July 22, 2012
Pham et al on Vegetation Distribution
There has been a lot of talk lately about distribution of vegetation in urban areas. The changes are so stark that we can identify low income communities from satellite photos just on the basis of tree cover. This new study illustrates this phenomenon examining Montreal.
Spatial distribution of vegetation in Montreal: An uneven distribution or environmental inequity? By Thi-Thanh-Hien Pham, Philippe Apparicio, Anne-Marie Séguin, Shawn Landry, Martin Gagnon in Landscape and Urban Planning (2012)
Growing evidence is showing that across North American cities, underprivileged populations and racial and/or visible groups have disproportionally less access to vegetation than affluent groups, raising concerns of environmental inequity. This study aims to verify whether in Montreal (Canada) there is environmental inequity resulting from variations in urban vegetation for low-income people and visible minorities. More specifically, various vegetation indicators were extracted from very-high-resolution satellite images, including the proportion of city blocks, streets, alleys and backyards covered by total vegetation and trees/shrubs. Socio-demographic variables were obtained from 2006 Canada Census and rescaled to the city block level, by using a population-based weighing method. Statistical analysis indicates that there are disparities in the distribution of vegetation in Montreal which disfavour low-income people and, to a lesser extent, visible minorities. Disparities are also more pronounced on public land (streets, alleys) than on private land (backyards). Income is a major factor but cannot fully explain inequities among visible minorities. Notwithstanding the weak extent of such disparities, those vulnerable communities might need a better access to ecological services provided by vegetation, notably such as heat island mitigation. Compensatory equity needs to be addressed and our findings call for authorities to reconsider greening budgetary allocation and practices, especially in the most deprived neighbourhoods of the city.
July 17, 2012
Welcome John Infranca
John Infranca is a Legal Research Fellow at the Furman Center. Prior to joining the Center, he served as a law clerk to Judge Julio Fuentes, United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and Judge Berle Schiller, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. John received a J.D., Order of the Coif, from New York University School of Law, where he was an editor of the New York University Law Review, a Lederman Fellow in Law and Economics, and a fellow in the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program. He also earned a B.A and an M.T.S. degree (in moral theology) from the University of Notre Dame. After college and during graduate school, John worked with a number of homeless services organizations, as a case manager for refugees, and as the director of a service learning program in Mexico. He has authored law review articles on the Earned Income Tax Credit and the informal economy, on protecting social security benefits from bank freezes and garnishments, and on institutional free exercise and religious land uses. At the Furman Center, John’s research focuses on land use regulation, affordable housing and urban policy. His recent projects have included providing technical assistance to the court-appointed monitor overseeing a fair housing settlement, analyzing the impact of the market downturn on multi-family rental housing, and legal and empirical studies of development rights transfers, rezonings, and residential landlord characteristics and behaviors.
John already has some great writing out there, and I've seen him at ALPS; we're thrilled to have this rising star join us at the Land Use Prof Blog for the next month.
July 14, 2012
There is a lot of exciting stuff going on at CUNY these days. Not only have they got themselves a shiny new campus in Long Island City, the just inaugurated their new Center for Urban and Environmental Reform (CUER –pronounced “cure”). Headed up by Rebecca Bratspies, this new center is one of the few places engaging specifically with urban environmental issues. Such an endeavor necessarily involves land use issues. I was lucky enough to be invited to CUER’s inaugural scholar workshop. Titled a “Scholar’s Workshop on Regulating the Urban Environment,” the event brought together scholars from multiple disciplines as well as activists and policy makers. It was an interesting format for an event and I enjoyed hearing from architects, historians, geographers and others. I think we’ll be seeing a lot of interesting events and endeavors from this new center. I know I will be keeping my eye on it.
July 14, 2012 in Community Economic Development, Density, Development, Downtown, Economic Development, Green Building, Historic Preservation, Housing, Local Government, New Urbanism, New York, Planning, Sustainability, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
July 11, 2012
The Thermodynamics of Urban Development
The Economist recently published a little piece on the persistent patterns spatial analysts continue to find in the development of urban centers. Some of them, such as the application of Zipf's Law to the relative sizes of the most populous cities, might seem familiar. Others, regarding frequency of social contacts within cities and regions, might connect you to research worth bringing into the classroom.
June 17, 2012
Smith and Wiek on Achievements and Opportunities in Initiating Governance for Urban Sustainability
Riley Smith, Arnim Wiek from Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy contents vol 29
The concept of urban sustainability governance has developed as an institutional guiding concept to holistically address the vitality of cities under a long-term perspective and is based on the collaborative efforts of government, administration, business, science, and the civil society. Yet, the initiation and implementation of this guiding concept faces a variety of barriers, including deficient conceptualization, unfamiliarity, detrimental organizational structures, and inertia. We examine the initiation of urban sustainability governance in the City of Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. On the basis of the reviews of administrative documents and interviews with staff across various administrative levels and units, we reflect on achievements and shortcomings against guidelines of urban sustainability governance spelled out in the literature. Our study indicates accomplishments in the conceptualization of a vision and overall framework to operate from, but also a number of deficits in specifying sustainability targets, applying governance principles, and evaluating impacts. Additionally, we discuss how administrative structures influence how urban sustainability governance is being implemented. We draw conclusions regarding general factors for succeeding in the initiation and implementation of urban sustainability governance.
Keywords: sustainable governance, principles, guidelines, governance implementation, evaluation
June 15, 2012
The Death and Life of Affordable Housing--panel video
Via Congress for the New Urbanism, I came across this link to what looks like a great panel discussion hosted by the Cato Institute and cosponsored by Next American City, called "The Death and Life of Affordable Housing." Here is the link to the video. The session features a terrific lineup of thoughtful commentators. From the event description:
Featuring Ryan Avent, Author of The Gated City; Adam Gordon, Staff Attorney, Fair Share Housing; Randal O'Toole, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute, and author of American Nightmare: How Government Undermines the Dream of Homeownership; Matthew Yglesias, author of The Rent Is Too Damn High; moderated by Diana Lind, Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief, Next American City. . . .
The Cato Institute and Next American City will jointly host a panel discussion about housing and development policy in American cities. For several decades, U.S. policymakers have grappled with how to make housing more affordable for more people. In the past year, several new books have claimed that various government tools, such as zoning and subsidies, have limited people's access to desirable, affordable housing—while other leading thinkers have suggested that markets alone will not create socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable communities. With a shared goal of creating livable, affordable communities for all people—but diverging ideas of how to get there—the panel will give voice to a range of perspectives on the hotly debated issue of how to shape 21st-century American cities.
I plan to check it out this weekend. Enjoy,
June 15, 2012 in Affordable Housing, Books, Conferences, Development, Environmentalism, Housing, Lectures, Planning, Scholarship, Sustainability, Urbanism, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
June 06, 2012
Brookings Paper on the Economics of Walkable Places
Christopher Leinberger (Brookings) and Mariela Alfonso have published Walk this Way:The Economic Promise of Walkable Places in Metropolitan Washington, D.C., an economic analysis of certain DC neighborhoods using walkability measures. The study offers four findings:
--More walkable places perform better economically.
--Walkable places benefit from being near other walkable places.
--Residents of more walkable places have lower transportation costs and higher transit access, but also higher housing costs.
--Residents of places with poor walkability are generally less affluent and have lower educational attainment than places with good walkability.
The authors urge inclusion of walkability measures into lender underwriting criteria, developer feasability analyses, and private foundation sustainability metrics. In a brief article on TheAtlanticCities.com, Leinberger argues that walkability in neighborhoods has become a price benefit and that cities need to meet the growing demand. (Hat tip to my NDLS colleague Chris O'Byrne for sharing TheAtlanticCities.com piece)
May 22, 2012
Today I was listening to a podcast from the Congress for the New Urbanism's annual meeting last week (more on CNU 20 to come . . . ), and I heard a talk by Charles L. Marohn, Jr., the Executive Director of a nonprofit called Strong Towns. The organization is dedicated to improving community life at the town and neighborhood level. Here's a link to its ten Placemaking Principles for Strong Towns.
What looks like the best feature is the excellent Strong Towns Blog, which posts in-depth original analyses three times per week. Recent posts are on topics such as "The Micro City Beautiful"; Low-Impact Development (LID) vs. New Urbanism; and weekly news digests of interesting land use and planning stories. Check it out.
May 18, 2012
Sun on Smart Growth in Dumb Places
Lisa Grow Sun posted this paper last year. It should be of great interest to land users: Smart Growth in Dumb Places: Sustainability, Disaster, and the Future of the American City. The abstract:
One of the many lessons of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan is that we cannot mitigate disaster risk through building codes and other structural solutions alone. Location is key to a community’s natural hazard vulnerability. Consequently, the most far-reaching and important question for disaster mitigation today is where we will channel the growth that will be needed to accommodate our expanding population. Yet, both environmental scholars and policymakers are promoting sustainability initiatives that will channel our country’s future growth into existing urban areas that are already extremely vulnerable to disaster. Indeed, many of these policies - and the legal tools used to implement them - are channeling growth, not only into particularly vulnerable cities, but into the riskiest areas of those cities. This Article is the first to identify and explore this critical tension between disaster mitigation and current sustainability policies.
The impact of current and future disasters on land use is a very important policy issue. Sun offers a different take on the conventional wisdom--which I have indulged in too--that more urbanism is always better. Sun suggests that we should be more discerning with our prescriptions.
May 16, 2012
Furman Center's State of New York City Housing & Neighborhoods
Last week the NYU Furman Center published its latest research on the State of New York City's Housing and Neighborhoods.
The Furman Center is pleased to present the 2011 edition of the State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods. In this annual report, the Furman Center compiles statistics on housing, demographics and quality of life in the City, its five boroughs and 59 community districts.
This year we examine the distribution of the burden of New York City’s property tax, analyze the changing racial and ethnic makeup of city neighborhoods, evaluate the state of mortgage lending in New York City and highlight the Furman Center’s latest research on public and subsidized rental housing.
Here is a link to the full report: http://furmancenter.org/files/sotc/SOC_2011.pdf
The Furman Center does the leading empirical analysis of land use policy today. This report shows that "owners of New York City’s large rental apartment buildings are subject to a higher effective property tax rate than owners of one-to three-family homes, and bear a disproportionate share of the city’s overall property tax burden." Very interesting stuff. Thanks to Meghan Lewit for the link. Here is the web link to the project, and the full report is here.
What Would Jane Jacobs Do?
Regular readers know that we love the National Building Museum. And any land use professional knows that we all love to talk about Jane Jacobs. So here's an event that might be of great interest: Urban Forum: What Would Jane Jacobs Do?
Fifty one years after Jane Jacobs published her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her ideas on liveable, walkable, and diverse neighborhoods continue to impact how urban environments are designed. A panel discusses Jane Jacobs’ legacy, including urban renewal, historic preservation, mixed-use zoning, and public space. Light refreshments will be served.
- Bing Thom, Bing Thom Architects
- Harriet Tregoning, director, Washington D.C. Office of Planning
- Susan Szenasy, editor-in-chief, Metropolis Magazine (moderator)
- John Zuccotti, co-chairman of the board, Brookfield Properties Corporation and former Chairman of the New York City Planning Commission
Free (but required) registration is available for the event on Sunday, May 20, 2012 at 10:00-11:30. Check it out! If you are able to go to WWJJD, I'd love to hear about it.
April 13, 2012
Gillespie on Judicialization of Urban Land Disputes in Vietnam
John Gillespie (Monash University) has posted Exploring the Limits of the Judicialization of Urban Land Disputes in Vietnam, Law and Society Review, Volume 45, No. 2, pp. 241-275, 2011. The abstract:
Economic and legal reforms have triggered waves of conflict over property rights and access to urban land in Vietnam. In this article I develop four epistemic case studies to explore the main precepts and practices that courts must negotiate to extend their authority over land disputes. Courts face a dilemma: Do they apply state laws that disregard community regulatory practices and risk losing social relevance, or apply community notions of situational justice that undermine rule formalism? I conclude that reforms designed to increase rule formalism in the courts may have the unintended consequence of reducing the capacity for judges to find lasting solutions to land disputes.
April 11, 2012
Southern California's New Regional Plan
My last post discussed some of the backlash against Southern California's new regional plan, which emphasizes high-density transit-oriented development. California Planning & Development Report now provides some of the details of the plan, including:
- a total cost of $524 billion over 20 years
- $6.7 billion in funding for biking and walking
- $246 billion on public transportation
- 80 plus percent of all jobs and housing within a half mile of rail stations or bus stops by 2035
- 68% of all new development would be apartment or condos.
April 09, 2012
Happy Dyngus Day!
I hope you all have had a happy holiday--not Passover or Easter, which were celebrated this weekend-- but rather today's holiday: Dyngus Day! Readers know that we like to do the occasional holiday land-use post, so here goes.
Dyngus Day is an east-central European tradition, primarily from Poland, that is celebrated on Easter Monday. It appears to come from a pre-Christian veneration of the pagan gods of water (Dingus) and earth (Smigus). It's linked to the spring themes of rebirth, renewal, and even "spring cleaning." Apparently the tradition is that on Dyngus Day the young men get to pursue the young women whom they wish to court with buckets of water and willow branches. Today, both sexes can participate and there seems to be much use of squirt guns and water balloons.
What's the land use angle? Well, first, the whole seasonal/earth/water/renewal theme resonates with the land. But the next chapter of the Dyngus Day story is how it flourished in America from the height of 19th Century Polish immigration to today, and that story involves the same local government and politics issues that are familiar to land use observers. Dyngus Day first became a big deal in northern U.S. cities with large Polish-American immigrant populations. The sources I've read haven't quite come out and said so, but my impression is that the original American Dyngus Day celebrations probably had the intention of serving as the Polish-American equivalent of an ethnic pride/civic engagement day along the likes of what St. Patrick's Day was for the Irish and Columbus Day for the Italians. Dyngus Day traditionally involved a mix of festival and politics, such as when RFK gave an important campaign speech at the West Side Democratic Club's Dyngus Day affair in South Bend, Indiana. So Dyngus Day is part of the great American history of urban politics and local government.
In the last couple of decades there seems to have been something of a Dyngus Day revival. Buffalo is leading the way on the Dyngus front. It claims to have the world's largest Dyngus Day festival. There are also significant Dyngus events in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, South Bend, Milwaukee, and other cities. Of course these community events require the involvement of planners, street closures, and permits. The Buffalo Dyngus Parade is a centerpiece, and everyone knows that civic parades have land use implications. They even have a facebook page. Mostly, it's just a good time, an important community event, and a good example of local public-private cooperation.
I studied a lot of Polish history as an undergraduate, and I have my own fond memories of one Easter Monday striking out away from campus into South Bend (once one of the world's largest Polish-speaking cities), seeing the parade, and ending up down at the American Legion's Dyngus Day party, with good kielbasa, pierogies, and music. Remember, Everybody's Polish on Dyngus Day!
April 06, 2012
Food Trucks, Land Use, and the Free Rider Problem
The food truck wars continue. In this piece on Slate, Matt Yglesias talks about several cities' and states' efforts to ban or regulate food trucks in a way that prevents them from competing with existing restaurants. He cites what he considers a particularly egregious example: a San Francisco ordinance that permits any existing business to comment on an application for a new vending license and directs the city to "consider" whether the new vendor will operate within 300 feet of an existing vendor in deciding whether to grant the license. Yglesias concludes: "a basic rule of thumb seems to suggest itself: The fact that business owners would prefer not to face competition is not a valid regulatory purpose."
This proposition would surely come as a surprise to most land use folks, who generally accept as a matter of course that land use regulations are, at their core, anti-competitive. From large-lot single-family residential zoning that inflates the cost of housing for the benefit of existing homeowners to anti-big-box store laws that are designed to protect quaint mom-and-pop businesses, zoning represents pure economic protectionism. Indeed, the San Francisco ordinance Yglesias mentions is pretty familiar: many zoning laws give neighbors the right to file a protest to a proposed land use change in their neighborhood, which can result in requiring the city to enact the zoning change by a supermajority vote or possibly even block the zoning change (I address the legality of these neighborhood zoning provisions in my article Neighborhood Empowerment and the Future of the City.)
Zoning laws are generally allowed to be anti-competitive because they are thought to be means of combatting free-rider problems. Economists like William Fischel and Bruce Hamilton have argued, for example, that a preponderance of expensive homes on large lots tends to correlate with higher-quality schools. But in the absence of large-lot zoning, people would have strategic incentives to build smaller, less expensive homes in the area just to have access to the better schools. Of course, if too many folks did the same, the very thing that attracted people to the area (the good schools) will be lost as the area becomes congested with smaller homes and more schoolchildren.
Food trucks, it would seem, present an even stronger free-rider problem. Foot traffic is drawn to an area because of the existing shops, restaurants, etc, and the foot traffic in turn generates a demand for more shops, restaurants, etc. Rents and property values go up, as do property taxes, and many high-traffic areas use special assessments or business improvement districts to provide collective sanitation or security services for the area (again overcoming a free-rider problem, as I explain in my Neighborhood Empowerment piece). When a food truck swoops into a high-traffic area, it pays no rent, no property taxes, and no assessments for that privilege, and its lower operating costs enable it to siphon some of that foot-traffic away from existing fixed eateries, thus free-riding on the efforts of those eateries to bring in the foot traffic in the first place. Think of it this way: if the food trucks are sufficiently successful to bankrupt the existing fixed eateries, leaving lots of vacant storefronts in their wake, people will stop coming to the area altogether, and the food trucks will move elsewhere. In other words, the food trucks depend on the existence of fixed eateries to fuel their business. But while fixed eateries pay taxes and fees for the ability to do business in a particular place, food trucks do not. So it should not be a surprise that existing businesses are unhappy.
The solution that suggests itself to me is fairly obvious: since business improvement districts are mechanisms for overcoming free-rider problems, than food trucks should be forced to pay assessments to the business improvement district or special assessment district in those areas where they operate. Legally and conceptually, though, this is difficult to accomplish because special assessments are, as a matter of hornbook law, supposed to be keyed to the benefits that accrue to real property. Because food trucks are not real property, it is difficult to apply the special assessment to them. But wouldn't it be possible for municipalities to use their home rule powers to impose some sort of free-rider fee on food trucks? I would hope that cities and states will consider this alternative rather than simply banning food trucks altogether.
For more on food trucks, see my colleague Ernesto Hernandez-Lopez's piece, LA’s Taco Truck War: How Law Cooks Food Culture Contests.
April 05, 2012
What's Buried Under Dodger Stadium?
A front-page story in today's LA Times throws some cold water on the celebratory mood surrounding the recent sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the upcoming 50th anniversary of Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. The story recounts how the city of Los Angeles acquired the land to build the stadium by uprooting (through the use of eminent domain) more than 1,000 mostly Mexican-American families who lived in the area. The story concludes with a chilling quote from one of the uprooted: "There's an old Mexican custom that where you're born, the umbilical cord is buried. Mine's buried under third base....And I hate home runs, 'cause every time they step on third base, my stomach hurts." The story of Chavez Ravine has been well told before, including by my friend Matt Parlow in his article Unintended Consequences: Eminent Domain and Affordable Housing, 46 Santa Clara L. Rev. 841, 843–46 (2006).
March 30, 2012
Schindler on The Conflict Between Local Governments and Locavores
As regular readers know, we have a fondess for blogging about chickens. Now our friend Prof. Sarah Schindler (Maine) has given us another opportunity with her new article Of Backyard Chickens and Front Yard Gardens: The Conflict between Local Governments and Locavores, forthcoming in the Tulane Law Review, Vol. 87 (2012). The abstract:
Locavores aim to source their food locally. Many locavores are also concerned more broadly with living sustainably and decreasing reliance on industrial agriculture. As more people have joined the locavore movement, including many who reside in urban and suburban areas, conflict has emerged between the locavores’ desires to use their private property to produce food — for personal use and for sale — and municipal zoning ordinances that seek to separate agriculture from residential uses.
In this article, I consider the evolution of this conflict and its implications for our systems of land use, local government, and environmental law. Specifically, I investigate the police power rationales for the existence of ordinances that disallow urban homesteading in urban and suburban communities. I then demonstrate that public health, civic virtue, and free market principles can be used to justify the passage of ordinances that would expressly permit these behaviors. Central to this analysis is a discussion of the problems caused by industrial agriculture and the lack of access to locally produced foods — food insecurity, food deserts, obesity tied to processed foods, monoculture-induced environmental catastrophes, harm to animals, and greenhouse gas emissions — all of which could be alleviated, at least in part, through urban agriculture. In recognition of these changing conceptions of harm, some local governments have begun to pass ordinances expressly allowing gardens, chickens, and the sale of produce in residential areas. I conclude by considering what this movement toward loosening restrictions on the use of private property says more broadly about the decline of Euclidean zoning controls and the future of land use law.
While the urban agriculture issues are very interesting in their own right, the implications of this article go to the heart of the modern discomfort with the legacy of traditional Euclidean land use regulation. Well worth a read.
March 28, 2012
Waldman on Yglesias, Avent, and Zoning and Property Rights
A couple of weeks ago, I sat down and read Matt Yglesias’ The Rent Is Too Damned High and Ryan Avent’s The Gated City back to back. Both were a pleasure to read, for their content, and for the opportunity to kick a couple of bucks to two of my fave bloggers behind an ennobling veil of commerce. As an avid reader of both authors’ online work, there were no huge surprises, but reading the ebooks took me deeper and inspired some more considered thought on their ideas. Ryan Avent and Matt Yglesias (and Ed Glaeser too!) are separate humans with their own identities and ideas. But these “econourbanists” share a core view, and I hope they will forgive me if I consider their work together. Although they arrive at a similar place, the two books take very different roads: Avent’s book is a bit wonkier and more economistic, focusing on the macro role of cities in enhancing productivity through economies of scale and agglomeration; Yglesias treats the same set of issues more polemically and with an emphasis on the personal, thinking about how individuals should expect to make a living in an increasingly service-oriented economy, the importance of accessible cities to the kind of prosperity he envisions, and the perils of any obstacle that makes urban life inaccessible (“the rent is too damned high!”). Read both!
This is a long post with extensive analysis of the reviewed work and the authors' own insights. Waldman is a qualified skeptic of the authors' approaches. A very insightful essay that grapples with the issues I am trying to address in my own scholarship. I am glad to add a new term-- "econourbanist"-- to my land use lexicon! Thanks to Geoff Corn for the link.
March 26, 2012
NYU's Controversial Expansion Plans
Property Prof Blogger extraordinaire and official Land Use Prof Blog Buddy Steve Clowney draws attention to an interesting recent column from NY Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman about NYU's plans to expand within Greenwhich Village. I agree with Steve's assessment that the column focuses too much attention on the effect the expansion would have on a little used plot of park space. It is curious that Kimmelman opens the column describing NYU's expansion plans as "acrimonious" but then immediately pivots away from describing any of the actual acrimony to an issue that only he seems to care about, to wit, this "underrated" park that nobody know exists.
Kimmelman's main argument appears to be that NYU itself is responsible for the park space in question falling into disuse, and so the city should leverage its zoning power to force NYU to make the park more accessible. At this point, I was running for my land use casebook to consult the Supreme Court's exactions jurisprudence (For land use newbies: governments are generally not allowed to leverage their zoning power for concessions absent an "essential nexus" between the concession sought and the land use approval requested).
In any event, I can't say Kimmelman is wrong as a policy matter. He may be right that the village needs more open space and that NYU's plan is antithetical to that need. To me, the most interesting part of Kimmelman's piece was his contention that the original Modernist "tower-in-the-park" design that spawned the endangered park space had actually done a good job of bringing much-needed open space to the village before NYU messed it all up. This is at odds with the conventional wisdom that the tower-in-the-park idea was a monstrosity that necessarily brought about extremely alienating public spaces (wisdom made conventional, of course, by a previous crusader against Greenwhich Village construction plans, Jane Jacobs). For an example of such an alienating space, check this out:
For those wondering, this is Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York, a gift of Modernist-loving governor Nelson Rockefeller.
I see an interesting parallel between Kimmelman's affection for Modernist park design in this column and his paean to the virtues of Modernist housing complexes in another column about which I blogged previously. Kimmelman seems committed to resuscitating a form of urban design that has been largely relegated to the dustbin of bad planning ideas. For that, I commend him!
March 14, 2012
The Greatest Grid: New Exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York
While visiting New York City recently for the Association of American Geographers' annual meeting, I took in a great exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York entitled The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011. The exhibit coincides with the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the famous street grid for the island of Manhattan. It is a fascinating exploration of one of the most significant urban planning endeavors in American history. You can see an overview of the exhibit here, and the New York Times Review of the exhibit here. My thoughts on the exhibit, with pictures, are below:
The major goal of the grid system was to enable the construction of cheap housing in a growing city. In 1811, most of the settlement in Manhattan was limited to the island's southern tip. North of that the land was broken up into large, irregularly shaped estates, such as this one:
The plan's architects believed that breaking up large parcels of land into smaller, more regularized and accessible parcels would encourage the development of smaller, mass-produced, and, hence, cheaper, housing.
Judged on these terms, the plan worked brilliantly. The exhibit illustrates this with a fascinating discussion of the estate of Clement Clarke Moore, known as the author of “Twas the Night before Christmas." Mr. Moore was the owner of a very large estate on Manhattan's west side called Chelsea (now a fashionable neighborhood of the same name). Moore initially opposed the division of his estate into small rectangular parcels, but he eventually accepted the inevitability of the grid and began subdividing and selling off small lots for housing, just as the authors of the grid plan anticipated. Moore's subdivision map for Chelea is below, and property nerds will note that Moore included restrictive covenants on all the lots, as indicated by the barely-readable text on the lower right-hand side prohibiting "nuisances of any kind" and the like:
As this map shows, the grid system encouraged (although it did not mandate) lots about 100 feet deep (1/2 block in length) and 20 feet wide for a regular dwelling. This way every unit would have access to sunlight from one side. Larger facilities would have wider lots at the same depth, and seminaries occupied an entire block. Similarly, the grid encourages a pattern in which buildings within a block are connected to each other to create a uniform street wall with a single vista leading out to the horizon.
In this way, although the grid was not aimed at affecting design, it had a powerful aesthetic impact, effectively encouraging a uniformity of design much as the later 1916 zoning resolution did.
Although the grid system provided a windfall for landowners like Moore, many landowners were very hostile to the grid scheme, seeing it as part of a land grab. The surveyors who came north to lay down markers for future intersections were often met with jeers or worse, and landowners were known to sabotage the markers. Eventually, the city began to use huge, heavy markers that were imbedded deeply into the ground so they could not easily be uprooted by angry landowners.
It's not hard to see why many landowners opposed the grid system. Manhattan was very hilly terrain, but the roads were laid out at a low, flat grade. As a result, many homes, especially those located at new intersections, were left lurching on a precipice, as here:
As you can see, although Manhattanites and the rest of us have accepted the grid as a matter of course, perhaps as an inevitable product of modernity, it was a massive disruption of daily life (and property rights) at the time and required some pretty heavy-handed government intervention to accomplish. I'll have more thoughts on the exhibit later.