A Time to Build

Traditional city rooflines on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

The Wall Street Journal reports today that the United States needs 5.5 million new housing units. That’s a serious backlog. As a nation, we are not building homes quickly enough to keep up with population growth. This is the story behind the soaring prices we hear about in the news. Digging a bit deeper, it could also be a key factor in falling birthrates and adults who continue to live in their parents’ home. So, how do we get serious about building the homes people need? Shouldn’t the market be driving toward an equilibrium?

The market is hot (again), but the shortage is chronic. Part of the problem is undoubtedly zoning, especially in the regions with the greatest demand. In New Jersey, the Mount Laurel doctrine has been a valuable tool since the 1970s, when it established the basic legal principle that zoning is a state action that may not be used to exclude entire classes of state residents from particular communities; to do so is inconsistent with the 1947 New Jersey Constitution. (I simplify, but not too much.) The New Jersey Fair Housing Act, which the state legislature enacted in 1985 to follow the Mount Laurel cases, has helped produce a significant number of regulated affordable units, over the years. Yet Mount Laurel, though based on an exemplary principle, has invited constant political resistance. Its implementation has been obnoxiously complicated. Worse, it does little tangible good for New Jersey residents who don’t fall into the income band for affordable housing — or even many who do, because the demand always outstrips the availability of units.

Yet today, more than four decades after Mount Laurel crystallized the concept of exclusionary zoning, the impacts of a chronic housing shortage reach much further up New Jersey’s socioeconomic hierarchy than they did in 1974, when the first case was argued before the New Jersey Supreme Court. That is, there remains a severe shortage of decent, affordable housing units for poor and working-class people. But there is also a dearth of homes for sale (or rent) at higher price points, in many communities — a bottleneck similar to ones that have formed, to greater or lesser degrees, in other high-cost metropolitan regions throughout the world. Not surprisingly, out-migration continues apace. Yet immigration keeps the overall population going up. Those who stay pay more for less.

So how can this unmet housing need be met? And should housing policy necessarily be bureaucratized, or could it be pursued more effectively by unlocking the private production of more market-built, non-income-regulated units? One concept that the Mount Laurel formulas acknowledge is filtering. That is, older units (often well built!) will become more affordable, through market forces, when newer units are produced quickly enough to soak up a lot of the high-end demand. This is how, for example, poor and working-class people inherited the incredible (if neglected) Art Deco apartments of the Grand Concourse (for a time — they are getting expensive again!).

I believe the next frontier will be a process of artfully (at best) customizing and improving zoning laws. Done wisely, this will foster the construction of market-rate homes that complement our existing neighborhoods while improving land values and strengthening public finances.

Urban Forms of the Mediterranean

My latest piece is up at TAC‘s New Urbs — an essay reflecting on how nature and culture have shaped the urban patterns of the Mediterranean region, and what we might learn from the wisdom of this particular Old World approach. Not surprisingly, the writings of Camillo Sitte (about Italian towns, in particular) figured heavily in this piece — as did a fascinating scholarly book: Mediterranean Urbanism, by Besim Hakim, which identifies, translates (!), and analyzes many of the written laws that historically shaped the towns and cities of Southern Europe and the Near East. Hakim’s book, which examines influences from Greece and Rome through Byzantium and Islam, is an incredible resource for understanding one of the world’s richest cultures of traditional urbanism.

A street in Rome.

On the Vitality of Community, Culture, & Customs

Last year, I put together a series of bullet points about the sustainability of a culture and its customs. This list is in the spirit of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell (but sadly not as poetic) — or maybe the Maxims of Equity from the English Chancery tradition. That is to say, they are related as a bundle, but not necessarily in order. What sparked this exercise was an attempt to express how the forms of traditional urbanism are cumulative artifacts of the actual lives and living patterns that particular towns and cities have hosted and supported over generations; and that there is value in looking at traditional urbanism as a bundle of customs — forming a larger culture.

In order to develop a framework that looked at what made urban customs a sustainable culture (or an integral part of a larger one), I made an effort to square my observations about urban patterns with more general patterns that signal vitality in a living culture and its customs. In addition to urban history, Aristotle’s Politics, Burke’s Reflections, and a variety of readings on the English common law each had some influence on the substance of these — filtered through my own thoughts.

I had initially thought this bulleting exercise would be the basis for an essay, but it has been more challenging that I’d expected to conceive of a way to pull these strands together into a single coherent narrative that is more effective than the present list. I think my next step may be to distill this framework down to something tighter and more manageable, then apply its principles to the various incremental aspects of town-building. For now, here are some interim Maxims on the Vitality of Community, Culture, & Customs:

  • Culture comprises customs, which are the primary shaping factors of a community’s characteristics.
  • Culture is formed by individuals sharing and reiterating a bundle of customs, and transmitting these to other individuals across time and place.
  • Successful customs temper or channel human nature — they are shaping factors that create better outcomes from natural impulses.
  • Successful customs are simple: they can be learned by almost all and sustained by the force of habit.
  • Excessive complexity discourages the formation of a common custom.
  • Customs are distillations of experience that often contain more wisdom than brilliant, tabula rasa proposals; they are the products of survival bias.
  • The so-called social sciences have supplanted the social arts, which once preserved and transmitted more complex customs: law, religion, philosophy, rhetoric, fine arts, politics, and (sadly) war. 
  • The English common law, the Western canon, the English language, music, and traditional urbanism are examples of elaborate and high-level secular customs in our own culture.
  • Most customs have high-level and vernacular threads; these complement each other.
  • These are composed of doctrines, texts, and physical patterns (respectively) that have survived; they have intrinsic wisdom that yields benefits even without being fully understood. 
  • As Holmes wrote, the path of the law is experience, not logic. This could be said for all customs.
  • Ceremonies (e.g., weddings and funerals, board meetings, religious services, public records) reflect simpler but still formal customs, with similar advantages.
  • Practices related to arts, crafts, and home life — food! — follow similar but less formal patterns. Practices related to dress and manners, games and entertainment, as well.
  • Cultural transmission is initiated by (1) lived examples, (2) writing and art, (3) teaching.
  • Cultural transmission is received through (1) an individual’s immersion (2) observation and self-directed study, and (3) formal education (in descending order).
  • Individuals sort themselves out, within their limited latitude, according to the roles that best fit them. Over time, the resulting life patterns of many individuals coalesce into a social hierarchy. There is danger in upsetting the results of this process too quickly or stridently without knowing the consequences. This awareness is a fundamental impulse of conservatism.
  • Yet — circumstances and rigid customs can mechanically assign individuals to positions that may not be appropriate to their talents and abilities; there is injustice, and possibly danger, in allowing these mismatches to persist too long. Awareness of this is a fundamental impulse of liberalism and social reform.
  • Every culture, at every time, offers a unique a mix of latitude and obstacles that affect an individual’s autonomy in this sorting process; individuals and their characteristics are filtered through this mix.
  • Individuals’ fortunes rise and fall with the fortunes of the groups to which they belong. There is no individualism in a vacuum.
  • Things that work tolerably well, to paraphrase Burke, should be cast aside only after great thought; stability should be valued.
  • Who decides what’s tolerable? A critical mass that chooses toleration over disruption.
  • Social hierarchies don’t need to be ideal or just to be tolerable; but if they are especially pernicious or dysfunctional, they lose legitimacy and invite challenges.
  • Social hierarchies may have no moral justification, but their tendency to take similar shapes throughout history indicates a futility in attempting to dismantle them under tolerable circumstances.
  • Social hierarchies may be most useful as a method of organizing society. They limit the proportion of individuals who can be decadent and create incentives for many people to work and pursue improvement.
  • Consumerism corrodes culture and wastes wealth. Savings and durable products should be promoted by economic policy; not debt and disposable products.
  • Corporate charters without accountability to the community are an industrial-age legal distortion. Traditionally, shareholders were granted limited liability in exchange for public benefits bestowed by their organization. Modern corporations, freed from such obligations, are zombies marching through what remains of the cultural landscape.
  • Sales taxes on consumption, cash assistance to those in need, and the freedom to be resourceful are better than property taxes, loans, and excessive rules.
  • Most things should be built to be permanent; but these should be repurposed, or replaced, as needed — without excessive interference by the law.
  • Consumable and disposable items should be a limited fraction of all that is made, apart from food and fuel.
  • True wealth is that to which one has access without money: the bounty of the land, the reciprocal help of real people, the inheritance of a culture, the assets already owned. Most wealth should be held in these forms, not in currency or debt instruments.
  • Tribalism based on a shared culture is a cohesive force. It can be good, as long as it does not cross into bigotry toward outsiders or hostility to individual difference. 
  • However, the danger of self-righteous or aggressive mobs/factions must always be kept in mind. They seem to be a natural outgrowth of the healthy aspects of tribalism; so does small-mindedness. Blake said to expect poison from standing water.
  • Liberal customs like due process, separation of powers, and freedom of conscience have evolved to temper these excesses, and must be jealously preserved. These, too, are among our particular customs and have not developed organically in many human cultures. 
  • Political communities, per Aristotle, must be small enough for trust to exist between members. Too much anonymity leads to alienation, cynicism, and contempt. 
  • Most people like to stay close to home, and customs should facilitate this norm. A smaller fraction like to travel often or migrate. A stable and dynamic culture has room for both tendencies, acknowledging that they complement one another. 
  • Those who stay home deepen the culture; those who engage with outsiders exchange ideas and counter parochialism.
  • Communities must fulfill and sustain the humanity of their members, not just economic and security needs. This entails supporting the human/customary aspects of community (e.g., aesthetics; idiosyncrasies; traditions).
  • Laws that hew roughly to the patterns of power and human nature can be legitimate; at some point, raw power or common instinct will ignore paper laws. If the powerful have certain customs, challenge them very cautiously.
  • The very wealthy are obviously powerful; but so is the self-righteous mob. Successful customs acknowledge both truths.
  • Successful cultures jealously guard the welfare of their people — the agents of their culture — and actively develop the cultural fluency of the next generation. 
  • Political communities that manifest successful cultures prioritize their customs through education, resource stewardship, trade, and wise investment; they favor the wellbeing of their own members because doing so encourages loyalty, but also because their members are the basic agents of the culture.
  • Education is a positive force in transmission of customs, including the intellectual traditions of critical thought and self-reflection. At its best, our own culture of education builds on its traditions and canonical texts but does not propagandize or cater to closed minds. This fosters the customs of precedent and continuing debate. 
  • A broad middle class, as Aristotle prescribed for political stability, is also best suited to transmit a healthy culture. With durable wealth distributed across self-governing communities, it can support local cultural institutions and raise healthy and educated children — who can sustain and transmit the culture down to the next generation.

Interested in readers’ thoughts.

The Sinister History of America’s Urban Geography

A 1939 “residential security” map of Essex County, New Jersey. The eastern half largely comprises of Newark and the Oranges.

Mapping Inequality provides a fascinating time-sink: a zoomable map of the United States overlaid with New-Deal era local maps of most major cities, depicting what we today would call redlining. Typically, this term brings to mind the practice of dicing up neighborhoods and excluding African-American areas from mortgage eligibility. The heyday of this coincided with the heyday of post-war, first-time suburban home ownership in the United States — and that timing has been identified as a key source of persisting family wealth disparities between Black and White Americans. (The achievements of the Civil Rights era, and further legislation aimed at dismantling redlining, did not come about until the tail-end of the post-war boom — starting in the mid-1960’s — by which point many of the regional ethno-geographic patterns had already been established, and property values had begun to increase significantly.)

The map above depicts Essex County, New Jersey, where I live, and which has the same boundaries today as it had in 1939. Newark, the county seat and largest city, is roughly on the right; many of its inner-ring/streetcar suburbs are roughly in the center; low-density townships (then still partly rural outside Millburn and Caldwell — now mainly affluent suburbs) are on the left. As you might guess, there is a hierarchy of colors: areas mapped in green were considered prime investments, followed by blue (still desirable); yellow (declining); and red (dangerous). Zooming in on the neighborhoods of Essex County reveals that many of the patterns of neighborhood gradation that were adjudged by appraisers for the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1939 overlap with the characteristics of the same neighborhoods today. That is to say, if the green-red palette were to be roughly translated as neighborhoods that are predominantly wealthy, middle-class, working-class, or poor, its assessments would still align with many districts.

Many of these maps contain explanatory notes for each color-coded district, and many of these notes bear out a pervasive practice of correlating African-American neighborhoods with red districts. Several neighborhoods that today are mainly Black were already Black neighborhoods by 1939, and the matter-of-fact prejudice expressed in otherwise mundane business notes leaves no doubt that mortgage lending — at least during the late Depression — was based on an overtly discriminatory calculus.

Also remarkable, given the conventional understanding about what redlining was, is how clear it is that these maps were also used to justify discrimination against other groups — including many of European origin. Thus, Italian and Jewish enclaves were singled out for negative treatment. Many poor and working-class neighborhoods with mostly European residents were classified red, just as Black neighborhoods were. In both Newark, N.J. and New York City (maps are also posted for each of the five NYC boroughs) many of the red districts described as “slums” encompassed residents of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. And working-class neighborhoods that avoided being fatally redlined were typically shaded yellow — branding their properties as the second least desirable class of collateral.

The impact of these maps is not clear. The federal HOLC of 1939 was not a formal precursor to the private banks that — with government backing and subsidies — financed the massive suburban development wave that took place after World War II. A study of early HOLC lending in the Philadelphia region found that interest rates, but not lending decisions per se, were influenced by the maps’ color-coding; and that private lenders had other sources of comparable information about granular urban economic and demographic trends. Sources like fire insurance maps, meanwhile, would have allowed lenders to analyze the building stock in any slice of any city.

Another study found that the HOLC had hired private-sector appraisers to complete the evaluations and explanatory notes for the residential security maps, suggesting the conclusions they contain represent prevailing assumptions in the real estate industry of that time. Regardless of their direct impacts, the patterns in these maps bear an uncanny resemblance to the enduring patterns of racially and economically segregated housing that solidified in post-war metropolitan America. How these maps and the lending policies that they shaped might align with early land-use zoning maps developed around the same time is another topic for exploration.

It is worth noting that private covenants were still common for controlling land use in the early days of zoning, as they represented one of the few traditional legal devices for doing so prior to the rise of public land use law — and many of these had discriminatory provisions of their own.

Apartments Are Hot — In the Suburbs

The Times has another article jumping on the bandwagon about the supposed ongoing urban exodus — with a twist. This one reports anecdotal evidence that apartments in suburban towns are seeing a surge in popularity among fleeing urbanites. (Sorry for the paywall. If you’re not a NYT subscriber, you can usually still read a few articles for free if you log in with a Google account.)

I’m going to take a wait-and-see approach to this trend. I have long believed that the New York City region, and similar metropolitan regions with high housing costs, ultimately need to expand their geographic footprint of multifamily housing beyond its current locations to accommodate long-term population growth. I still believe that. But what we are seeing in 2020 is a separate and discrete trend, driven by people’s more immediate desire to get out of the city, and to have more room, as work and home suddenly compete for the same space.

It’s not clear yet how these trends are going to intersect with the housing markets in the suburbs. If working from home (WFH) turns into a permanent phenomenon that outlasts the pandemic, then some of the built-up pressure may come off of competitive regions, including their inner-ring suburbs, as people are free to go further afield and seek permanently larger spaces. In such a scenario, there may be additional suburban growth at the metropolitan fringe, but less demand for new apartments nearer to the core. On the other hand, if most people return to their daily commute (or something close to it), then the suburbs may find themselves needing to absorb more commuters — as trends indicated before 2020 — and doing so in the form of more apartments.

It’s an interesting question — and one, I think, that is still very open. If I had to bet, I would predict a little bit of both, especially in places like Northern and Central New Jersey: a continued need for growth in demand for (1) compact, commutable units and (2) larger, WFH-friendly properties at the fringe, and beyond. In both scenarios, good planning will be a necessity to ensure that new growth takes the form of attractive and sustainable neighborhoods.

New apartments take advantage of commuter rail service in suburban South Orange, N.J.

Unwin’s Town Planning in Audio

The Overhead Wire, an excellent San Francisco-based urbanism consulting firm/blog/podcast led by Jeff Wood, has just produced a new audiobook of Raymond Unwin’s 1909 traditional urbanism classic, Town Planning in Practice. The reader is Mark Tester, whose English voice is a perfect fit for Unwin’s Edwardian prose. Something for your commute, perhaps? Nice work!

My 2017 New Urbs article about Unwin’s classic planning book can be found in TAC’s archive, here. Meanwhile, a PDF of the entire original Town Planning in Practice, including all illustrations, is available here.

Zoning Reform: a Return to Traditional Norms

My latest article at TAC‘s New Urbs is a response to the recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Contrary to the president’s rhetoric, allowing people to build neighborhoods that evolve in response to land markets is an old common-law tradition — and one that has been increasingly distorted by local governments over the last century, under an ever-more-restrictive morass of zoning requirements.

I argue that measures that would restore even some space for neighborhoods to grow organically, in response to demand, ought to be embraced by Americans across the political spectrum. New laws in California, Oregon, and Minneapolis are good first steps. And proposals to condition certain streams of federal infrastructure funding on having non-exclusionary local land-use laws in the communities that benefit from such taxpayer investments should not be dismissed out of hand.

The Colors of Urbanism

I really enjoyed this Curbed Longform article by Jessica Furseth about the intrinsic color palettes of particular cities, and how they came to be:

Gold is the perfect color for a place so often covered in fog and rain, providing an uplifting sunny yellow that looks almost better when it’s wet. But this was never a conscious decision: The gold tones of London were an accident of nature. The yellowbrick is made from London clay, which is rich with minerals deposited by the river Thames on its journey to the sea. When fired, the bricks come out in a range of yellows, from whitish and ochre to brown and purple. London’s ever-present yellow is the result of a Georgian building boom that relied on local materials. All over the world, the colors of cities can be traced back to similarly unglamorous practicalities.

Apart from St. Pancras and King’s Cross stations, which Furseth mentions to illustrate her point, there’s this splash of gold that has defined London for so many generations:

Or as Claude Monet inverted the palette:

Houses of Parliament, Stormy Sky, 1904.

The article also accurately notes that New York has a lot of brown — and that its ubiquitous brownstones are colored by a type of stone that was found in abundance in the nearby quarries of upstate New York and New Jersey.

This fits with something else that I’ve been thinking about recently, which is how smaller cities in a particular region often have uncanny similarities in their colors and materials with the big metropolis. Not surprisingly, Albany’s urbanism closely resembles New York City’s (and Brooklyn’s), and even has similar hues, although it is more than a hundred miles away.

Similarly, a lot of smaller cities in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey look oddly like lost crumbs of Philadelphia, with their brick facades and pitched roof row houses with oddly varied widths.

The role of local materials in establishing the palette of a specific place — as well as building styles that may be influenced by the materials used — may have historically been an accident. But for a long time it has also been increasingly a choice. The availability of building materials from elsewhere is hardly a brand new phenomenon. The Romans transported marble, and other stones, and paints, throughout the Empire. And as Furseth points out in this piece, the Silk Road had made the colors of the Far East available to Indians, Middle Easterners, and Europeans long ago. But the widespread use of imported building materials for vernacular projects is a more recent phenomenon.

When employed artfully, imported materials can of course add richness and variety to the urban form. But in the wrong hands (of which there are many) they can more easily contribute to a sort of postmodern chaos borne of a jumble of discordant materials (and associated forms), driven by parsimony, and reflecting an almost complete lack of grounding, purpose, or continuity with the past.

In my own research, I have found that some of the worst effects of this trend are accruing to cities in developing countries where urbanization has happened rapidly, and in the context of the global economy; and also in the postwar development of America, where the bulk of construction has taken place in a wealthier version of the same context.

Building the West Bronx

A surviving Victorian in the West Bronx. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

I have a new piece in City Journal about how the West Bronx evolved from a series of suburban neighborhoods of Victorian houses (built in the late 19th century when the City of New York first incorporated the wards north of Manhattan), into an urban environment of (often beautiful) apartment buildings. The transition mainly took place between the turn of the 20th century, when subway service began, and the onset of the Great Depression, when construction and migration both came to a near standstill. It remains a model of how cities can grow incrementally, by allowing the construction of apartment buildings when demand for housing rises.

As it looked in 2012. Credit: Google Maps

This piece is something of a spinoff from the original research that I did several years back, and reported on this blog, about the last few Queen Anne-style Victorian houses along Woodycrest Avenue in the neighborhood known as High Bridge. Sadly, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission declined a proposal to preserve these last few detached gingerbread houses on the NYC street grid (that is, the one begins in Manhattan and continues north to the Westchester County line), and many have now fallen to the wrecking ball.

Several people have expressed interest in this topic. In addition to the ones on Woodycrest Avenue, I tried to document the handful of other remaining houses like these that are on the Commissioner’s Plan-Risse Plan streets of the West Bronx. I documented the research several years back, and most of it can be found here: https://www.legaltowns.com/category/the-bronx/

Can Dense Cities Survive the Coronavirus?

A street in Greenwich Village. Theo Mackey Pollack.

Yes, according to Vishaan Chakrabarti, author of A Country of Cities, and one of the most well-known progressive proponents of a more urban urban fabric in America. Here’s a link to an interview that Chakrabarti gave last week to Gregory Wessner of Open House New York (which, as an aside, is a wonderful organization that facilitates things like public visits to the Tiffany stained glass at the Neustadt Collection, New York City Hall, and Edward Hopper’s art studio). A quick registration is required, but no fee.

The sprawling conversation between Wessner and Chakrabarti touches on everything from the resilience of urbanism to the pitfalls of ‘exceptionalism’ (e.g., the American variety). The conversation also delves into an aspect of the density discussion that does not get enough attention (in my opinion), namely, the potential to achieve traditional urban densities through low- and mid-rise development patterns; and the fallacy of equating urbanism with an inhumane, impersonal scale.

I’ve seen Chakrabarti speak at Columbia, the Newman Institute, and the AIA’s Center for Architecture. Apart from his flair for urban design, he is a persuasive proponent of the humane aspects of urban density. This timely conversation also reaches difficult questions that have been raised in the context of the coronavirus about the continued viability of large, dense cities. Chakrabarti’s thoughts are fundamentally optimistic, but also — not surprisingly — a challenge to the planning status quo.