The City

In that sense, everything we do around economic development is married to a story that revolves around the built environment. We ask, "what do you do to further economic development in a place that was built to accommodate tens and tens of thousands of factory workers?” The factories that have been successfully redeveloped have nonetheless been redeveloped in a way that provides only double-digit employment opportunities, if we are lucky.

It’s instances like this where we get to think at a more macro-scale, asking: what role does an affordable housing project play in revitalization, and what role should planning play alongside the development? A 100% low-income housing project is not likely to have an effect on its own, in the absence of new parks, jobs, transportation, et cetera.

Most groups that I work with are singularly focused on building affordable housing. However, there are two problems at play here that are the result of longstanding racist federal policy: one is where people live today, and the other is the location of wealth.

Even if you want for people to live in a place like Guilford, on the assumption that their kids are going to Guilford schools, and will therefore be more likely to succeed later in life—that alone is proving more difficult. [Living in a place like Guilford] does not let people accumulate wealth, but it does allow them to accumulate some non-cash resources that are going to be very helpful later. But, even then, you are only able to help a small number of people.

If I see optimism, it is in these budding YIMBY movements, and a generation of people [who] are willing to talk about race. I find more and more people [who] are willing to say, "diversity isn't just something that I'd like my kids to have in college." I don't know why magically, when they turn 18, diversity becomes important.

I think the affordable housing fight is really important. But, I do think there is a cultural shift that is going to happen in addition to these policy decisions that may be more important.

I always tell my students to imagine their favorite places in New Haven… It is entirely likely that if they burned to the ground, we would not be able to rebuild them. That's just not the way our zoning code works.

I do think it is so important to be willing to strip down to how things should be, and try to learn something about the world we live in from a better understanding of the world that we should live in.

The next book, How to Make the Next City, is very much an outward-facing book in terms of its audience and its argument. It’s for a broader spectrum of built environment people. Yes, architects, but also hopefully planners, mayors, even clients. Rather than a critique of the discipline of architecture, it’s saying, “Let’s look at the big picture, how these things fit together, and see how we can use design to respond to social challenges.”

It's been spoken about for decades that the internet would have a decentralizing effect on labor, and we are now seeing that with new kinds of businesses like Uber or task aggregation services. Are there opportunities in those things, for design and the way that cities are structured? It's about starting with real challenges and opportunities and asking what are the spatial possibilities here in order to address them.

“What are the key things for livable cities?” I gave them the Copenhagen-style, good urban practice checklist: density, bike lanes, walk-ability, etc. After I started doing the work and putting the talk together, I realized, all these things are predicated on commuting! On the fact that your workplace is going to be distinct from your home, and that the city is divided up along these lines of commercial center and suburban perimeter.

Still, the mainstream thinking around architecture and planning is that sprawl is bad and it is going to drag us all under, and that density is good, and all the rest. But, actually, paradoxically, are the suburbs the future? Is the future really about density, or is that just what architects want? How do we respect what the public wants—their own free-standing home, their own land—and reconcile that with issues of sustainability and public service?

To me, alternative, diverse forms of practice are the ways we can address questions like this one. Today, the architect puts up a sign and waits for the phone to ring, or enters a competition, or take a tender. That model is only successful within a certain bandwidth. It is much more successful within urban centers, at the upper end of the economic spectrum.

In architecture everything has to be new all the time, but of course, it's rarely new. We are building in brick as we have done for thousands of years. But, the ecology of value, promotion, and attention is only dedicated to the new, rather than towards things that are much less sexy, like maintenance, or adaptability, or heritage. In Europe, Australia, and North America, we've built it already, and now we need to learn to live with it again.

What they are absolutely not asking us to do is design anything. It is exciting and refreshing for a change to be called upon as a researcher, as someone who has a civic responsibility to the city as a whole, not just as somebody who is an author or a shape-maker.

As you said, these are spatial problems. But, the other way to turn it around is to say, all problems are spatial, and therefore, shouldn't architects or urbanists be involved in all kinds of things?

They work in a legal architecture, not just a physical architecture. There is a legal world that they operate in, and it's not just zoning. It's the organization of governance, the organization of cities, the way cities relate to each other and to the state, where policies come from, etc. Thinking about the design of not just a city, but a group of cities, any metropolitan area, one has to think about who is deciding what about the future of the city. A lot of that decision making is done by the legal system.

We were trying to not only bring nature together with the built environment, but to get the public together with the private.

Once you have this idea—to create a sense of the public in the built environment, the question becomes: who can do that? How can you organize it? Much of it can be done by the city, but the rest of it can be done by the state government. The state government is much more important to the organization of American cities than people realize. They set the powers: they establish what they can and cannot do.

The legislature has the power to, tomorrow, reorganize the transportation authority in the city of New York. Why the state runs the NYC transportation system and not the city is a good question. The bigger question is where the money comes from. All of the ideas require state law, whatever they are. Whether it's a congestion charge, a tax on wealthy people, a commuter tax: none of them could get done by the city of New York alone.

Cities need to have power to consider the creation of public space, transportation systems, affordable housing, where the schools are located, how they're organized, who can go to them, etc.

One great thing about Central Park in New York is how many kinds of people are there thinking "this is my space, no more and no less than it's anyone else's space." It was created by the government. It's very hard to make public space because many people will still feel excluded.

How can we inhabit a city with people stored in anonymous apartment buildings, not even realizing if their neighbor is dead for two months?! That is fucked up! If the city is the promise of everything, this can’t be the right way. We are social beings; we behave in swarms, and we like to be in social relationships with others and offer some help here or there in order to make a pleasant environment. The architecture is less crucial—it is more about the social tissue, the social structure, and how architecture facilitates and strengthens those relationships. How do we build that up?

The neighbors build their street of rowhouses and we let go. We don’t comment on the architecture. Some of them are nice; some of them are OK, but in the end, the system works, and people are happy.

What we do is try to build up groups, or we try to stimulate people to build their own groups. What is the social structure you want to live in? We will help facilitate the dialogue with other people and provide you with tools to push that trajectory further.

Society is individualized—we have our own information, we have our own transportation, we can go anywhere, anytime, independent from anybody. This makes us strong individuals and less dependent on the rest. Sometimes that makes us feel lonely and isolated. People want to be part of groups while maintaining their level of independence.

Who wants to invest in a collective energy system to make ourselves energy independent? Have a shared music studio? Have shared guest rooms for when friends and family visit? The Crowd Building platform allows people to ask these questions of their city.

We are aware, though, that it would be more interesting to look for uncommon and logical relationships…. What if the elderly, families, and students lived together? The student could hang a painting on the wall for the old guy. The old guy could take care of the children on a Sunday afternoon so that the parents can enjoy the theater. And, once again, the difference of people starts to make a small community. It is this diversity that allows the community to perform well and remain open to others.

I would recommend that people make themselves aware of their valuable role in contributing to making the city. What is the relevance of your position? If you can answer that, then you can start targeting your own ambitions.

Specifically, many architects have said, "houses have been one of the fundamental platforms of design exploration throughout the history of architecture," and that's of course true, but, after having written a big policy book about the problems of suburbanization, I can't just go out and start designing suburban houses.

Reinhold once said, "Why is it that all of these movies depict the end of the world because of climate change, but none of them depict the end of capitalism?" To which Ken Frampton quipped, "Because the end of the world will come before the end of capitalism." I'm not powerful enough, or arrogant enough, to believe that I'm going to overturn capitalism.

It is about being a public intellectual, but it also about being able to use the power of architecture in a very different way. Through drawings, diagrams, models, we can talk to the public about pressing public issues. With Penn Station, our work was able to make clear that there is still much more work to do beyond the [government’s] current proposal.

If you haven't read the newspaper and don't understand that maybe a site two doors down from your site had a huge infrastructure problem, or just had a big political scandal erupt around it, so that community is all fired up... if you think it's just that your project is the greatest thing since sliced bread, you are going to fail in that meeting. You didn't understand the horizontal context; all you were concerned with is the vertical of your project.

Right, this is where it gets tricky. Our Libraries project was actually commissioned by the Center for an Urban Future and the Architecture League, but it was basically to nudge the city to think differently about the physical plant of the libraries, and by extension, also the way that they budget for the libraries, which is a mess in NYC.