Tag Archives: public housing

Urban Designer Series: Robert Moses

3 Aug

In an attempt to dive a little deeper into what urban design is, and how it became the important profession that it is today, I have decided to start an “Urban Designer” series. Periodically, I will look at the most well-known urban design writers, scholars, and professionals throughout history and contemporary society. Some will have created the most influential of design movements, some will have created controversy, some will have answered the challenges created by those, some will answer the most pertinent issues of today. Most importantly with this series, I hope to paint a picture of the vast array of opinions and views of built environment professionals, but highlight the fact that the greatest focus on very similar principles.

There are many urban designers that this series could begin with like Kevin Lynch, Gordon Cullen, or Jane Jacobs : many are considered great in our history. However, I am beginning with the man whose urban planning philosophy was the precipice for the modern-day urban design profession. Without him, and the fore mentioned people who responded so passionately to his beliefs, I am not sure that I would have the career I do today.

Robert Moses

Robert Moses (Image: wikimedia)

His Philosophy and Work

Robert Moses began his career as an urban planner/highway engineer at the exact same time as the automobile was gaining favor and abundancy in America. Many would argue that it is no coincidence that his urban planning philosophy, in turn, was so car oriented. Moses came from a time when driving a car, was just not seen as utilitarian, it was seen as entertainment. As it became common place, planners shifted their focus from the experience of the pedestrian or the community, the experience of the driver. Robert Moses was not alone in his view, he just happened to be perpetuating it in the most high profile city in the world: New York City.

Moses was instrumental in the construction of the Triborough, Throgs Neck, Bronx-Whitestone, Henry Hudson, and the Verrazano Narrows bridges, as well as the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Staten Island Expressway, the Cross-Bronx Crossway, the Belt Parkway, and Laurelton Parkway, just to name a few. Later in his career, the design of these roads shifted from a well-landscaped and beautified design, to the utilitarian highways we know today.

Moses was also a very political man, and had placed himself of a position of great influence. He was the Construction Manager in New York City after WWII and found himself in great favor with mayors and those who funded large construction projects. These bridges and highway systems he had masterminded made lots of money for the city, and in turn, he had power among other planning projects in the city. He also prohibited the creation of a city-wide Comprehensive Zoning Plan already underway, that would prohibited a majority of the visionary projects he had planned for New York City. With policy, funding, and politics in his corner there was little stopping him…New York was his.

No doubt influenced by other planners’ philosophy of the time, like Corbusier, Moses favored the eradication of “blight” and the construction of high-rise public housing projects. Historic neighborhoods and communities were bulldozed to make way for idealized and controlled housing plan across New York City. At the time these places were considered ghettos by many, and eradication was viewed as an improvement.  It’s been reported that unlike other public housing authorities, at least those planned by Moses were high-quality construction. And many of them still stand today. Robert Moses built 28,000 apartments based on Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” design scheme. With the separation of people, especially pedestrians, from cars and ground floor activity, an idealized design of the concentration of residents surrounded by green space was favored. If you look at the east side waterfront of Manhattan, the housing projects from 14th street to the Brooklyn Bridge are the result of Moses’ work.

Jacob Riis

Robert Moses’ Manhattan public housing (Image: The Age of Nepotism)

His Legacy

Later, after duplicates of Moses’ work popped up all over the country, and led to worse blight than existed in the first place, his philosophy and work was questioned. Many cities today regret and constantly suffer from the social and economic impacts that have resulted from the highway segregation through urban fabric. Unpredicted by Moses, this is just one large negative impact that modernist urban planning had on communities. Moses would later witness that tower public housing led to the worse crime and ghetto conditions that cities had ever seen.

Some people have great respect for Robert Moses (many call him the Master Builder,) but if you ask most urban designers about him, they will quickly mention  Jane Jacobs. I will write about Jane Jacobs in the next post in this series, but it was her realization of the negativity of Moses’ practices (revolutionary at the time) and her direct and explicit opposition to his projects and political gusto that set the foundation for the urban design profession today. Quite simply, if there were no Robert Moses, there might not be a Jane Jacobs as we know her, and there might not be urban design.

Robert Moses was one of the most politically active members of the modernist planning movement, and perhaps implemented more of the ideas than anyone on the ground. And for this reason, he is a famous character in the fruition of urban design. The sacrifice of the pedestrian in favor of the car, and the eradication and segregation of existing communities (no matter how blighted or poor) was a unique urban planning view. Since the car was a new invention, until then planning was based on the most traditional principles: people. This major shift in planning philosophy changed the way people lived everyday of their life because of large changes in their built environment. This new way of thinking was adopted long enough for there to be a large transformation in many of America’s largest cities, including New York City.

This questioning of Robert Moses’ beliefs and some of his personal actions led to the end of his era of planning. Many would argue it began with his encouragement to demolish the historic Penn Station (a New York landmark) in favor of a much less impressive development. Subsequently, he proposed that Greenwich Village and Soho be eradicated for the construction of a highway. This met so much opposition, it never occurred. Finally, he committed political suicide when he went up against governor, Nelson Rockefeller, who wanted to use toll money from one of Moses’ bridges to fund public transportation. No longer having the mayor’s trust and allegiance, Moses’ project ideas fell on deaf ears.

Old Penn Station NYC

The original Penn Station before demoltion (Image:Architecture Here and There)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s is when urban design really became a vocation and later evolved into a profession. Before, that term truly wasn’t recognized. There was no need to return to traditional urban planning because it hadn’t been abandoned. Today, most urban designers (or at least everyone I’ve worked with) continue to work against the philosophy of Robert Moses. While most planners realize the destruction his work had on the city, its heritage, and communities, there is still a huge dependence on automobiles that still must be considered in policy making and development every day.

Robert Moses does have a positive legacy with his development of Long Island and the New York State Park system. Unfortunately that is often ignored due to the result of the 13 highways in New York City that have resulted in the eradication in the city’s character. There is no doubt, despite his ideas, that he was a huge influence in the creation of the urban design profession, which has been instrumental in sustainable design and development. And for that, we can be grateful for his career.

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Outdoor Space and Public Housing: How Do We Design it?

20 Jul

I have written about the history of public housing a few times on At the Helm of the Public Realm. Studying it as an urban designer and as an architect, has given me many different views on how developments like Pruitt Igoe and Cabrini Green got it so wrong. It seems that every built environment professional has learned their lesson: out of scale, brutalistic structures surrounded by vast amounts of shared, open space fails.

But what we discuss much less often, is how to get it right. The blog post, Housing Design Outdoors on Polis last month gives an overview of what the necessary principles are to create a housing development. The article while written by a planner, Peter Sigrist, who concentrates his research in public housing. While planning is important, the fact that his research yielded results that are so design oriented, proves to me that urban design is one of the most dominant contributors to a successful public housing development.

public housing mixed uses

Public housing and the importance of proximity and accessibilty to mixed-uses. (Image: Wired NYC)

In his own words, the author provides this list of necessary principles for designing space around buildings in a public housing apartment complex as follows:

  1. Proximity between buildings
  2. The sense of Enclosure in outdoor spaces
  3. The Scale of buildings
  4. The Accessibility of buildings to residents, and of residents of local amenities
  5. Additions of items and facilities between buildings (including trees, parking, and places of leisure)
  6. Materials that improve aesthetic quality and maintenance
  7. The Style and the architectural elements of a space

What has the greatest influence on the design of public spaces are the buildings that form them. Therefore, if we get the building form, scale, and interior spaces wrong, their isn’t much hope for what surrounds it. Consequently, while Sigrist says these principles are about the design of public space, he is actually listing architectural principles of building form.

The first 3 principles, proximity, enclosure, and scale, while slightly different, are very much integrated with one another. Proximity between buildings is important, because it provides a human (and comfortable) scale of open spaces. Buildings have to be close enough to one another, so that the entirety of the space between them can be overlooked for safety purposes. Enclosure of outdoor spaces, which should also be at a human scale, is directly affected by the proximity of the buildings that form them. What Sigirst doesn’t explain, is that the sense of enclosure that makes humans feel comfortable needs to be formed by “active edges” to a building, whether its retail or residential openings in the facade. This once again allows overlooking of the enclosed space. Blank walls and fences make people feel unsafe and uncomfortable and should be avoided despite enclosure. If these are unavoidable, it should only be in private and physically secure spaces.

Finally, scale is the principle that completely determines the first two. Sigrist is right on when he says, “Higher buildings result in cavernous settings when grouped together, and conspicuous voids when spread apart. Longer and wider buildings can impede walkability and reduce green space. Expansive façades highlight repetition, monotony and decay. Smaller buildings tend to be associated with comfort around housing, perhaps because of the psychological effects of less-polarized differences in scale.” The end and short of it is that people’s comfort is tied to their human nature, which scale directly reflects. When people are disconnected from the elements that reflect their humanity (such as trees, for example), they have the tendency to lose it.

Open Space Public Housing

A comparison between the overlooked, public space designed at the human scale, and the negative effects of the opposite in public housing (Image: Studio Engleback and The Affordable Housing Institute)

Accessibility between residents and community mixed-uses, such as transit, retail and schools, are just as important as the form of open public spaces. Public space can only be healthy if it is actually used. If people do not use it as a pedestrian route from their home to local destinations, it may become less used, less loved, and less looked-after. One of the largest issues in public housing complexes is the maintenance of open space. One of the largest reasons is because people can feel like it doesn’t belong to them. If people have an emotional connection to a place, they will want to care of it. Level of activity is crucial to the success of public spaces, which is directly dependent on a development’s location to its surrounding neighborhood and strong physical connections with its context. If a development is within a hot climate, trees (as the author states), are crucial in providing a micro-climate in which people can still use a space all year round, which is imperative to maintaining activity. However, while Sigrist says that hedges are acceptable despite their disconnecting effect of residents from the public realm, I completely disagree. Not only do they impede access, they prevent overlooking and harbor unsafe places.

While the last two principles, material and style, certainly contribute to the health of open, public spaces, they are not necessary; if we achieve the first 4 we have fought 99% of the battle. This research shows that the success of public housing, or any housing for that matter, is dependent on their location in relation to mixed-uses, the human scale of the architecture, and defining the relationship between buildings.

The takeaway of this research is that the issue of public space must be considered at the nascent of the planning process…some benches can’t fix what is already broken. Also, the slight difference and fine minutia that differ between an urban designer and an urban planner discussing the same issue is evidence that the built environment is a challenging and complicated professional sector. If we learn to work together, and fill in the gaps that our expertise leaves, we can create big change and solve even the most challenging problems….So, an architect, a planner, and an urban designer walk into a bar…

Semantics: Redevelopment vs. Regeneration.

21 Jun

I received my urban design and planning education in England, which sometimes leads to little, yet awkward, misunderstandings. It has been a slight challenge to get comfortable in the drastic differences between the two planning systems, but mostly I have made peace with the translations. However, one term: regeneration, which is often substituted with redevelopment in America does not sit well with me. People see my specialization: “Urban and Regional Regeneration” and they ask me, “what is regeneration? Is like redevelopment?”

The answer is yes, and no. They overlap quite a bit, and while the number of anomalies are few, they are so distinctly different, that the terms are more dissimilar than at first glance. In its simplest form, to redevelop, is to develop again, which implies doing it over completely. While regeneration most directly means “rebirth or renewal” of something, implying that the entity remains throughout the process. In my experience these simple definitions distinctly describe the difference in the urban planning context.

The American Planning Association (APA) defines redevelopment as “one or more public actions that are undertaken to stimulate activity when the private market is not providing sufficient capital and economic activity to achieve the desired level of improvement. This public action usually involves one or more measures such as direct public investment, capital improvements, enhanced public services, technical assistance, promotion, tax benefits, and other stimuli including planning initiatives such as rezoning.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) defines regeneration as “a holistic process which aims to reverse the economic, social and physical decline of places where market forces alone will not suffice. The planning process provides the opportunity to enhance the role and capacity of communities as well as balancing community, business, environmental and individual needs. Effective regeneration requires active and meaningful long-term community engagement and involvement, as well as changes to the physical environment.”

The slight difference in definition is that redevelopment focuses on monetary investment and physical changes. Regeneration focuses on the existing community and “social decline” of a place, equally with the economic and physical factors. It even goes further to say that it addresses “holistically,” “individual needs.” Of course there are many redevelopment projects that do address the community, but because the APA distinctly says that “the private sector may initiate redevelopment projects without any active public involvement beyond the government’s traditional regulatory role,” I would argue that it is not enough to measure against the social investment of regeneration.

Perhaps the distinct difference in the responsibility to act directly on behalf of existing residents versus the primary goal of monetary investment is that England’s planning system is much larger and more politicized (and therefore receives more federal funding.) Of course, this comes with its own hindrances, but in this case social decline being put on equal footing is well worth what some call the overreaching arm of the government. While in America, gentrification might be seen as an inevitable and therefore an accepted side effect of redevelopment, in England, I would argue it is seen as sometimes inevitable and therefore tragic side effect of regeneration.

To illustrate this point, let me give you an example of the power behind a true regeneration project: Angell Town in Brixton, London.

Angel Town, Brixton

Angell Town Brixton Estate - Improvements

The urban design and physical improvements made at Angell Town Estate.

Problem (courtesy of Rudi):

  • Lack of public space for social interaction – derelict communal areas were unused.
  • The garages provided were dark and unsurveyed, and therefore, never used.
  •  The estate was perceived as crime ridden as the multiplicity of bridges and walkways provided ideal escape routes for criminals, often from outside the estate itself.
  • Litter accumulation resulted from removing the bridges (which gave access to the waste removal pick-up points), in an attempt to reduce crime
  • The estate came to epitomize neglect and decline
  • The estate became stigmatized a sink estate.

Solution – A summary of simple urban design changes:

  • The first main part of the scheme involved re-orientating the existing deck-access housing into a more “normal” street format, based on terraced dwellings which related to the street through individual entrances.
  • Each dwelling was given an individual, recognized identity (surveillance on the street was improved, as windows now faced directly out
  • Terraced housing replaced the monotonous, unsafe corridors of entrances.
  • The pedways, which were perceived as unsafe, were removed so that the houses could be extended to face on to the street.
  • New central grassed areas were defined as focal points for the houses. These areas were separated from the new vehicular perimeter roads by railings, enabling children to play, away from the danger of traffic and dogs.
  • The un-used garages on the ground floors were replaced with shops and community facilities, such as a bar, cafe, workshops, and even a recording studio in one area – to provide the previously, much lacked social amenities. This design measure also helped transform dark and bleak spots into animated facades of street level activity.

Instead of looking at this place, and only seeing its problems, the urban designer, planners, and architects looked at them as opportunities to build on the strong community that had lived there for decades. The project improvements didn’t eradicate every trace of the place that had become their home, but committed a large investment to renovate the buildings they could and design the new ones to complimented the existing so well you had to look hard to tell the difference between the two. Members of the community could still look and see where they came from, in other words, it still felt like home, but most importantly they could look again a little harder and see their bright future. This might sound like I’m laying it on a little thick, but the success of this regeneration stunned so many nationwide, and contental-wide, that intense project documentation occurred, including resident interviews. The members of the community realized what so many times planners don’t: they looked to their physical environment to define their identity. With the existing bones of the original Angell Town Estate still in existence, they easily correlated the physical improvements to be improvements in themselves.

This outstanding result came from an intense and time-consuming community consultation process (another distinctly different term than public involvement). The lead urban designer was so involved with the community that he actually lived there are the weekends in a flat. While this is rare in either country, it certainly is to be commended.

Perhaps the most powerful item in Angell Town now are the benches that poetically are made from the rubble from the demoed parts of the old buildings, caged, with a stone seat atop them. People can actually sit on the physical representation of what was destroying their community: a poorly designed public realm. This was recited by residents often as what made the biggest difference to them. Don’t ever underestimate the power of poeticism.

Caged Rubble Wall

Caged rubble representing moving forward to a healthy and safe community.

I will let you make your own observations and would love for you to share them on this blog. But I invite you now to look at redevelopment projects that have occurred in similar conditions (public housing sites) in America:

So, what will it be redevelopment or regeneration?

Magnolia Street New Orleans Louisiana

The Magnolia Street homes that were demolished even though they were listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance as an early federal housing effort in New Orleans….replaced with “traditional” suburban housing. (Images: CoLab Radio and McCormack Baron Salazar)

Mission Hill Boston Design

What does it say to a community when you eradicated everything that was their home and build it back with sub par architectural crap? (Mission Hill, Boston) (Images: Affordable Housing Institute)

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