Saturday, December 31, 2011

Exploring "The Greatest Grid"

The new exhibit "The Greatest Grid" at the Museum of the City of New York is well worth a visit for anyone with even a passing interest in urban planning or the history of the city.  An accompanying exhibit of speculative urban designs, however, provides evidence that the heroic materialist ideal has been slow to loosen its grasp over the minds of some practitioners in the fields of architecture and urban planning.

Simeon DeWitt's 1794 plan for Albany:
large blocks and wide streets.
Before featuring a few of these, though, a few words on the main exhibit.  Despite curator Hillary Ballon's evident admiration of New York's grid plan, the exhibit is evenhanded in its presentation, quoting liberally from critics such as Clement Clarke Moore (who famously quipped that the commissioners were "men who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome.")*  Not only the early 19th century era, but the entire subsequent century of growth and change is covered.  The featured historic maps and photos of the city are beautiful and fascinating.

There are also copies of the plans of other cities of the era, including L'Enfant's plan for Washington D.C. and (later commissioner) Simeon DeWitt's 1794 plan for a northern extension of Albany, which shows the same grid of oversized blocks and uniformly wide streets that would reappear a thousand times in the settlements of the following century.  The web of narrow streets and small blocks by the waterfront, a legacy of Dutch administration, was, as in New York, not eradicated, but evidently was not seen as an object of any interest, except as an example of a characteristics to be avoided.

Of particular interest to me were the photos of the shantytown settlements that occupied large parts of Manhattan through the end of the 19th century.  One interesting fact from the exhibit: Jacob Riis, the famous social reformer, opposed the eviction of shantytown inhabitants and the demolition of their dwellings, arguing that the self-built homes of the squatters provided accommodations superior to, and more affordable than, the tenements of the Lower East Side.

The partner exhibit, "The Unfinished Grid: Design Speculations for Manhattan", is interesting for somewhat different reasons: not so much for introducing viable design proposals for the city, but for shedding light on the imaginations of contemporarary architects and planners.  The proposals on display seem to draw from three basic sources of inspiration:
  • Heroic Materialism. This term, which I'm borrowing from Nathan Lewis (who in turn borrowed it from Kenneth Clark), describes an aesthetic preference for monumental scale and the image, as much as the reality, of technology and engineering prowess.  Nathan dates it to approximately 1780, although it has Baroque antecedents and yet truly came into its own only around 1900, when Western imaginations were already trending toward urban gigantism. It grew in influence in the 1920s and 1930s, with the ideas of Corbusier and other Modernists, and remained the dominant force in theoretical urban thinking at least through the 1960s (the suburban reality on the ground notwithstanding).
  • "Green" Urbanism.  Although this line of thinking was anticipated by the Broadacre City of Frank Lloyd Wright and the garden city movement, the current incarnation emphasizes an integration of natural forms, and especially agriculture, into urban areas, as well as sustainable building practices, without necessarily disparaging density.  Still, there is a degree of overlap with heroic materialism: "green" practices often rely on high-tech, rather than traditional technologies, while the tower-in-the-park form advocated by the Modernists, heroic materialist in scale, also reflects garden city influences.  Green projects can also be incremental, as below, but share a distinct focus that differentiates them.
  • Incremental Urbanism. Only two of the eight featured projects reflected this approach, which seeks to make more modest and gradual changes to the urban fabric, observing the city as it stands, reinforcing those qualities already found to be beneficial while addressing perceived shortcomings.  It is by far the most "Jacobsian" of the three, but also the least flashy, and least likely to lend itself to dramatic illustrations or other flights of visual fancy.
On to the exhibits:

Heroic Materialism: At left, giant skyscrapers dwarf the Empire State Building in a plan that called for zoning limits to be rescinded for all lots facing on north-south avenues (and presumed that developers would respond with towers obviously inspired by the Emerald City). At right is an architect's idea of some vast megastructure looming over the northern end of Central Park, with father and young son enjoying the park underneath projecting towers.

What about building 40-story towers on landfill sunk into the 50-foot deep waters of the Hudson river?  Cruise ships thread channels between buildings.

From a Green Urbanism perspective, why not tear up 71st street and replant it with wheat?  At least the streets would be car-free under this proposal, and the view is human-scaled and at street level.  More fundamentally, this proposal does recognize that the vast amount of Manhattan given over to wide surface streets represents a greatly under-exploited urban resource.

Tesselated housing in the sky -- they can't be serious, right?

Finally, 6 1/4 Avenue, by Ksestudio, which proposes opening a new 40-foot wide street between and parallel to 6th and 7th Avenues that, according to the designers, "activates the depth of the base of the New York tower by multiplying the public perimeter of the block."  Simple and elegant, simultaneously addressing the excessive width of the midtown blocks and the lack of additional north-south routes while greatly adding to the amount of accessible street frontage.  Feasible?  Maybe, maybe not, but the method is thoughtfully incremental.  No flashy graphics were included, just clear and concise figure-ground drawings.

That's all I have for 2011. See you in the new year!

*Stephen Smith has recently covered some other critiques of the plan here.


  1. Great synopsis of the exhibition! Perhaps a more appropriate phrase for the "incremental urbanism" category would be "emergent urbanism" (an interesting link to which is provided on the right side of this blog).

    IMO the other categories (heroic materialism and "green" urbanism) don't offer any realistic solutions for future urban forms. Architects are largely still mired in the delusions of "heroic materialist" urbanism and usually express these delusions in, as was so aptly discussed above, gigantist/Modernist planning schemes.

    The "green" urbanism fad, in my opinion, is unfortunately just as destructive a contemporary delusion, and so typically an American one. "Green" design has been a fetish of American architects and urban designers ever since Olmsted built Central Park (a rambling pseudo-rural antidote to the perceived evils of the city: ), but it doesn't necessarily lead to good urban fabric at all.

    All the contemporary yammering for "open space" and "green space" reflects the continuing American antiurban bias and the deep desire to uniformly replace urbanism with ersatz-rural settings (more suburbia). Landscape Urbanism is also a symptom of America's longstanding inability to distinguish the rural from the urban. Replacing large chunks of NYC with "urban farms" or "green spaces" is, frankly, ridiculous. The overly-wide streets could be better reconfigured as new piazzas or infilled with new buildings. Rural activities, like farming, should take place in real rural areas. There's nothing wrong with community, kitchen, dooryard, or rooftop gardens, but the current "urban farming" fad reflects the deep-seated confusion present in the American psyche as to what human activities are rural and what human activities are urban, and where these various activities should take place. The "green" urbanism fad is really just a bunch of wishful thinking (an extension of the suburban mindset, really), and not at all a useful strategy for considering future urban forms:

    We Americans just can't seem to get our heads on straight when it comes to urbanism!

  2. Thanks for another fantastic comment, Marc. I shied away from using the emergent label for the third category as I'm still not entirely sure what an "emergent urbanist" approach to urban planning would look like, or if it's even possible within the confines of the understanding we have of what constitutes "urban planning." An incrementalist approach is at least non-ideological, and in that sense is in the spirit of Jane Jacobs, even if it does necessarily engage in top-down planning to some extent.

    It is true that the obsession with bringing nature into the city goes back decades before Wright. In my opinion, Olmsted and his contemporaries did correctly recognize a problem with how American cities were evolving in the mid-19th century, but the response was not to work to improve the character of the urban environment, but to encourage its abandonment by way of suburban dispersion, or to provide an "antidote," as you say, through the introduction of naturalistic parks.

    Something else I'd add about green urbanism is its seeming disconnect from urban economics, or economics of any kind. Agriculture is the ultimate low-value use, returning the lowest return, per square foot, of almost any human activity, and furthermore wheat is one of the lowest-return crops, as cheap or cheaper than even corn or soybeans at the moment. Based on the images shown, I'd guess that the use of an entire crosstown block for wheat would yield an annual crop worth approximately $100, assuming heavy fertilization with yields comparable to midwest farms. More likely it would be a fraction of that.

    This can't be justified by any utilitarian or economic calculus, and a wheat field can't be used as a park, so what is the underlying purpose here? Would it be hopelessly traditional to propose that the street be used for outdoor cafes, of which midtown has very few, or street vendors, or some other productive, human-centered use? As you mention, there seems to be a deep-seated confusion here.

    More broadly, I think we are seeing the same themes get recycled again and again, each time with new names given to tired concepts. Landscape urbanism combines elements of both heroic materialism and green urbanism, and in that sense is a direct descendant of Corbusian Modernism, imitating the forms while changing the labels and the project descriptions.

  3. haha... isn't Manhattan very rocky with little soil to grow wheat on?

    I suppose it's alright to have community gardens, some people like to grow vegetables and flowers and might not be able to do so on their balconies... If a community garden can improve the well being of a community, they're worth considering. However, those wheat fields don't look like community gardens.

  4. Nicolas -- it's true, as far as I know, that the area that is now midtown never had much value for agriculture. The old maps show some farms on the upper west side, and a few orchards, but much of the area was very rocky. Most of the fertile land was up along the Harlem plain. Who knows what you'd find under the pavement in the area shown.

    I agree with the point about private community gardens, as well. This land, though, is public right of way. At the very least, it would need to be fenced off or else be trampled, and that in turn would lead to other problems. Still, I like the fact that the creators were thinking about repurposing the roadbed, which seems to me like a step in the right direction.

  5. There's an interesting Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum right now, including his model for Broadacre City. Wright wanted everyone to be able to live close to their work, school, and all of the amenities that they needed while insisting that open space is necessary for quality of life. Phoenix today demonstrates that it's impossible to have extensive open space and short commutes.

    As far as urban agriculture, I certainly agree that this would be a ridiculous use of land in Manhattan. What about in a city like Detroit, though, where land's opportunity cost is much lower? Do you think that allowing for urban farming in public spaces makes sense there?

  6. Great point Charlie about the economics of farming: it traditionally took place on the fringes of towns and cities because, when compared to other human activities requiring centralization, farming was a very low-yield activity that had to take place on the cheapest land outside of town (which was hopefully still very fertile).

    If hardcore crop farming in the middle of towns and cities is such a great idea, how come it's never really been done before? It doesn't make economic sense!

    Again, I can see private or community *gardens* being quite useful here, but heavy-duty crop *farming* in urban areas is quite ridiculous. Not only does it fail to pencil out economically, but why would we want to bring noxious industrial activities - tractors, harvesters, and combines potentially ripping up the utility lines below the pencil-thin "fields," petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers irritating the people in the apartments nearby and contaminating the groundwater, etc. - back into the city all over again?

    As you said, there is a lot of confusion over "being green" in the American psyche right now. "Green" design proposals are typically nothing more than elaborate Photoshop images where people take existing urban photos and blithely smear them over with abstract expanses of "green" stuff - "native grasses" and other such nonsense, for example. This is just feel-good greenwashing. IMO the "green" urbanism proposals at this exhibition were largely products of greenwashing or, as you said, grandiose old 1960s ecological design concepts that were merely repackaged and rebranded. (McHarg's Ecological Urbanism + Towers in the Park = Landscape Urbanism.)

    "Would it be hopelessly traditional to propose that the street be used for outdoor cafes, of which midtown has very few, or street vendors, or some other productive, human-centered use?"

    That seems like a far more logical proposal to me! In addition to some community gardens, parklets, and squares, the logical step should be to tame New York's wild auto carriageways. Some of them could be infilled with buildings, some of them could have their sidewalks widened, some of them could be reconfigured as piazzas and plazas and squares and neighborhood focal points (, almost all of them could be infused with vendors, cafes, spillout merchandise displays, restaurant seating areas, and so on. There's no need to airlift narrow strips of the Midwest into the middle of Manhattan!

    Emily, it probably would make more sense to see some of Detroit's *outer* urban prairies (former "cottage home" districts) revert back to farmland. Detroit is never going to be a city of almost 2 million again, so I doubt that that land would ever need to be redeveloped as new neighborhoods. The MANY vacant lots in the immediate downtown, however, probably still have some intrinsic value for redevelopment and infill. So just as it would be ridiculous to see "urban farming" pop up in Manhattan, so too would it be ridiculous to see urban farms pop up among the skyscrapers and midrise blocks of downtown Detroit.

    Gardening can take place anywhere (it's usually done for personal, neighborhood, or very modest local commercial uses) but farming should take place where it has always taken place: on the edge of town in real rural areas. Allowing farming into the heart of built-up urban areas is IMO a fundamental error of thinking, but it reflects the deep-seated American confusion as to what is urban, what is rural, and where the dividing line between the two should be (which is why we have so much "sprawl" in the first place - everyone wants to have an urban lifestyle in a rural setting).

  7. @Emily: thanks for the information about the exhibit, which does look very interesting.

    As for your question, I agree with the points Marc has made. If farms are part of a new greenbelt within a broader plan for shrinkage and densification of municipal infrastructure and housing, then I'd say why not – it might help emphasize a new urban/rural boundary. But within the urbanized area itself, I'd echo what Marc has said.

    The thing about Detroit, though, if you do a virtual flyover, is that there is hardly any urbanism to begin with. Detached single-family homes in a suburban format begin to appear less than a mile from Campus Martius park in the center of the downtown. Much of the land in between is occupied by freeways, parking lots and vast arterials. Detroit's advantage, I think, is not its farmland, but the fact that it at least has a remnant dense core to which more urban fabric can be added and older industrial buildings which can be repurposed. Focusing on new farms at the expense of the city runs the risk of falling into the same old anti-urban mindset that Marc has described so well in his comments.

    @Marc: Agreed about re-use of Manhattan streets. One of the proposals which I did not feature here ("The Plaid," so-called) envisioned building new towers at each intersection – an oddly selective infill which nonetheless showed an understanding of the amount of valuable space tied up for "auto carriageways." I counted that as the second of the two incrementalist projects, though it was a bit more whimsical than the one I put in.

    BTW – do you have a blog? I'd be a regular reader.

  8. Thanks for the compliment Charlie! I don't have a blog but I do follow several linked to here: Nathan Lewis, Strong Towns, Emergent Urbanism, Salingaros, Veritas et Venustas, etc.

    I usually don't post such lengthy comments either, but I was thrilled to see an urbanist blog take a critical stance on all the "green" urban design fads floating around out there. Most other urbanism blogs are totally seduced by the "green design" fad (ersatz-rural replacements in city centers) and rarely dissect the fad critically. For example, photoshop a lawn onto the side of a skyscraper and sites like Atlantic Cities and Treehugger will rapidly commence their fawning.

    I guess I just don't see how more "green space" and "open space" will substantially improve our cities and towns. A cursory glance at an aerial of any US urban agglomeration shows that most of them are amply littered with parks, greenways, lawns, and other open spaces (Manhattan being a rare exception). We've been infusing scraps of "wilderness" into our cities ever since the 'Central Park effect' of the mid-19th century, and this hasn't really spurred the construction of good urbanism at all. How will more of the same help?

    Many of the pop-urbanism sites out there seem to hinge on the belief that the biggest problem with our cities is that they don't have enough "green space," but I don't think that's the problem at all. Florence's center is devoid of a single blade of grass, but it is a remarkably tranquil and powerfully enticing human construction. Greenery doesn't make good urbanism; it's merely a nice cherry to have on top. In the US we put remarkably little effort into embellishing our streets, buildings, and blocks.* We rarely think about building them on an intimate, fine-grained, human scale and repeatedly defer to perceived "not enough nature" issues instead.

    *The disappointing thing is that a lot of pre-90s American urbanists (Jane Jacobs, Allan Jacobs, William H. Whyte, Donald Appleyard) *did* focus on these things, but that we seem to have regressed from this focus since. We've largely shifted to talking about "green" delusions at the expense of talking about the urban form. This blog is an exception, which is why I follow it so avidly.

  9. Thanks for those nice words, Marc. I agree with all you've said about the long-running "green space" obsession. I will say that the traditional city was enormously skilled at integrating large amounts of visible greenery without so much as a single berm or grass patch. Climbing vines, window boxes and potted herbs and shrubs are all part of the design vocabulary of old urbanism. They are flexible, adaptable, low-maintenance, and produce a huge visual impact relative to the ground space they occupy (almost nil):

    Not really necessary -- it will look great without it too -- but if you do want some green, it's easy enough to incorporate.

    As for Jacobs, Jacobs, Whyte, Appleyard, Kevin Lynch, Christopher Alexander, and the rest of that precocious generation of urbanist thinkers, I agree that we seem to have taken a bit of a detour from their laser-like focus on the basics of the urban form. Along with Nathan Lewis, whose work I discovered shortly after starting the blog, and a few others, I've been trying to start a new discussion on those same subjects, and I'm glad you've enjoyed reading!

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