High-density living — the ideal urban endpoint, or a tolerable compromise?

I think Glaeser is missing a couple of pretty big points in “What’s So Great About Skyscrapers.” I think he’s overstating his case a bit: truly high-rise living is unlikely to be ideal for a majority of the population, and is an economic compromise made to give lower-income workers access to the economic engine of big cities.  I think the compromise is worth it, and there is no reason why high-density living can’t provide a high quality of life (as I experienced in my years living in an Asian metropolis), but it’s hard to deny that a neighborhood is more than just “plenty of interesting stores and restaurants.” (p. 147)

My disagreements over the viability of the social component of a vibrant neighborhood in high rise living aside — I do appreciate a criticism of Jane Jacobs. I first read her several years ago, before applying for graduate school, as my first planning-related book and found her point of view very convincing. But being new to the field and a little bit contrary, I wanted to know what I might be missing or what flaws people had found in her arguments since.  Yet I found criticism of her surprisingly difficult to find – I couldn’t believe that no one had presented a serious counterpoint to her ideas in 50 years.  I’m sure there is plenty of valid criticism out that I  haven’t managed to find, but this is one of the first pieces I’ve seen that really points out an alternate view.  I agree with Glaeser that preserving the delightful old housing stock does create increased expense, but the very fact that those neighborhoods are more expensive indicates their increased desirability. His arguments for high-rise neighborhoods does not seem to be arguing that those neighborhoods are actually better to live in, but simply that there isn’t enough space to go around for everyone to have a piece and this is the compromise that the poorer-off must make. This seems pretty irrefutable at a x number of people wanting to live in y amount of space level, but it doesn’t address the lost social connectivity that results in the increased anonymity of large apartment blocks.  If part of Glaeser’s case for the greatness of cities is the increased number of social encounters and cross-fertilization of ideas they lead to, which I believe it is elsewhere in the book (or perhaps I’m misattributing someone else’s ideas to him) then the social cost of less emotionally appealing, less connected building stock has economic consequences as well.  Would the project described in the Atlantic Cities article have gained that social momentum and sense of local activism in a neighborhood of high-rises? I have no way of knowing either way, but I suspect not.

Regarding the author’s claims as to the improvements of Paris, I think the romanticism and mythology of Paris is a complex subject that is both largely an idealization of past artistic accomplishments – see Midnight in Paris —  and a product of its architectural beauty; but is certainly not attributable to modern apartment blocks.  Glaeser’s point is that what we now see as charming was disruptive and generic-looking at the time of its construction, so his conclusion seems to be that what we think disruptive and generic-looking when it replaces older building styles will turn out to have its charms as welI. I haven’t been to Paris so it’s difficult to say how much of the city’s subsequent economic and aesthetic success is due to Hausmann, but I’ve been to many other western European cities and the areas thought of as highly beautiful and attractive tend to have narrower streets and lower-rise buildings. The issue is not that those areas are outdated and high-rises are the way to go, but that there are simply more people wanting to live in those areas than they can accommodate.  High-rises become the new working-class accommodation. With modern technology, this provides a higher quality of life than the over-crowded unhygienic dense urban areas of the past, but it is still a compromise for many. With ever-increasing urban populations, it is inevitable and rational to build this way, and certainly better than car-based sprawl, but even in most urban areas it’s entirely possible to have dense neighborhoods that are not 50 stories high – even in Chicago, a city I’ve sort-of lived in, and one of the author’s case studies for how well high-rises can work, I found that most of the most enjoyable—and diverse–neighborhoods were fairly mid-rise.   Glauser states that people living in these inner-urban, older, midrise neighborhoods are 74% wealthier than average, and are 20% more likely to be white. Considering general (and unfortunate) correlations between ethnicity and wealth in America, I think this probably actually shows what a broad spectrum of people these neighborhoods appeal to, and how desirable they would be across a range of demographics, were there more of them available.

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About audreyontheroad

After four and a half pretty rad years in Osaka, Japan, I'm heading home .... by train. If all goes well and I don't get arrested, train wrecked, or otherwise impaired, I will visit seven countries and have as many adventures as possible on the way.

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