.

New York grew large and powerful as a nineteenth-century city, and it grew still larger and still more powerful as a twentieth-century city built on the physical framework of a nineteenth-century one. Far from constraining us, the presence of our old framework allowed us to be denser, tighter, and I think in every way more potent than a city built mainly on a twentieth century template, like Houston or Los Angeles or Dubai or Doha or, quite tragically, Shanghai and Beijing, which have obliterated so much of their underlying frameworks. We have held onto ours, and by framework or template I mean much more than the Manhattan grid, although that is a key part of it; I also mean the fact of our neighborhoods, of the web of transit that links them, and of the notion of Manhattan as a kind of permanent center, which has permitted it to grow and evolve in a way that, say, London or Paris has not. We didn’t need to build Canary Wharf or La Defense, because our center has always been able to grow and change. (Yes, I know there is Jersey City and Stamford, but I don’t think they are the same.) Assuring that the center that both midtown and Lower Manhattan represent continues to evolve while not losing the qualities we value—their intense street life, their lively skylines, their architectural diversity—this is the first challenge of the physical city.

But recognizing our template, as I’ve called it, and using it as the underlying framework for change, goes beyond the centers of Manhattan. It also means recognizing that the entire city will continue to evolve, and needs to. I don’t know that in the near term we will see anything as dramatic as, say, what Williamsburgh represented in the last generation, or Chelsea, but we need to be prepared for such changes when they do occur, and to know how to help neighborhoods achieve their potential while not losing their essential qualities. But is it even possible for a neighborhood like Long Island City to evolve and still hold onto its framework, its basic identity? Is this even desirable? At Queens West we have seen dramatic change, almost the invention of a new neighborhood at entirely different scale from the old one. I think the answer is yes, in large part because here, too, we are letting the transportation infrastructure and street pattern and the waterfront be the starting point—the template, to use that term again—we are using existing conditions to enable, not to block, great change. So we are still building on the existing framework, even though in this case it yields an essentially new identity.

Using the framework, the template, rather than blowing it up and starting with a clean slate is a key quality in New York’s physical development—in fact, maybe it’s really the defining element, the idea that we do not begin with a blank canvas, ever, that the notion of the blank canvas is inconsistent with the idea of New York. So it isn’t necessarily a contradiction to believe in growth and change, and at the same time to say that preservation—both neighborhood preservation and landmarks preservation—are the second challenge for the 21st century. Here, too, I think we’ve done better than many cities, despite our mistakes, but it will not be easy going forward, especially in difficult times, when the pressures to agree to any project that offers short term benefits can be enormous. New York is a national leader in preservation, and we cannot afford to forfeit this; we will need to find new and creative ways in which to address questions of context and scale, and to assure that our successful neighborhoods do not become precious artifacts removed from the ongoing life of the city, but living places. Here, too, I think we’ve done this better than many places—last week I was in London, and wonderful as Mayfair is I find it feels increasingly disconnected from the world, a place where you quite literally have shop windows with models of private jets and multi-million dollar yachts, something that makes you yearn for something plain and funky like a Ralph Lauren store. Even the most expensive blocks of Madison Avenue, or Greenwich Village, aren’t this precious, and we can’t lose this balance. In many other neighborhoods the issues are different, but the challenges remain the same: to support and nurture fundamental qualities, while allowing growth and change, be it minor or, in some cases, deep and profound.

A third challenge for the 21st century is in maintaining the public realm, in an age in which the pressures against the public realm seem only to mount. Here, I think we have a good record over the last decade, when New York finally began to reverse the decline of the public realm with numerous new models of public space: the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hudson River Park and the future park on Governors Island collectively create a legacy that I think I can call truly extraordinary, especially after generations of relative indifference, not to say hostility, to the idea of public space. And we have paid attention to numerous smaller public spaces all over the city that do not represent new models like the ones I’ve just mentioned, but are vital anchors in making neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs more civilized. But the successes of recent years make it no less of a challenge moving forward, especially given that it is difficult to imagine that we will be able to afford to add any more large and ambitious new models to this list in the next generation. Creating, nurturing, and supporting public space in all of its forms, from space that is publicly owned and publicly managed, to publicly owned and privately managed, to privately owned and privately managed—and from indoor to outdoor; from landscaped parks to plazas, lobbies and arcades—none of this will be easy, and continuing to make the public realm a priority is absolutely essential if the physical form of New York is to retain the allure that it has for all of us. And it should go without saying that continuing to open up the waterfront, which we have done effectively over the last generation, is a key part of this challenge of the public realm. Much has been done, but so much more of the waterfront remains ahead of us. And then we will need to remember that in New York, the public realm means not only the great places like Central Park or the High Line, and not only plazas and squares, and not only the waterfront esplanades, but also the streets themselves. We will have failed to meet the challenge of the public realm if we lose the sense that the street is the most important part of the public realm of all.

The fourth challenge of the physical city is one that, as I said earlier, cuts across all of these areas: housing. We have been doing heroically compared to many other cities, both in rehabilitation and in new construction—165,000 units, Dan Doctoroff has just told us—and our inclusionary housing program is a powerful reminder of the potential of zoning to bring about social benefits. But the need continues to be enormous, and the challenge of design is still huge. Despite the promising models that Rosanne Haggerty just showed us, we are doing far less than we need to be doing to think in terms of new models for affordable housing that reflect demographic, social and professional changes and accommodate to different kinds of families and different kinds of living and working arrangements. It is disturbing that many of our very best models for housing are several generations old, and that we have yet to surpass the Harlem River Houses and the Williamsburgh Houses as models for public housing that is generous, gracious and dignified.

There is no question that another challenge of the physical city is one that we share with every other community in the United States: infrastructure. We are doing more than many places, what with the Second Avenue subway, the extension of the #7 line, the Third Water Tunnel, and so forth, but we need to be doing much more. I don’t know that this is in the control of planners, since in New York the issue is less that of a disinclination to invest in infrastructure than it is a matter of economics. But zoning is planning for the future, and infrastructure is investment in the future, and all we do of the former will mean little if we cannot do more of the latter. If prior generations had the same attitude about investing in the future that this country does today, we would be in a sorry state—in fact, we would be in a catastrophic state. Every single day every one of us in this room profits from the fact that prior generations thought differently, and built things not for themselves, but for us. Again, New York is better than most of the country, but we are still not building the infrastructure we need for the future, and our children and grandchildren will pay dearly for it.

Finally, let me say that New York, like all great cities, has always represented an elusive mix of intention and happenstance, of planning and serendipity. This may be a strange thing to say at a conference on the potential of zoning, but we do need to be aware of the risks of believing that we can plan down to the last square inch, or that we should. Looking back at the record of the Lindsay years, where so much of the modern zoning that we have profited from was invented, I tend to think that if it had any weakness, it was a tendency sometimes to use zoning to design buildings, to make architecture, or at least to use it as a de facto tool to make architecture, and its specificity did not always work. I don’t know if we should call recognition of the limits of planning and zoning the fifth challenge of the physical city for the 21st century, but probably we should.

In any case it is useful, in the end, to keep the limits of planning in mind, since as we should not make preservation policy into de facto land use policy, we should also not let urban design become de facto architecture. And we need to recognize the paradox that much of the physical form of New York, the city that invented zoning and that has the largest and most complex set of zoning regulations in the world, has been the result of happy accidents. New York has had plenty of unhappy accidents too, of course, and I am the last person in the world to be making some sort of stealth argument for laissez faire. But the final challenge of the 21st century has to be to keep in mind that the physical form of the city needs to be managed and guided, but at the same time to remember that it can’t be wholly controlled by planners, and nor should it be.

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