PHOTO ESSAY | Country Club Plaza | Kansas City MO
Photographs by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A
Opened in 1923, Country Club Plaza is a privately owned American shopping center in the Country Club District of Kansas City, Missouri. The center consists of 18 separate buildings representing 804,000 square feet of retail space and 468,000 square feet of office space. The standalone buildings are built in a distinctive Seville Spain theme and are on different blocks mostly west of Main Street and north of Brush Creek, which blends into the Country Club neighborhood around it. The area as a whole is often simply called the “The Plaza” (Source: Wikipedia).
It is all-too-easy to examine the figure ground of building footprints (top, above) and conclude that Country Club Plaza is defined by ‘strong edges,’ especially to the south (Brush Creek) and east (Mill Creek Park). However, this is misleading and less important than the relationship of ‘edge streets’ to the larger context of Kansas City in all directions. In fact, the spatial logic of the Plaza area (and Country Club Plaza, in particular) is simple, yet quite sophisticated. A central cross-axis (cardo and decumanus) defines the local catchment area (in black, see below).
A series of sequential ‘edge streets’ defined the relationship to the larger Kansas City context with the one closest to Country Club Plaza tending to split along the southern, eastern and western edges (in blue) for the purposes of traffic management. This includes Ward Parkway running parallel along both sides of Brush Creek (see below).
A series of major streets (in red, see above) farther afield – West 43rd Street to the north, State Line Road to the west, Gillman Road to the west, and West 55th Street to the south – define another edge to the Plaza area. It is this second edge that is the more important one for Country Club Plaza to access a regional catchment area since the cross-axis of the local catchment area reaches to each of these edge streets, helping to structure of the relationship of Country Club Plaza within a much larger area. The Plaza neighborhood itself then uses a series of streets of low/moderate length and connectivity within the interstitial areas formed by this classical morphology to generate its distinctiveness at different scales of movement (automobile, walking/biking) within Kansas City.
Plentiful on-street, short-term parking (2 hours or less) helps to slow down the traffic on the streets within Country Club Plaza itself though some road section improvements (central landscape medians instead of continuous left turn lanes) might prove more beneficial for the area over the long term.
Country Club Plaza makes very clever use of public squares and plazas (often in conjunction with fountains, for which the area is renowned) by turning over some of its most valuable parcels (street corners or “100% location”, according to William Whyte) for public uses. Some of these street corner spaces also operate as outdoor patio seating for restaurants and coffee shops. Most are quite successful, which emphasizes the greater importance of ‘people watching’ than the enclosure of space for a successful public square.
As pointed out by numerous New Urbanists over the years, Country Club Plaza provides for a generous allocation of off-street parking by ‘burying’ parking structures within the center of urban blocks. This is necessary due to the lack of an extensive rail transit system in Kansas City. The KC Streetcar, opened in 2016, has a limited route in downtown Kansas City. However, once that rail transit system expands, then Country Club Plaza would be an ideal candidate for a station; preferably in the central block, which is mostly composed of off-street parking and smallish, single-story retail space along the street frontage at this time (right of the photo below).
Planning Naked | May 2017 by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A
Your (hopefully hilarious) guide to most everything about the latest issue of APA’s Planning Magazine. It is a tale of two issues for May 2017. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Strange, that seems familiar.
“Oops, did I say too much? Something to think about…” James M. Drinan, JD seems to reveal way more about the professional organization’s underlying, flawed assumptions than he probably intended for the From the Desk of APA’s Chief Executive Officer article (pp. 5) of this issue. In fact, it is all there in the title, “How Do We Shape the New Normal?” Think about that for a moment. APA’s goal is not any sort of objective knowledge or the scientific truth about cities, which would have universal application regardless of whichever political party held power. Instead, by virtue of what is left unsaid, it represents something that is subjective, open to change and manipulation for the circumstances. It is an agenda that has to be ‘shaped’ to the political philosophy of the party in power; albeit, apparently only at the Federal level. This confirms APA is not a ‘neutral’ entity but a partisan one (big surprise, right). Other professional organizations have been supplanted by competitors for similar reasons in the past. Did I say too much?
Planners who forget to, you know, plan ahead. “Lessons Learned from the Oroville Spillway” (pp. 11-12 in the News Section) tries to turn lemons into lemonade. Short summary: some planners and engineers forgot to plan ahead and anticipate alternative scenarios associated with the damn and its spillway, which, if anything, shows a lack of imagination. It appears to be an example of government planning at its finest. Yes, that last comment is sarcastic.
Where’s all of the affordable housing? “Shipping-Container Homes Pose Zoning Challenges for Municipalities” (pp. 12 in the News Section) demonstrates why affordable housing is a nationwide problem as local governments impose regulatory controls on (potentially affordable) alternative housing solutions in order to artificially inflate local property values (tax revenues and sales profits in real estate for fun). Here is a little mental exercise: remove the issue of zoning out of the equation and the name of this article becomes only “Shipping-Container Homes for Municipalities.” That sounds promising…
Wait, Bourbon Street isn’t car-free already? Which was my biggest shock about the “New Orleans Ponders a Car-Free Bourbon Street” (pp. 13 in the News Section) article. Nice of APA to advertise just how far behind the United States really is when it comes to catering for pedestrians. People say cynicism is not a solution but it is hard to read a news item like this one without becoming a cynic.
Our devious plan to regulate Airbnb and its like out of existence. Here is the not-so-secret plan of APA, government regulators, and real estate industry members – representing the ‘suburban model’ perpetuation of the status quo over the last 70 years – in “Regulating Short-Term Rentals” by Edward Sullivan (Legal Lessons on pp. 14). Resist! The longer Airbnb and other share services prevail (even to the point of permanency), then the more hope there is for the future of our cities. Fight the power! Be a short-term rental outlaw! That statement is probably enough for me to be charged with inciting illegal activities in some jurisdictions.
A breath of fresh air. Finally, some solid reporting and writing in the three feature articles, “Immersive Technologies” by Emily Schlickman and Anya Domlesky (pp. 16-21), “Mapping for the Masses” by Jonathan Lerner (pp. 22-27), and “Dark Skies, Bright Future” by Allen Best (pp. 28-33). All of these articles (generalizing here) discuss the potential of their particular subject, their strengths and weaknesses, and even the possible shortcomings in the future. In 15 years as a member of APA, these three articles represent one of the best sequences in Planning Magazine during that time. 18 pages of pure bliss; more like this, please.
Then, we come to the low point for the May 2017 issue of Planning Magazine: National Planning Awards. News Flash APA! I strongly believe Daniel Burnham and Pierre L’Enfant would be deeply embarrassed to have their names associated with APA’s National Planning Awards in general and with these ‘winners’ in particular. Let’s skip over the irony that Burnham was an architect and L’Enfant was an engineer. I mean, what is APA going to do; name an award after Robert Moses. How embarrassing would that be? Moses sucked and everyone knows it now. Also, have you noticed APA does not (apparently) have a national planning award named after Jane Jacobs. APA’s Standing Committee for the Refutation of Jane Jacobs (see below) must be still hard at work.
Anyway, I do not want to spend too much time on these so-called awards. Judging by the full-page insert on pp. 48-49 practically begging for more entrants as well as the low quality of recent winners, it seems relatively clear that APA’s National Planning Awards are experiencing some problems staying afloat just like APA’s Planners Press. Or wait, should I have not said something about the failure and announced closure of Planners Press? Next time, maybe publish better books (just a suggestion).
Have you ever noticed when APA is embarrassed, Planning Magazine does not show any plans or satellite views of particular projects? I mean, it is almost like they do not want you to know that they are writing hosannas and/or handing out awards for suburban sprawl. Let us take one example, the 2017 National Planning Excellence Award for a Planning Landmark winner: Montgomery County, Maryland. Where is Montgomery County, you ask? It is to the immediate north/west of Washington, D.C. and to the near-immediate south/west of Baltimore, Maryland. Looks like an obvious location for high-density, urbanized in-fill between two growing metropolitan regions. You know, planning and design with foresight.
But wait, what is this? Gee, that looks like extensive physical evidence of suburban sprawl development patterns. The configuration of the ‘protected’ agricultural land is conversely that of the direction of the development patterns for Washington, D.C. from the southeast (the nearest urban center) to the northwest. Wait, it is possible this is part of a green belt for Washington, D.C.? Strange, I don’t recall the project description mentioning that information. Didn’t the Centre for Transport Studies at University College London demonstrate in the late 1990s that the effect of green belts was to increase auto-commuting travel miles, levels of carbon emissions, and suburban sprawl patterns (see The London Society’s refutation of green sprawl here). That is embarrassing. Not only is APA over two decades behind on this issue but they are actually still giving out awards for flawed policies perpetuating suburban sprawl.
But that’s OK. By implementing policies such as transfer of development rights (TDR) to protect agricultural lands, maybe Montgomery County dramatically increased density in its buildable areas. What is the average population density in Montgomery County, Maryland today? 3.2 people per acre. Mm, average population density for New York City (the ‘unicorn’ of American planning, I think it is far to say) is 43.8 people per acre. New York Ctiy is neary 14 times denser than Montgomery County, Maryland.
To paraphrase Britney Spears: oops, they did it again.
Planning Naked is an article with observations and comments about a recent issue of Planning: The Magazine of the American Planning Association.
Planning Naked | April 2017
Special Issue on Transportation by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A
The previous issue of Planning Magazine (March 2017) gave me an excruciating, migraine headache and I definitely lost my temper while writing Planning Naked. I watched about one year’s worth of slow but steady progress in the editorial/word choices of the American Planning Association go out the window in a hysterical, reactionary response to the election of President Donald Trump; assuming these Planning Magazine articles are queued out a couple of months in advance. The fault is not Trump’s but the ‘establishment’ using any excuse (however, flimsy) to assert the dominant planning paradigm of the status quo for the last 70 years, which can be simply summarized as ‘Cars, Money, and Bureaucracy.’ I don’t have much hope for this April 2017 Special Issue on Transportation doing much to alleviate my professional concerns since the special issue on this very topic two years ago was an unmitigated disaster; especially the cover of vehicular road signs, which still irritates me. Let us see what this issue has in store for us…
A car is still a car. On the cover is the “front of a Waymo driverless car at a Google event last December in San Francisco (see pp. 5). So yeah, ‘transportation is cars’ is once again the front and center visual for APA’s Planning Magazine special issue on transportation. I can hear their objections to this observation, “But, but, but, but we have articles about bike-sharing and mention pedestrians and walking and rail and nature.” Yes, you do but the graphics and digging into the substance of the content only illustrates how APA ‘talks the talk’, ‘drives the drive’, and even ‘drives the talk’ but refuses to ever ‘walk the talk’ when the rubber meets the road. OK, there are a LOT of mixed metaphors about lip service in there but you know what I mean.
Ditch the word transportation. Maybe Planning Magazine could start with something simple like changing the title of this annual issue to “Special Issue on Mobility” or “…on Movement”? Just a thought…
Oh, chase the shiny object. “The Road Less Traveled” by James M. Drinan, JD (From the Desk of APA’s Executive Officer, pp. 7) sets the tone for APA as a professional organization chasing the ‘next shiny object’ that just so happens to pass across its field of vision. The advertisement photographs of planners playing in the exhibit’s area of national planning conference (prior on pp. 2-3) only reinforces the idea: Computers! Pinball machines! Free promotional pamphlets! Up, close, and personal with a drone! Virtual reality! Projector graphics and ice cream scoops?!? (Not sure about that last one) In any case, for this issue, it means new “disruptive transportation technologies” and “calls for infrastructure investment” (translation: there is “bipartisan support” to give us money), which can be linked to “economic development principles (jobs!).” Ahem, how about better understanding the road most travel by most people first? All of the evidence suggests APA is still clueless about that.
Cars, money, and bureaucracy. All-inclusive including the inside/outside of the front and back covers, this issue is 56 pages long. About 65% is really about cars, money, and protecting/promoting the bureaucracy/regulatory regime of planners. The issue pays lip service to other issues but…
Good News! You can be an Outlaw, too. The “New Hampshire Greenlights Granny Flats Statewide” article by Madeline Bodin (News Section, pp. 13) is great news! However, it is extremely disturbing that “the New Hampshire planning community was mixed on [the law].” Of course, the planners and municipalities initially opposing the law introduced a condition requiring that granny flats be ‘owner-occupied’, which is an insidious attempt to limit affordable, rental housing for lower income and young people. The Outlaw Urbanist would like to encourage all New Hampshire homeowners to violate this law immediately and continually since the ‘owner-occupied’ provision is essentially unenforceable. We are all outlaws now! “Lord I never drew first, But I drew first blood, I’m no one’s son, Call me young gun…”
So that happened… The “Zoning and ADA Compliance” article by Robin Paul Malloy (Legal Lessons on pp. 14) is an inoffensive reminder for people who might fall short in common sense, basic decency, and good manners.
I’ll pass, thanks. “Here Come the Robot Cars” by Tim Chapin, Lindsay Stevens, and Jeremy Crute (pp. 15-21). Full disclosure: I have known Lindsay Stevens since 2003. She is a friend. I have also met Tim Chapin, who invited me to guest lecture at Florida State University in Fall 2008. I don’t know Jeremy Crute. Out of respect for Lindsay, I am not going to comment on this article about autonomous vehicles (i.e. driverless vehicles) based on a study conducted on behalf of the Florida Department of Transportation.
I love the smell of sarcasm in the morning. Q&A section about “Disruption: Bike-Share” (pp. 24-25) in which Planning Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Meghan Stromberg interviews Jon Terbush of Zagster, a venture-funded startup company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts that designs, builds, and operates bike-sharing programs. I absolutely LOVE Terbush’s response to Stromberg’s question, “What are the minimum requirements for bike share?” Terbush responds, “Well, I’d still say the vision is the most important thing.” You can feel Terbush’s sarcasm dripping off the page after receiving such a backward ‘trapped-in-the-box’ type of question. Well done, Mr. Terbush. You smacked down APA and Planning Magazine even if they seemed blissfully unaware of it.
You can do those things that are ‘generic’ to all cities. The Q&A section “Disruption: Ride Share” (pp. 26-27) is a straightforward discussion about profiteering on the share services associated with the automobile… as if ‘unlicensed taxi services’ haven’t been around for decades (such as in London). That is essentially what companies such as Uber and Lyft are, i.e. they are circumventing government regulations (nay, restrictions) on labor in the same way zoning out granny flats restricts affordable housing and owners’ ability to profit on their property without the blessings of government. In any case, Andrew Salzberg’s closing comment is great advice, namely to “focus on things that are eternally true.” Well said, sir.
Oh, parking, you’re so fine, parking’s so fine, it blows my mind! Oh, parking! Ahem, four pages about parking with all sorts of buzzwords designed to promulgate the status quo. “Parking is an asset for cities,” “It plays a vital role (in making money, I translated the ‘code’ for you here but the “Driven by Technology” insert makes it clear),” it is “an important planning resource,” and so on and so forth. I was especially amazed to read how parking is “helping to reduce roadway congestion.” Along the way, the editors implicitly promote the decades-long myth of every Main Street shop owner, namely ‘Main Street would survive if we only had more parking.’ Planning Magazine does not say that, of course, but instead tells us people “will avoid public parking” if you charge too much for it. They do not mean people might walk or use a bike. The little 1” x 3.5” insert for The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup within the context of this article is quaint. See: equal time (<sarcasm).
Insidiously lies the crown. At first glance, “Connecting the Dots” by Greg Griffin (pp. 32-39) seems like it is promoting the bike share concept. However, by tying bike sharing to inequity issues it is actually undercutting it. This is ironic considering the equity and standard of living impacts of not owning a car are much, much worse and pervasive in American society. This article is insidious because the key underlying issue is American settlements have been building large rectangular blocks, expanded road widths, and consuming land for centuries, which the automobile has only accentuated over the last century or so. It is the spread-out physical nature of the American settlement itself, which generates many of these inequity issues. However, by ignoring the real issue (planning and land consumption), Planning Magazine can use the inequity issue to undercut the bike share concept. Not overtly, you understand, but by throwing up ‘cautionary’ impediments along the way in the regulatory regime.
See: APA mentioned rail. Planning Magazine pauses in “Rail Relationship” by Raymond Besho (pp. 40-42) to remind us that freight rail traffic is worth a lot of money, too. They then prescribe solutions to promote rail freight at the expense of livability for human beings in settlements; all in the name of “safety.” Trains killed 265 people in 2016 (Source: Federal Railroad Administration). Wow, it is an epidemic! Automobiles kill more than 30,000 people each year. Perspective, people.
In closing. I want to close out this version of Planning Naked by repeating the opening line of the “Cultivating Stronger Connections with the Natural World” article by Timothy Beatley (pp. 49-50):
“Too often nature seems abstract and far away, difficult to know and touch in any visceral way.”
I would like you to think about that statement. I mean, I want you to think really hard about the opening line of this article in a national magazine of a national organization dedicated to the ‘art and science of designing cities.’ I hope you do not laugh too hard when you realize the statement is patently absurd.
At least, this time I kept my temper and I did not get a headache. This represents progress of a certain kind, I suppose.
Planning Naked is an article with observations and comments about a recent issue of Planning: The Magazine of the American Planning Association.
“The present contribution is a nice and proper scientific excursion through the fits and misfits of an emblematic “failure” of modern urbanism – Pruitt-Igoe, overcoming superficial critiques and less interesting commentaries on the case. I recommend it to be accepted for presentation at the conference and published (in) its proceedings.” (Referee Comment about M.D. Major research on Pruitt-Igoe for SSS11)
During the closing reception of Space Syntax 10 at University College London in 2015, Dr. Mário Krüger asked me to “promise” to attend Space Syntax 11 in Lisbon, Portugal in 2017 after attending my first Space Syntax Symposium since 1999. I politely promised to “try” to attend. Two years is a long time and I hate to make promises without knowing beforehand whether it will be possible to fulfill them. Mário noticed my equivocation, so he again asked me to promise to attend. He asked again… and again… and again… and again. Upon Mário’s fifth request, I finally offered the unequivocal promise to attend SSS11 that he was seeking from me. This created two problems for me: one short-term and the other long-term. I could delay answering the long-term problem until the last minute; namely, would I have the personal and/or professional resources (i.e. time, money, etc.) to visit Lisbon, Portugal in two years time? The short-term problem required an answer much sooner since the SSS11 call for abstracts was only five months away; namely, what suitable research could I possibly write about for the blind referee process of Space Syntax Symposia? I did not know.
However, finding an answer was one of many issues I was dealing with in the latter part of 2015, including the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) hiring me as a part-time, adjunct Professor of Urban Design in November, my subsequent relocation to that city in December, and preparing the syllabus/materials for the URBA 739: Economics of Urban and Regional Planning course at SCAD, which I would begin teaching in January 2016. I decided one of the lectures for URBA 739 had to be about social housing. I had conducted some social housing research in Europe during the 90s and I had also read a great deal about the most infamous public housing project of them all, Pruitt-Igoe, because I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. That was when the ‘lightbulb went off over my head’ (always an Edison bulb in my imagination). Space syntax is famous for its research into European social housing and crime patterns (see the “Back to the Street” article in The Economist). However, as far as I knew, no one had ever researched Pruitt-Igoe using space syntax. It was easy to understand why. Pruitt-Igoe was demolished in 1972-76 and, as I state in the paper, “any researcher is willingly wading into a distinctive American cesspool of racism and ideology sufficient to scare most people away” (Major, 2017; pp. 5).
The paper you can now download for free (see above and below) represents about a year of research and only 5,000 words about this particular subject. My first full, unedited draft of the paper was about 15,000 words. Quite frankly, this was also insufficient for the scope and multitude of issues raised by the design, management, and history of Pruitt-Igoe. For example, there is some delicate nuance preferable for many of the issues crudely summarized in the paper as well as additional material by other researchers, which deserve to be more fully described than I have time for even in the 2.5-hour course about Pruitt-Igoe, now available on The Outlaw Urbanist course website. I fully intend to expand this research into a book at some point in the future. This because Pruitt-Igoe remains an important lesson for us; one that many people still misconstrue or fail to understand altogether, where the consequences of future mistakes can be just as costly as our past ones if we are not careful. We consign Pruitt-Igoe as something solely belonging to the past at our peril. As Albert Einstein pointed out, “only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
In the end, researching Pruitt-Igoe was an often frustrating but hugely rewarding experience for me as an architect, urban planner, and native St. Louisian. However, as fate would have it, I could not answer the long-term problem to keep my promise to Dr. Krüger about attending SSS11 in Lisbon, Portugal. I simply do not have the resources at my disposal that so many other people casually take for granted to attend conferences worldwide. For failing to keep my promise, I feel bad and I apologize to Dr. Krüger. Nonetheless, the end-product of this journey is far more important for our profession than a broken promise so I am making my paper “A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Prutt-Igoe” freely available online for anyone to read. I welcome any comments or suggestions about the ideas discussed in the paper and, once again, I strongly recommend you watch the 2012 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, especially after reading my paper if you have not before seen the documentary.
NOTE: This research was paid for and supported by me. There was no grant to pay for this research. I have not had any classes assigned to me to teach for over a year (due to “declining enrollment”) so the Savannah College of Art & Design did not financially support this research, either directly or indirectly, in any way. This research was not born of any privilege except the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Enjoy!
For Providing Affordable Choice in Our Most Prosperous Cities From Housing Prices Being Less of a Burden to Their Citizens For Making Greenfield Sites Beneficial to the Public Good
Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A The Outlaw Urbanist
Undisclosed Location, USA
Every day brings another news article and/or more data about the affordable housing crisis in Western societies. The pungent perfume of Lotium Pour Homme drifts through the parks and streets of our most prosperous cities, which are crowded with men, women, and children in desperate need of human charity and/or physical shelter. These homeless and chronically poor, instead of being employed for their honest livelihood, are forced all the time to beg sustenance of family, friends, and strangers; or else queue long hours awaiting the welfare of the State; turn to thievery for want of work; re-enlist to fight for their dear, native country in Afghanistan and/or Iraq; or, egregiously sell their dignity to the Fourth Estate. All parties appear to agree about the deplorable conditions arising from the manifest lack of affordable choices in the housing markets of Western societies. Therefore, whoever could devise a fair, cheap, and easy method for readily available housing, thereby making more fair the socioeconomic conditions of our greatest cities, would deserve nothing less than his or her statue erected as the savior of Democratic Capitalism. However, our intention is far more than merely providing a fair solution to the housing crisis. The goal of our proposal is nothing less than the salvation of urbanism itself and the city as a physical artifact of our collective, human nature.
Many people have had different proposals – many discussed, some implemented, and others ignored – for solving this problem over the decades. Yet, the problem persists, even worsens to this day. This is because most solutions have been and are grossly mistaken in their approach to the problem. It is true, Keynesian economics does have some relevance to urban problems at the discrete scale; and what is Marxist economics but an extreme, all-encompassing version of Keynesian principles. However, our greatest cities, especially those in the United States such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Savannah, Chicago, and San Francisco, were the product of private industry, both individually and collectively, before the 20th century. What has the Keynesian-produced city become after the landmark period of 1926-1945 in Western societies? Milton Keynes, Orlando, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Phoenix to name but a few. These are not places but are the haphazard accumulation of more locations. They are blasphemous to the goals of sustainable urbanism and synergy of place. Fairness in housing is choices. The most abundant housing supply offers the most diverse of affordable choices under normal market conditions. We must pursue normality in our housing markets, not their continual perversion under Keynesian principles. This means private industry aggressively increasing supply.
At the same time, I have been assured by the publicist of a knowing Canadian of everyone’s acquaintance in New York, that thousands of acres of public parks and lands in our cities have enormous, untapped potential as ‘greenfield’ sites for private development to construct more housing supply in Western societies. The computations available to us strongly indicate the possibilities of ‘greenfield’ development might truly be without limit in resolving the affordable housing crisis by the provision of supply.
Central Park lies in the heart of the most densely occupied, urban area of the United States: Manhattan Island in New York City. Central Park represents approximately 850 acres of raw land. It is readily available for the construction of affordable housing at the center of our greatest and most wealthy city, where there are an abundant quantity of enviable employment opportunities for our poorest citizens, while still leaving approximately 20% of that acreage (170 acres) untouched as ‘pocket parks’ in the newly created neighborhoods.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of housing units in the five boroughs of New York City was 798,144 in 2000 with an approximate average density of 54.3 dwelling units per acre (du/acre). Residential density in Manhattan appears slightly higher with about 72,033 people/square mile in Manhattan, which translates into approximately 112.6 people per acre. An average household size of 1.5 people indicates an approximate housing density of 75 du/acre. However, let us be conservative in our computations and proceed based on an average housing density of a mere 65 du/acre, approximately 15% above the average for the five boroughs but 15% below the greatest development potential for Central Park.
The City of New York could transfer 680 acres of Central Park into the ownership of private industry without cost, upon the condition that the construction of affordable housing within certain price point limits must commence within five years or else such lands will revert to public ownership in the future. This will represent a tremendous opportunity for private industry to profit on the land without having to bear the costs of its purchase. At an average housing density of 65 du/acre, this would provide for at least an additional 44,200 dwelling units in Manhattan.
With further implementation of this strategy on more ‘greenfield’ development sites of New York City, the number of additional, affordable housing units will, in fact, approach a doubling of the current housing stock of Manhattan. There are approximately 28,000 acres of municipal parks in the five boroughs of New York. There seems little doubt that some of this public land may already exist as ‘pocket parks.’ Let us proceed based on the idea that only 50% of this acreage (14,000 acres) truly constitutes potential ‘greenfield’ development sites to be turned over to private industry for the construction of affordable housing. At an average housing density of 54 du/acre, this would generate an additional 756,000 dwelling units in the bound of the City of New York, effectively doubling the capacity of existing housing stock associated with Manhattan and potentially reducing housing prices by a significant percentage across the entire metropolitan region.
Indeed, 130 square feet per person of recreation space for those living in the five boroughs seems redundant and excessive in a country where there are six acres of land for every single man, woman, and child. One might describe such space allocation as extravagant. It is akin to the false piety of persons who pray in public for the sake of demonstrating their piety for all to see and behold. Behold! We have so much space and money that we can willingly waste both in our cities and forsake affordable shelter for the neediest of fellow citizens!
It is true the property values of all existing homes in Manhattan and across the five boroughs would experience significant declines in price. As other municipalities pursue this strategy of ‘greenfield’ development for more affordable housing in Western societies, properties in such cities will similarly experience a significant decline in the face of a rapid and dramatic increase in the housing supply. It is likely such decreases in property values will prove only temporary as market forces slowly re-assert themselves over time in the absence of the previous restrictions on housing supply. Such a period might last two decades, and perhaps as little as one for our most attractive cities, e.g. New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, Toronto, and so on.
This very knowing Canadian of everyone’s acquaintance in New York argues our most prosperous cities are populated by the most educated, politically progressive, high-minded, and enlightened of our citizens. Surely, such estimable citizens would be willing to temporarily sacrifice some amount of personal worth in the value of their homes/properties for the sake of a fair solution to our affordable housing problem. I am assured by numerous public proclamations about their most charitable nature on this matter and many others issues of similar nature.
It is also true that these new dwelling units in the heart of our most prosperous cities would only be affordable, in relative terms to nearby existing housing process, during the initial offering in sales to the general public. Eventually, the dynamics of the real estate market would reassert itself. This represents a tremendous wealth-generating opportunity for our most needy citizens through the mechanism of land appreciation. However, the initial injection of 44,200 additional dwelling units in Manhattan – and the potential increase of an additional 756,000 dwelling units in the five boroughs – would have a systematic effect across the housing market for the entire New York metropolitan region, effectively reducing the cost of housing in neighborhoods more peripheral to the five boroughs.
Nonetheless, the creation of affordable housing neighborhoods in the vacant lands of Central Park will perform a public good in another regard. It will finally end the suffering of the Upper East Side and Upper West Side residents in Manhattan, who have been long segregated from one another in social terms by physical barrier of Central Park itself. The new neighborhoods of the ‘Upper Central Side’ will forever bind residents of the Upper East and West Sides together in a new interconnectedness of brotherhood and charity.
It is also true that a ‘greenfield’ development strategy for some cities (e.g. unsuccessful ones such as St. Louis and Detroit) would be a fruitless gesture due to the number of public-owned lots arising from the wholesale demolition of historic housing stock over the previous seven decades. However, such municipalities may pursue a strategy founded on the same principles by the wholesale release of these public-owned lots to private industry with the same restriction imposed on the land in a ‘greenfield’ development strategy. Nonetheless, a ‘greenfield’ development strategy will also afford our most prosperous cities, especially those in North America, with an opportunity to further densify their housing and neighborhoods, thereby making public transportation alternatives such as rail transit more economically viable options in such cities over the long term.
Other municipalities of our most prosperous and expensive cities could elect to pursue this supply-side strategy for more affordable housing. For example, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California represents another potential ‘greenfield’ site of 810 acres (less 20% retained for ‘pocket parks’ of the total 1,013 acres). At a mere 50 du/acre, this could represent another 40,500 dwelling units introduced in short order to the San Francisco housing market. According to the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, they manage approximately 3,400 acres of parkland in San Francisco alone. Again, using conservative computations, this potentially translates into an additional 85,000 dwelling units with approximately half of that situated in the former Golden Gate Park.
In central London, the potential of ‘greenfield’ development sites for more affordable housing is significant in such places as Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens, Regent’s Park, Lee Valley Park, Richmond Park, and Hampstead Health, which alone could conservatively account for an additional 350,000 dwelling units in the London housing market.
Simultaneously, if every national bank and even all Federal, state, and local government agencies released all of the properties and housing units they owned on to the market, this would have an immediate effect of reducing cost by dramatically increasing the supply of housing and/or sites for housing. Indeed, for at least a decade now, perhaps even longer, our national banks, many headquartered in the Wall Street ‘heart’ of Manhattan, have desperately sought a means to make a more honest profit. Releasing all of the properties on their books will be an important step along their way to redemption in the eyes of our fellow citizens.
Bibliography and References Population density and land area data compiled based on U.S. Census Bureau, Wikipedia, City of New York, City of San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, and Greater London Authority.
Florida, Richard. 2016. “Mapping How America’s Metro Areas Voted.” CityLab, December 1, 2016, retrievable at http://www.citylab.com/politics/2016/12/mapping-how-americas-metro-areas-voted/508313/.
Major, M.D. 2017. The Syntax of City Space: American Urban Grids. New York: Routledge Books/Taylor & Francis Group, forthcoming in Fall 2017.
Swift, Jonathan. 1729. A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick.
Central Park, Manhattan: Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, retrievable here.
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco: Photograph by Rich Prillinger, retrievable here.
New York, New York with Building Footprints: Originally available from schwarzplan.eu, retrievable here.
San Francisco, California with Building Footprints: Originally available from schwarzplan.eu, retrievable here.
London, United Kingdom with Building Footprints: Originally available from schwarzplan.eu, retrievable here.
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