A country of hyperdense cities

"How to build good cities," from Vishaan Chakrabarti's 'A Country of Cities.'

“How to build good cities,” from Vishaan Chakrabarti’s ‘A Country of Cities.’

Well, that was fast.

Based on the heft of my gift, I expected to take more time to read through Vishaan Chakrabarti’s A Country of Cities. The book, however, is wonderfully illustrated and laid out, thanks to Chakrabarti’s firm, SHoP (for a sampling of the illustrations and an essay adapted from the book, see Chakrabarti’s piece in Design Observer). All those illustrations make a hefty book into a rather quick read.

Chakrabarti paints a wonderful picture of the virtues of dense, urban places. Hyperdensity isn’t so hyper anything, merely the kind of density sufficient to support subway transit. While his vision of and advocacy for dense cities is persuasive, Chakrabarti’s specific policy recommendations are not new: massive investments in urban-focused infrastructure (subways, transit, high speed rail) as well as a more broadly defined “infrastructure of opportunity” of schools and parks. This would be financed by eliminating subsidies for oil, utilizing revenue from cap and trade of carbon emissions, and eliminating the mortgage interest deduction. He proposes to allow the market to provide additional housing and density that can support expensive transit infrastructure via the implementation of  “cap and trade zoning.”

After reading the book, however, the original criticism remains: feasibility. I find Chakrabarti’s call for density persuasive, but I wouldn’t shape the message with terms like ‘hyperdensity.’ His ideas on reforming the zoning process are interesting, yet the basic mechanisms for reform are difficult to execute. DC is closing in on year seven of a zoning regulations review - and the proposed revisions focus mostly on structural changes and do not take on the task of upzoning. In the meantime, the unintended consequences of existing planning and zoning procedure are adding up.

Any conversations about re-shaping the city (and removing certain legal constraints such as DC’s federal law against tall buildings) aren’t focused on the benefits of hyperdensity, but on the required procedural changes and need to amend DC’s comprehensive plan for future upzoning  to take effect. At the same time, WMATA is pushing a concept for additional subway capacity at the core of the system. Their efforts are constrained by regulations that link land use plans to transportation investments, thus Metro can only plan new subway lines in the limited areas already designated for what Chakrabarti would call hyperdensity.

Linking land use intensity and transportation investment is a good idea, but codifying the concept into regulations opens the door for unintended consequences. The chicken can’t happen without the egg, the transit agency can’t plan subways without supportive land use, the planners need infrastructure before they can add density. The idea of connecting transit to land use isn’t the problem. The challenge is in implementing the concept, adjusting the regulations, and amending the procedures that shape how we build cities.

More federal funding for infrastructure isn’t a novel idea, either – but the prospect for action from Congress seems unlikely at best. Similarly, phasing out the mortgage interest deduction isn’t a new idea, either – but it seems to hold sacred status on Capitol Hill.

This isn’t to discount Chakrabarti’s ideas. His argument for urbanism is persuasive, the broad brushstrokes of his policy agenda are fine. However, the procedural, legal, and political changes required to implement the agenda are missing. Consider the comparison of affordable housing and rental apartments in suburban New Jersey to suburban Long Island: it’s hardly an embrace of hyperdensity, nor is it an unvarnished success, but the limited improvements in adding density and fighting against exclusionairy zoning in New Jersey are the product of legal battles, not a comprehensive plan or master design. The same argument can apply to city building in general, where the future may lie in selling people on the need for more permissive rules/regulations and letting cities evolve, rather than simply selling them on the benefits of hyperdensity.

The real question, however, is if we’d ever see such legal and regulatory battles without this kind of manifesto to rally around.

(note: the book has been added to the reading list)

2 comments to A country of hyperdense cities

  • SHoP are easily the most overrated firm around today. Bringing Chakrabarti on brought them too much work, and they have no ability to see beyond their social circle. That “hyperdense” is problematic for most people is totally irrelevant for the development community, like Chakrabarti and architectural academia, which loves the word “hyperdense” – even though a lot of “hyperdense” spaces are just plain old dense.

  • Alex Block

    Indeed – it’s one thing to lead with the benefits of density (or, better yet, the benefits of simply allowing the market to provide more density where it is in demand), but framing it with terms like ‘hyperdensity’ even when the actual level of density isn’t abnormal in several of the world’s big cities seems counterproductive.

    The other thing left unaddressed is the audience for this manifesto. He criticizes suburbia as America’s worst and most destructive export, but the zoning proposals he does put forth seem to apply more to already-urban places that aren’t yet ‘hyperdense,’ rather than the challenge of infill in the huge areas of single-family homes that we do have.

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