Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Reconciling urban development paradigms

In superb article, Edward Glaeser (via Marginal Revolution) compares the works of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, and tries to reconcile the apprarently unbridgeable differences between the supporters of the small, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-usage, less dense, low-rise construction biased and citizen-oriented cities and those proposing densified cities with large infrastructure projects, massive buildings, strict zoning regulations and automobile-friendly transport facilties.

Glaeser rightly points to Jacobs’s greatest insight as being the fact that cities succeed by enabling people to connect with one another - "many of the finest achievements of human civilization occurred because smart people learned from one another in cities". Moses understood the importance of insfrastructure assets - roads, rails, buildings, parks, museums, libraries etc - to enable people to make more efficient use of the connectivity advantages that cities offer. His vedict on the debate between the two view of urban development,

"Successful cities need both the human interactions of Jane Jacobs and the enabling infrastructure of Robert Moses...their conflict should not be resolved. An absolute victory for Moses leads to heartless cities, built to accommodate cars but not pedestrians, with high-rise buildings that are disconnected from their streets. An absolute victory for Jacobs means a city frozen in concrete with prices that are too high and buildings that are too low. New building is needed to welcome the diversity that makes urban magic. No city can survive without the personal engagements beloved by Jacobs, but no city can thrive without master builders such as Moses. Mumbai and Shanghai had better take note."

An interesting article in the Times draws attention to the dilemmas posed by strict zoning regulations in reconciling the apparently contrasting needs of preserving traditional industries and enabling the natural economic development of the city.

It uses the context of the zoning law that protects apparel manufacturing space in the blocks from 34th to 40th Streets between Broadway and Ninth Avenue in New York. This small area has not only been the home to America’s fashion industry for more than 100 years, this industry has also been one of the engines around which the city of New York has prospered.

Thanks to the success of outsourcing in textile manufacturing and the spectacular increase in rental values in the surroundings, pressure has been mounting on landlords to circumvent the existing (though weakly enforced) zoning regulations and let out their properties for higher rents to other activities. Though the city authorities has passed a zoning law in 1987 limiting the conversion of the area’s factory space to offices in an effort to keep garment makers from being priced out, there are increasing calls for scrapping this.

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