Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic, Inga Saffron, and the problem with short essays

A short essay by Inga Saffron titled, "What Champions Of Urban Density Get Wrong" is creating a lot of push-back. The most interesting part of the essay was the last paragraph:
     Of course, there are plenty of struggling American cites that would benefit enormously if they could reverse their sagging densities by attracting new residents. But the density has to be relative to what already exists. That might mean building mid-rises or blocks of tightly packed townhouses, so neighborhoods can step up density gradually. Density can be good for cities, but only if it’s the right density.
You can't get much more clear than that (as eyes roll round in my head).

It didn't take long for Michael Lewyn at Planetizen to write this post titled, "What Density-Phobia Gets Wrong"; he challenges the three myths espoused by Inga Saffron and the use of the new 'D' word in the modern American lexicon, "density":
     Myth 1: "Beware! The high-rises are coming!" Saffron writes that some unnamed "hard-line" density proponents "assume there is only one way to achieve real density. They use density as a rallying cry to justify the construction of more and bigger high-rises, in both America’s thriving cities and its hollowed-out ones."

     This claim is a straw man; I don't know of anyone who thinks that the "only" way to create more density is high-rises. Even in dense places such as Manhattan or San Francisco, huge increases in density could occur without skyscrapers. For example, San Francisco has many one- and two-story buildings. If most of those buildings were replaced by four-story buildings, San Francisco could be two or three times as dense, and yet still have no high-rises.
[and . . .]
     Myth 2: "If high-rises don’t solve everything, they don't solve anything." Saffron correctly points out that South Florida has plenty of high-rises but is not particularly walkable. But all this shows is that high-rises alone do not create walkability.

     To be walkable, a neighborhood must have the "3 Ds": density, diversity (of land uses) and design (for pedestrians). There are parts of South Florida (most notably Miami Beach’s South Beach) where all these elements exist together.
[and . . .]
     Myth #3: "Cities don’t have the infrastructure for more people." Saffron writes that Hudson Yards (a new development in Midtown) is a failure because "Midtown’s subway platforms and sidewalks are already oppressively crowded at rush hour." This argument, even if persuasive, is completely irrelevant to height: new residents might mean more crowded subways whether they live in rowhouses or whether they live in high-rises. So I'm not sure I understand Saffron: is she really just against height, or is she against density?

     Let us assume for the sake of argument that Saffron is really against new urban residents, because new people mean more crowded subways and sidewalks. But this argument is essentially a "beggar thy neighbor" argument: if people are excluded from cities because of fears about traffic (pedestrian or otherwise), they will go somewhere else and create traffic.
And the debate continues.