Last week, I attended a panel discussion on low-rise, high-density housing marking the fortieth anniversary of Marcus Garvey Park Village in Brownsville, Brooklyn. While each of the speakers gave brief presentations, what follows are some thoughts on the discussion that concluded the event. I’m focusing more on attitudes and takeaways for the present and future than perhaps intended by the event (there will be a follow-up event specifically to discuss the current application of low-rise, high-density housing)...but given the conversation, it’s hard not to.
On a long-enough timeline...
A funny thing happened while I listened to the wrap-up panel discussion at last week’s event: Ted Liebman described the conversation on “low-rise, high-density” housing development, almost verbatim, as my partner and I described it earlier that day. To call “low-rise, high-density” an architectural housing typology is a misnomer, and in the long trajectory of architectural history its consideration as a typology is discomforting like an inverted anachronism. The cited criteria for “low-rise and high-density development” has been the urban model for the majority of human history and persists through today as such. In short, the elevator enabled building higher than what we today call “low-rise,” while the car enabled development at lower densities. Prior to the widespread adoption of those two inventions, all non-rural settlement has been what we would comparatively (relative to today’s popular understanding of large cities) describe as both low-rise and high-density. Thus to look to these criteria (four stories or fewer, greater than fifty dwelling units per acre -- both are represented as pink in the graphic above) as those that may yield successful urban projects is realistically to evaluate the existing evidence base of all cities prior to industrialization. To look to Marcus Garvey as an exemplar of this model would in turn necessitate evaluating it within that history rather than solely relative to the housing towers of American Urban Renewal.
That’s not what happened in the discussion. Still it’s a good starting point for me, because the successes and failures of Marcus Garvey and the forty-years-later lessons from the project aren’t about whether it was better or worse than what came immediately before it. Nor, based on the discussion, are they much about architectural typology. Rather, to my surprise and admittedly through my lens, the conversation kept returning to an underlying question of how comfortable architecture is with urban planning.
Planning-type thing 1: Land Use and Zoning
We’re not really talking about a typology here, right? There are several different architectural typologies that are each low-rise and high-density. (Consider Marcus Garvey versus rowhouses.) We’re talking about the sorts of things that sit dead-center in an urban planner’s wheelhouse, namely zoning. After all, in its most basic form zoning regulates three things: (1) land use, (2) building height or overall bulk, and (3) the density of buildings and their contained uses across an area. (Marcus Garvey: low-rise, high-density, single-use housing.)
The distinction between architectural type and the principles of zoning (along with the relationship of each to development and policy) is important because of what amounted to a nervous avoidance of the critical questions on architectural agency. By and large, the project's shortcomings after forty years were chalked up to budgetary constraints, a lack of maintenance and administrative accountability, and the socioeconomic condition of the neighborhood.* These are heartbreaking realities for the sort of idealism that went into Marcus Garvey, but they are realities nonetheless. More importantly, they were certainly presentrealities forty years ago when Pruitt Igoe (was) imploded under failures of policy, failures of management, and (maybe even) failures of design. By claiming density and bulk as elements of architectural typology rather than planning (after all, each can only be meaningfully understood within the larger scope of the city) architecture gives itself a rationalization against fully engaging the issues of planning, the issues of the urban context with all of its messy realities.
Planning-type thing 2: Social Responsibility & Political Agency
Further, we (architects) can neither abdicate nor absolve ourselves of our responsibility to these realities especially when working within a cultural and architectural climate undeniably aware of the long-term challenges of low-income housing. While none of us can predict the future, if we intend for anything to stand for forty-plus years then a certain attention to the foreseeable difficulties must be paid. I don't know the extent to which those foreseeable challenges were discussed at the time, but I can know that writing off the social, political, financial, and economic problems at Marcus Garvey (as was done last week) as problems unrelated to architecture suggests an unwillingness to engage architecture's agency vis a vis its responsibilities.**
Countering this stated "write off" from one panelist, an impassioned comment was made from an audience member (whose name I don't know, but wish I did) toward the end of the discussion, a point largely missed (except, I think, by Nadine Maleh) prior to the comment: We're talking about housing, low-income housing, urban low-income housing. It's messy. It's difficult. It's convoluted and complex, caught within a forest of interconnected yet administratively siloed issues ranging from cultural norms to policy environments to institutional racism and structural poverty to existing infrastructures and city fabrics to development budgets and maintenance costs and (eventually) to what the building/project may actually be and how it might function. As architects, we can choose not to engage the question of urban, low-income housing -- as many do. But if you do, you are engaging the whole, big, messy, difficult beast of a thing that it is. The design of housing is not another silo; it's the manifestation of and action upon all of them.
Another Chance for Housing was predicated on trying again after the symbolic disaster of Pruitt Igoe and projects like it. Recall that Pruitt Igoe was not only conceived to help create a mayor's vision of a "Manhattan on the Mississippi" only to be value-engineered to incredible density within a city of declining population without a cogent strategy for dealing with that combination. Recall that it was also the site of groundbreaking tenants' rights organization and mobilization and the nation's first public housing rent strike. While bittersweet, these are major successes. The circumstances requiring these developments for low-income tenant rights are sad failures, but I am thankful that these community precedents now exist.
And in truth, the important failures and successes of the high-rise housing projects of Urban Renewal have little to do with typology, little to do with scale, but very much to do with architecture -- insofar as architecture positions itself as the profession capable of intervening in spatial and organizational processes by intervening in space itself. As such, architectural propositions made in response to those failures and successes will see no improved efficacy with changes to typology and scale alone. Density and land use, for instance, can only be meaningfully understood with relative metrics and comparisons.*** In fact, architecture’s professional value proposition continues to be its synthetic and strategic design processes -- the architect’s ability and responsibility to navigate, (re)mediate, reconcile, compromise, and connect the enormity of top-down institutional, structural, and bureaucratic constraints with the bottom-up needs, experiences, and expectations of residents and members of surrounding communities...for the foreseeable life of the project. We may not always be successful, and there will likely be more failures than successes. Still, architecture is neither exempt nor exonerated by shirking, by falsely claiming that it isn’t our job to try.
*I said “chalked up,” in the next paragraph I said “written off,” and I also make some claims about being able to foresee these issues. In the interest of clarity: both the situation (political, financial, and socioeconomic) in 1973 and that which developed in Brownsville since 1973 were cited as explanations for the project’s shortcomings and excused as non-architectural. This situation was not unknown in 1973 and not disconnected from the architectural intervention. In fact, the Brownsville site was chosen in large part after its designers, planners, and developers assessed it as “a neighborhood that has recently suffered serious deterioration” (Edward J. Logue, 1973: 3).
**Yeah, so, I'm conflating codes of ethics here. It's a hazard of being an architect-planner. The AIA's Code of Ethics has decidedly less to say about things like responsibility to future residents, residents who are not technically clients, and issues of social justice in general than the AICP's corresponding Code.
***The density of housing units measured in acres is almost meaningless within the context of urbanism without relative consideration of the various physical, economic, and social infrastructures (access to transit, schools, jobs, and other opportunities that are similarly measured by density) to sustain that density of housing. Whether tall or short, another high-density single-use housing project simply reproduces the unsustainable patterns of high-density single-use housing projects.