Urban Planning Is Sexy

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At 22 years old I began covering planning commission meetings in a Western Chicago suburban township that resisted development like a Republican resists compassion. With relish I attended and write up meeting after meeting, entertained by the masses of denizens who showed up to complain. I’d never been exposed to zoning amendments or setbacks, ordinances, or the like, but anyone who’s read me for a while knows I tend to get a bit political, and, of course, I’m a space design writer. The level of detail that goes into development is riveting! The three-sided wars between developers, municipal government, and NIMBYs fascinates. Then you get to see what happens with that blighted lot or that empty parcel of residentially zoned land months later. This is progress, politics, and space design.
Now let’s bring that up to my more recent past: chiefly, China, where I had the opportunity to write about urban spaces.
I’ve just read Edward Glaeser‘s Atlantic Monthly piece, ‘How Skyscrapers Can Save the City‘, and admit to now finding urban planning and design even sexier than previously. Here’s part of why. The article discusses the quandary behind determining who exactly is the grandfather of the skyscraper (Chicago’s Louis Sullivan, please), skyscrapers’ impact on the (socio-)economic development of Chicago and New York, and the building process that actually constitutes a skyscraper (with him I disagree).

Here’s another reason I find urban planning sexy. People not in the industry don’t often consider how cities are planned, how they come to look and feel as they do. There’s no thought given to the significance to a city’s height, width, construction, and particular placement. Glaeser discusses this in delicious detail. He discusses New York, for instance. During its heyday of building lines up the sky, more and more ordinances were developed, naturally. This was partially due to people complaining the skyscrapers were taking the sun (a claim still heard ’round the world by NIMBYs). ‘A political alliance came together and passed the city’s landmark 1916 zoning ordinance, which allowed buildings to rise only if they gave up girth…. The code changed the shape of buildings,’ Glaeser writes, though it didn’t stop them by any means; it was, after all, an exponentially growing America. Now his next point sent my mind straight back to China. ‘Really tall buildings provide something of an index of irrational exuberance.’
China, and the Dubai of yesterday, is so high on itself that all it can build right now are skyscrapers (skyscrapers that bear little aesthetic value in my opinion, but what can I say about the lack of creativity abounding in the Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill offices of late?) Everything the country builds is a race toward some or another superlative claim, usually frivolous, dubious, and altogether overstated, sometimes to the point of lying. How many people do you think will flock to Guangzhou, China, because it has what’s allegedly the world’s greenest skyscraper or the world’s tallest (censored) communications tower? Anyways, I digress. Let’s return to the article.
‘The code also removed setbacks and replaced it with a complex system based on’ a ratio between interior floor space to total ground area, according to Glaeser. This is what’s known as FAR. The very concept takes me back to China, specifically to when I consulted for a talented and prosperous Chinese architect. The increasingly wealthy Chinese don’t live in spaces small as the already wealthy Japanese; the Chinese have unfortunately adopted America’s idolatry for enormous wastes of interior square footage. The architect and her fellow design staff bitterly complained about FAR restrictions, just as developers I’d covered 15 years ago in the Chicago area township. The difference was, that Eastern country’s use of FAR could practically be lifted from 1920s America. On one hand that demonstrates how far behind the country still is (50 to 70 years by most measures I experienced while there); on the other it’s kind of interesting the see that country, whilst growing as America was 90 years ago, is using the practices that gave us world-class cities.

You’ll have to read my book, when it’s finished and published, to further dig into my thoughts about China’s urban character. For now, however, suffice it to say what frustrates me about new, major metropolitan areas in India and China that they’re not paying attention to mistakes Western countries now admit and try to evolve from. These developing Eastern cities would rather get where we were a century ago and claim to be on par with us.
Then again, no one’s perfect. I can’t go to subdivisions even in Small Town USA without mentally perfecting their lack of walkability and landscape architecture, their lack of outdoor living spaces and their car-centric planning. Therefore, from suburban US to the megalopolis East, urban planning will remain sexy for me until there are no more cities.
I’d love to hear your commentary.

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