Friday, December 15, 2006
[New York week, final post ...]
The biggest land use buzz in midtown Manhattan concerns the new Bank of America building under construction near Times Square. The 54-story tower is being touted as the city’s “greenest” office building –- it will include large amounts of recycled materials, will reuse rainwater, and will flush urinals with small amounts of oil instead of water, among other things. Many of the features required variances in building and zoning codes –- something that many non-traditional building plans (including new urbanist mixed used buildings) have to take into account.
A next step toward a “greener” world of office buildings would be to translate these environmental ideas into requirements. The federal Clean Water Act, for example, imposes upon most point source polluters the requirement to use some “best technology” to decrease their water pollution. A new generation of land use laws might require a similar series of detailed “best practices,” based upon environmental features, upon new office buildings.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
[New York week, continued ...]
It’s been called “the American Dream” –- owning a single-family home. And it’s testament to the successes of government, the private sector, and individual Americans that the homeownership rate (including condos, of course) currently is near a perhaps-all-time high of more than 68 percent of all households, despite the 1995-2005 housing price jump (which was fed in part by high demand, of course). But we can’t expect the homeownership rate to continue to rise (can we?) with a rapidly growing and urbanizing population on a limited amount of land. “Density” is what the future will hold, many predict, and density is often inconsistent with single-family homeownership. Will significant numbers of American families accept a “dream” of less than the old ideal in the 21st century?
For a source of a possible affirmative answer, we can look, of course, to New York City, where the homeownership rate is only about 30 percent. Even many affluent New Yorkers have accepted apartment life in Manhattan, of course. Today, a growing number of apartment buildings are popping up in what used to be single-family neighborhoods in the outer boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens (photo at left), the Bronx, and Staten Island. Who lives in these apartments? A large number of residents are immigrants (today typically from elsewhere than Europe), for whom a cramped and noisy apartment in New York may be major step up from the economic, political, and social troubles of their native countries. As the United States becomes a nation of immigrants and immigrants’ children, we may increasingly become a nation that accepts apartment living as a new and acceptable ideal, appropriate for a more crowded 21st century.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
[New York week, continued …]
What’s the most troublesome aspect of the pedestrian-oriented lifestyle of a Manhattanite, now that crime has plummeted and public transportation has been cleaned up (two achievements that seemed impossible as recently as the ‘70s, by the way)? It might well be dog poop. In my recent peregrinations around midtown Manhattan, it seemed that one couldn’t risk more than a few steps without scanning the sidewalk ahead for the unwanted brown smears. Why is there so much dog poop, while the rest of Manhattan has gotten cleaner? It may be that the replacement of young singles for families has led to a sharp rise in the number of companion dogs.
What should we do about the dog poop epidemic? Just grin and wipe it off (your shoes)? In the old stereotype of Paris, every shopkeeper finished his workday by washing down the sidewalk. A similar effort in today's American cities would fit with the model of private landowners as partial stewards of the public land and thoroughfares that facilitate their private ownership. The biggest lesson in governing over the past 30 years is that government cannot do everything; we need private participation in improving worthwhile public endeavors –- land use included.
Monday, December 11, 2006
I visited New York City recently, and took time to reflect on land use as I walked around the affluent residential quarters east and west of Central Park. Under sunny winter skies, life in a dense neighborhood of multifamily housing -- directly above restaurants, cleaners, and clothing shops -- seemed pleasant, sensible, and sustainable. From the Hudson River to the East River, well-heeled people are paying extraordinary sums for life in the city, without the personal space or back yards offered by the suburbs. Is this the way of the American future, as high gas prices and long commutes make suburban life no longer tolerable?
Then I noticed a couple of interesting phenomena. As I strolled past the wealthy apartment buildings and co-ops, I noticed a lot of couples with children, which pleased me. Then I noticed that the children were almost all very young. I saw many two-year-olds, but not many 10-year-olds. Then I noticed that I passed far more private schools than public schools. It appears that many prosperous Manhattan families stay in the city when they reproduce, but then depart for the suburbs when the youngsters reach school age, unless they are truly rich and can afford Manhattan private schools. A widespread American "return to the city" seems unlikely unless the nation addresses the perceived drawbacks of city schooling.