The New York Review of Books has a bleak piece by Ingrid Rowland about the neglect of Pompeii, and how the layers of political malfeasance are beginning to take their toll on the ancient site. Buried for about 16 centuries, Pompeii remains one of the best-preserved examples of classical planning — right down to the unique stepping stones built into its streets; and its open forum, situated squarely at the intersection of the cardo and the decumanus maximus. For a refresher on the city, its development, and its date with destiny, here is Diana Kleiner’s lecture. For a look around the present-day site (which doesn’t look too far gone), here’s the Google Street View of the Pompeiian Forum:

Spotlight: Cripple Creek, Colorado

From Wikipedia:

At an elevation of 9,494 feet (2,894 m) and just below tree line, for many years, Cripple Creek’s high valley was considered no more important than a cattle pasture. Many prospectors avoided the area after the misnamed Mount Pisgah hoax, a mini gold rush caused by salting (adding gold to worthless rock).

On the 20th of October, 1890, however, Robert Miller “Bob” Womack discovered a rich ore and the last great Colorado gold rush began. Thousands of prospectors flocked to the region, and before long W. S. Stratton located the famous Independence lode, one of the largest gold strikes in history. In three years, the population increased from five hundred to ten thousand by 1893. Although half a billion dollars’ worth of gold ore was dug from Cripple Creek, Womack himself would die, penniless, on 10th August, 1909.

For the past 16 months I’ve been researching local business regulations around the United States. In the course of the work, I talk with police chiefs and mayors, and I read a lot of municipal ordinances. Over time, it’s become a telephonic tour of America.

Cripple Creek, the seat of Teller County, is a great example of late Victorian frontier architecture and town planning. It almost became a ghost town in the 1960s, but it’s apparently made a comeback with gambling and historical tourism.

Sustainability After Sandy

Sustainability principles have become such a fallback in discussions about developing new neighborhoods, and redeveloping old ones, that they’ve almost become cliches. Still, I think it’s important to ask the questions that get raised by basic sustainability analysis — and I think there remains a lot of room for planners and developers to go beyond stale platitudes and explore new ways to build fairer and stronger communities. Hurricane Sandy tested each of the three big elements of the sustainability triad: environment, economy, and social equity. Now that it’s been almost a year since the storm hit, it’s an interesting time to take stock and ask: How has Greater New York responded to the post-Sandy crisis?

Post-Sandy Manhattan. Source: Hybirdd, via Wikimedia Commons.

Post-Sandy Manhattan. Source: Hybirdd, via Wikimedia Commons.

The current issue of BOMA magazine has a brief article on this question, as it relates to commercial landlords. (Flip through to page 26, where it begins.) Many of the points discussed have to do with creating workable action plans for before environmental disasters — a simple but apparently crucial adaptation measure. A lack of communications was apparently a major stumbling block in the post-Sandy period, even at the top of the city’s economic pyramid.

In a twist of irony, poorer communities sometimes benefit from the inherent sustainability of their older urban infrastructures in ways that suburban communities do not. The different proportions of residents who lost power in East Orange (a streetcar suburb whose neighborhoods mostly date from around 1900) and West Orange (more of a Gatsby-era suburb, with a lot of post-war development), in the weeks after Sandy, was a great example. There still hasn’t been much talk about finding the money to bury utility lines, though.

In Defense of Illegal Apartments

The Times has a piece by Mireya Navarro about the Sarkars, a couple in Queens who created an affordable new housing unit in the basement of their home; and how the City of New York responded by forcing them to evict their tenant, dismantle their improvements, and pay penalties in excess of $1,200. In a metropolitan region where the imbalance between wages and housing costs is as extreme and inequitable as it is in New York City, surely local government could find better ways to direct its energy. The article highlights the increasingly mainstream political support for such a case:

Largely written to prevent slum conditions and firetraps, New York’s housing regulations have not kept up with changing cultural norms and increasing financial pressures, some housing experts said. It is, for example, illegal for more than three unrelated adults to live together in New York City. That law is widely broken and infrequently enforced.

For many students and new immigrants, sharing space has long been the most affordable housing option in the city. New economic challenges, the experts said, have spurred even more demand for such arrangements.

Look: Illegal units and other informal living arrangements are part of the natural process of urbanism; they are how towns and cities absorb incremental growth as the population level begins to exceed the existing number of units, and as rents and property values rise accordingly; but before the market pressures become significant enough to support new, denser construction projects. In New York City, neighborhoods of Queen Anne houses in what would become the West Bronx were gradually replaced by large, courtyard-centered apartment buildings that occupied similar footprints but housed far more people. Nevertheless, it would be reasonable to presume that, before the apartments, many of the ostensibly single-family mansions were renting out rooms.


106 Mount Hope Place in the West Bronx, New York City. Source: Google.

Universal Euclidean zoning since World War II, and the stringent building codes that have gone with it, have thwarted the natural process of urban growth, driving it underground. This has caused urban housing supplies to be constrained not only until the market pressure is sufficient to support new development, but until the market pressure is sufficient to create the political pressure that is needed to revise local land use codes. This is particularly challenging because the most established residents in any community — those who own property — will benefit, up to a point, from a shortage, through higher rents and property values. Accordingly, universal zoning has created a much higher bar for initiating the kind of densification process that would actually accommodate demand, and, I believe, it largely explains why housing costs in major US and European metropolitan areas have become astronomical since the 1970s. In addition to the natural price rises resulting from shortages, the chronic constraint of land markets has also turned very small slices of prime urban real estate into exchangeable commodities, adding even more capital to the competition for urban land. This is not all bad, of course, but it is inherently unstable because too much value rests on a stubborn but artificial shortage; and at the same time, it is crushing the supply of affordable housing in several key regions.

The 1970s were a key turning point: In the wake of the post-war suburban exodus, zoning had no tangible effect on urban housing costs, because there was a glut of urban housing units, and the suburbs were being built on cheap rural land. But then, college-educated Baby Boomers began to recolonize urban neighborhoods; the 1968 US immigration law brought the first new global immigrants to American shores; and at approximately the same time, the commutable portions of the heavily-zoned suburbs began to get built out. This is why Mount Laurel was an issue in the 1970s: In a key state, the availability of affordable housing was becoming a problem, and that situation was eroding the balance of economic opportunity that had characterized much of the post-war period for middle-class Americans. The beginning phase of a situation that was viewed as untenable by the New Jersey Court in 1974 has now become the norm in many metropolitan regions. Beginning to accept the growth of neighborhoods that is driven by market demands, and to provide legal normalization for such phenomena, is an important first step toward deflating the artificial housing shortages that are driving inequality and distorting the dynamics of American places whose regional economic strength ought to be the basis for broad-based opportunity, rather than exclusion.

A Newly Published Novel: Fire Work

product_thumbnail.phpA good friend of mine (and possible blood relation), T. D. MacNamara, has finally published Fire Work — a novel that he wrote during high school and college. After a detour through law school, T. D. dusted off the old electronic manuscript and has now made it available for all to enjoy. The price is right — just $2.99. And it’s a great read. According the blurb:

Fire Work is the story of Jack O’Donnell, a teenage punk rock fan and pyromaniac, living in the mid-1990s, in the last moments of low-tech American youth.

(Gentle readers, take note: If you are offended by the colorful vocabulary used by teenagers in 1990s New York City, reader discretion is advised.)

A New Edict of Nantes, and a Trip to the High Line

Anthony Flint, writing in The Atlantic Cities, has a nice piece about sustainability — especially its environmental aspect — as a new way of branding mid-sized European cities for tourism and investment. Nantes, a mid-sized city in Brittany, has made radical changes to its transportation model and is actively pursuing an avant garde identity as the greenest city in France.

In tangentially related news (at least, on the topic of green cities), I finally had a chance to upload some photos that I took of the High Line this summer. For people who don’t know its story: the High Line began with an aging, elevated freight train trestle that runs down the West Side of Manhattan. The structure had been built by New York Central in the 1930s as a viaduct between the rail infrastructure surrounding Penn Station and the West Side Piers. It replaced Death Avenue, a surface right-of-way, dating from the 19th century, that had previously carried freight trains at street level through Chelsea and the West Village. The High Line was abandoned for most of the late 20th century, after the rise of containerized cargo caused the West Side Piers to be de-emphasized in the Port of New York and New Jersey. For years, the structure languished, overgrown with weeds and scraggly trees; there was a general consensus in the New York real estate community that it was an eyesore whose presence was a significant obstacle to redeveloping the Far West Side. Its images were used to add an element of city grit to movies and TV shows.

But a few people dissented from the crowd, noting the oasis that the High Line’s unplanned nature provided from the concrete jungle of the city. And in the late 1990s, activist planners began to study the High Line’s redevelopment potential. The dissenters turned out to be prescient, and the thoroughly landscaped and hardscaped park-in-the-sky is now a major attraction that has increased property values and created a major new green space while preserving an important part of the city’s industrial history. It is without question one of the great planning successes of the last decade. For a kid who grew up in this region during the 1980s and 90s — when the city was synonymous with too much concrete, too many steel doors, and an almost defiant hostility to nature — it’s been incredible to witness the greening of Manhattan over the last several years.

New Pad

We’re working on moving LegalTowns to the BlueHost server, where advertising and a true domain are both possible. The page will still be supported by the WordPress platform, and it will look substantially similar to its present format. We (that’s the royal ‘we’) are still working out a few kinks in the coding — mostly visual issues — but hopefully we will announce a launch later this month. Will update accordingly.