Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Space" Is Not the (Urban) Solution

Just a quick hit in response to this article from Chicago DNAInfo, which popped up in my Facebook feed a few minutes ago. Here's the lede for those too hurried to click 'n' read the short article linked above:
The proposed Barack Obama College Preparatory High School would take away what little open space is left in the former Cabrini-Green neighborhood, some neighbors and neighborhood groups are saying.
The selective-enrollment school would be built on Chicago Park District land in the middle of Stanton Park near Clybourn Avenue and Larrabee Street.
I won't get into the very complicated and ugly socio-political history of the Cabrini-Green public housing project; there are reams of books and articles on the topic that delve into those issues more eruditely than I possibly can here (though as a starter for the curious I can recommend Sudhir Venkatesh's American Project study of the equally notorious Robert Taylor Homes). What red-flagged the news article for me is a question of design literacy, or rather lack of it, among the politically active public.

Let me cut right to the chase: from a design standpoint, the problem with Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor, and similar highrise "projects" was never a lack of open space, but rather too much of it.

As the political issues of central planning and development have grown in the public's awareness (thanks in no small part to the manifold failures of government-subsidized, low-income housing ventures) there has accordingly grown a gap between what public planning activists desire and what they are capable of articulating. Friends of the Parks may understand something of the politics of urban planning -- and they are right, incidentally, to be suspicious of this "surprise" announcement from the City of Chicago and the Park District -- but I fear their frame of reference for what is most desirable in contemporary urban development may rely too heavily on Frederick Law Olmsted and not enough on Jane Jacobs. The upshot of this half-articulated conflict between valences of "nature" and "the city" is a tendency to evaluate urban space through a suburban lens; to assume, in short, that open space is preferable over built-up density in any context. It would take me a lot of verbiage to convince skeptics or neophytes of the falsely binary frame of this dichotomy, and I've loaned out my copy of Death and Life of Great American Cities so I can't pull it off the shelf for a block quote, so for expedience's sake I'll make a brief argument graphically.

Here is part of the the proposed redevelopment scheme for Cabrini-Green as published by DNAInfo:



 The green swath in the lower left corner is Stanton Park, part of which would be appropriated for the proposed Barack Obama college prep school. Looking at this schematic, one might think the neighbors are right to cry 'foul' at the loss of precious green space in the neighborhood. (Let me be clear that I don't blame them one bit for resisting an apparent "taking" of park land for a selective-enrollment school named for a president whose actions toward poor minority communities have been patronizing at best and negligent at worst; my beef is with the NIMBYs' seeming ignorance toward principles of urban planning, not their justifiable political cynicism.)

Here's the thing though (and this is where I'd be quoting Jacobs if I had her book at hand): parks and open space are only as worthy as the streetscapes and programming that surround them. The Cabrini-Green public housing highrises -- which have been torn down for lower density townhouse-style development -- were typical of their genre, in that the towers rose from an abundance of green space. Envisioned as salutary amenities, these unprogrammed, "natural" areas in reality became dead zones of inactivity. Rather than places for play and recreation enlivened by diverse neighbors passing through, the economic and racial segregation of the housing blocks, along with the agoraphobia-inducing proportions of the interstitial spaces, rendered the pleasant parks of Le Corbusier's Plan Voisson vision uninhabitable no-man's-lands. Jacobs was among the first and most well-known to remark on the practical reasons for this outcome, despite all designers' good intentions to the contrary, but the lessons of her observations have yet to penetrate broad public consciousness. The formal problem with the tower-in-the-park scheme is not its density of population, as the suburban-lensed NIMBYs broadly believe to this day, but rather that its exorbitant open spaces militated against sociable urbanity.

Here is Cabrini-Green as it appeared in 1999, prior to the demolition of the towers:


Notice that the problem one sees here is, as I said, not a lack of open space. If anything, there's a surfeit of it, which underlines my point about the virtues of moderated, messy urban density over the formalized, sterile "perfection" modeled on Corbu's park-like schemes.

Here's another view, with the old buildings labeled by their street addresses and neighborhood nicknames:


Still think Cabrini-Green residents ever suffered for lack of open, green space? On the contrary, it was the lack of anything else amidst their splendid isolation that spatially cut them off from the life of the city (not to mention the barriers of structural racism, segregated housing, class warfare, et cetera).

One last shot and then I'll quit. The next picture is a Google Earth aerial of Cabrini-Green as it appears today, with the "slum towers" cleared away, leaving even more open, albeit temporarily vacant and buildable land:


I've scaled this shot back so the reader can take note of the super-dense Gold Coast -- among the richest and highest-valued neighborhoods in the entire nation -- just to the east of the remnants of Cabrini-Green.

Now, do you think that it's parks that make the Gold Coast such a tony address? Do you think adding even more swaths of green to Cabrini-Green will bring its property values up to par with its neighbor to the east? Or is there more to urban quality-of-life than grass and fresh air?