So, property and school districts are both legal structures that have strong effects on the perception of space and the organization of social networks. But generally, the legal structure that affects the commercial and economic growth of spaces is zoning.
Zoning, quickly, is a Progressive-era policy from the early 1900s that dictates what uses can or cannot exist on a certain piece of property or in a general area. The Modern Movement picked up the concept as a way of guaranteeing a healthy city, as did the Garden City and Regional Planning movements. Generally, its effects have been good – like keeping smelting plants away from residences. But it’s also led to unhealthy homogeneity and a commuter culture that was less prominent before governments began micromanaging the fabric of cities.
This is one of the wonkier posts, but it’s important to understand what has been planned for the area.
I mentioned earlier that I wanted to make an account of the many things Tenleytown residents have opposed over the years. For now, though, I’ll just to highlight one fight in particular, the oldest one that got any news coverage, and one that has some parallels to the current, pointless fight over the Macomb Street Giant.
Most residents and visitors admire the sleek moderne building that now houses a Best Buy and a Container Store. It is a registered landmark, ably capped by a Shalom Baranes-designed condominium. Critics and writers have shown almost nothing but praise for the structure, including Roger Lewis.
But in 1940, when Sears Roebuck first proposed the store, the neighborhood condemned the proposal and tried to stop Sears with all the weapons they had. Letters were written to Eleanor Roosevelt, lawsuits were filed, and many cried out for someone to think of the children. The primary concerns revolved around the Janney School, just as they have with the Library PPP and also in another dispute in 1991 about a homeless shelter.
In “Eyes That Do Not See,” Le Corbusier noted that airplane designers were unable to achieve heavier-than air flight until they understood the underlying issues of aeronautics – until they had posed the problem correctly. Until the tinkerers stopped imitating birds and kites and began investigating lift in a scientific way, they just produced spectacular failures and beautiful dreams. So, when looking through the finalists to the Reburbia suburban redesign contest, it was curious to see how, although many projects owe a debt to the Swiss architect, a great deal show confusion about the problems of “suburbia.”
Reburbia was a design competition where designers were invited to remodel, reuse, redevelop, and restructure the landscape of suburban development. Sponsored by Inhabitat and Dwell, the contest presented 20 finalists and a number of other notable entries for public viewing. Although they’ve already announced winners, the issues that appear in the submissions deserve more discussion. These open competitions are like fashion shows, where the offerings exist as inspiration for other designers more than practical solutions. Some of the ideas tossed around here might make their way into an abandoned mall, but the ideas that grow out of Reburbia are more important. As architects, planners, and citizens look for solution, we have to keep in mind what the problems are to judge any given solution.
Declaring that the suburbs need to be re-burbed begs the question of how much, and which kinds, of suburban development are unsustainable, undesirable, or inefficient. Following that line of thought, designers need to consider whether mitigation of costs can solve an issue, whether simply pulling out unfair subsidies would help, or whether a total revamp has to occur. The projects in Reburbia revolved around a handful of issues that are unique to automobile-dependent sprawl, as well as others that all cities face. The entrants posed their problems around land use, energy waste, sustainable energy production, loss of natural habitats, low density, unappealing or unwalkable street design, transportation inefficiency, water runoff, and the legal mandates for development.
Over the weekend, notable urban-issues political wonk Matt Yglesias wrote a passionate and well-meaning argument for greater density in the DC area that got it completely wrong. Yglesias claims that DC is suffering culturally and economically due to its height limitation, which inhibits the extreme density seen in Chicago or Manhattan. It also results in an uninteresting skyline to boot! Alas, he unconsciously bases his speculation in outdated thinking that assumes that commuter town is the optimal configuration of a city.
Yglesias makes three arguments: taller buildings with will increase tax revenue, improve livability, and reduce what he calls “job-sprawl.” In each case, he is partially correct, but also misses broader issues of urban land use and planning. Primarily, he misunderstands the qualities and causes of density, mistaking the unique and exceptional conditions that created metropolises like New York, Chicago, Tokyo, and Paris for natural growth.