I've been reading through Nathan Glazer's essay compilation "From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City," and want to excerpt the following couple paragraphs in light of Ed Glaeser's recent book, Triumph of the City:
"Most significant, designers failed to explore just what it is people find attractive in areas and buildings for whose design characteristics not much, if anything, can be said. How often have we seen those pictures of endless Levittowns, little houses with scarcely grown trees spread out over the landscape, as horrible lessons to avoid? And how often have we contrasted them – to their disadvantage – with gleaming visions of great towers? Let us put aside for a moment the detailed economic arguments that justify density, and let us recognize that very often the overall cost of single-family homes packed closely, or apartments in low-rise buildings, would compare favorably with twenty-story apartment towers. ...
"Wherever social scientists examine these issues, they find a taste that architects on the whole do not find it interesting to satisfy, a taste for the low-rise, the small scale, the unit that gives some privacy, some access to the ground, a small piece of land wholly under one's control. I am not, of course, describing a universal taste, But for people raising children – and indeed many others – it is a near universal taste, if people have a choice. Nor is there any reason to think that is is necessary or desirable that people be educated against that taste and develop a taste for a larger or gargantuan scale…"
This particular perspective represents, I think, one side of an ongoing split of opinion among "pro-urbanist" writers and thinkers. On the one hand (at the risk of oversimplification, apologies if I have misrepresented), there is Ed Glaeser and others such as Matt Yglesias, Ryan Avent and Stephen Smith, who overall take an economically libertarian approach to urban density, opposing height limits and touting the benefits of increasing concentrations of jobs and residences in urban areas. The advantages of an increase in density are always, or nearly always, understood to exceed those of restricting that density by regulation; or, put another way, that any artificial distortion in the market for the ownership and free development of land, however well intended, is likely to lead to economically inefficient outcomes.
On the other side are what I might call the "quality-of-life" urbanists, such as Christopher Alexander, who advocated a four-story height limit, and others including Glazer, Michael Mehaffy, Nikos Salingaros, Leon Krier and evidently David Sucher, who promote a view which, while considering economic arguments, gives equal attention to those which cannot be easily quantified. The desire of families to live in single family or low-rise homes is accepted, the general dislike of living in tall apartments, where another choice is available, is acknowledged, and the task instead becomes one of finding the urban form which maximizes density while producing an environment pleasant enough that it does not send families fleeing for "Levittown" when the first child arrives. If this task requires establishing height limits, then these limits will be considered, as will certain other forms of regulation.
This of course an oversimplification of these two perspectives, but they have been contrasted recently (some of the finer distinctions are brought out in this article by Kaid Benfield, for example, and the recurring debates over the DC Height Act). At the same time, both positions share a common dislike of other forms of regulation: excessively segregated zoning, mandatory low density development and so forth. There may actually be more in common than not, with quibbles over certain issues interfering with agreement on other certain fundamental concerns.
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