The passage from some gleaming Southeast Asian hub to a New York street can feel Dantesque. You start your day amid whispering subway trains and airy terminals, and return to a correctional-style cinderblock hallway at JFK, clomp down a broken escalator, shuffle glacially through passport control, and emerge beneath the canopy of some dismal terminal. There you wait in line for a cramped cab, and the millimeters go flying by along the Van Wyck “Expressway.” It’s been drizzling, so after fording the fetid runoff from a clogged storm drain, you scale the leaking garbage bags and attain the cracked sidewalk. You’re home!
New York is an old city—not by Cairo standards but compared to all those convulsively self-creating centers in China, or even the constantly tweaked capitals of Scandinavia. The restorations of the past twenty years have only sharpened the mirage of what New York could be. Once, every downtown skyline modeled itself on Manhattan’s. Today, even the most chauvinistic New Yorkers get a twinge of metropolis envy when they travel. Shanghai’s skyscrapers are taller, Copenhagen’s bike lanes livelier, Berlin’s cafés cheaper, Singapore’s traffic saner, Helsinki’s schools better, Portland’s water cleaner. But what if New York confronted those shortcomings, if emissaries fanned out across the globe to look for thunderbolts of urban genius?
We excel at plagiarism. In recent years, the Bloomberg administration has tried out ideas for smart parking meters from San Francisco, road pricing from London, and buses from Bogotá. Some years ago, Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan took a trip to Copenhagen and came back with a wish list of amenities. Every time you crack your Kindle at a café table in what used to be a traffic lane, you have the Danes to thank. New York has been exporting urban solutions too. Other cities are emulating our smoking ban and our anti-crime techniques. Sadik-Khan has become a roving guru of streetscapes, and her bike-lane program has emboldened pedaling advocates around the country.
Still, New York is a mixture of the haphazard and the visionary. Stopgap fixes co-exist with grand attempts to form a more perfect metropolis. The present city is haunted by the ghosts of futures past. The New York Public Library, completed in 1911, foretold a gracious city of monuments erected for the public good; Rockefeller Center bespeaks deep faith in a vertical destiny. The roads, rails, and bridges that began necklacing New York in the thirties linked us to the suburban era. After World War II, the depredations of slum clearance occurred only because planners dazzled themselves with a vision in which all city dwellers would live in high-rise dignity.
Today, when well-connected men can no longer just forge a planning philosophy on their own, consensus is hard to come by. Still, a trio of powerful concepts spring from the welter of warring analyses: density, livability, and social equity. Each has become the guiding principle of an emblematic city, and New York could fuse all three to form an ideal version of itself.
What We Can Learn From Hong Kong
Vishaan Chakrabarti knows how to fix New York. He’s an apostle of density with a relentlessly optimistic energy and a persuasive grin, and as Manhattan city planning director, he helped shape the coming thicket of skyscrapers at Hudson Yards. Later he went to work for the site’s developer, the Related Companies. Now he runs the real-estate program at Columbia’s architecture school, prodding students to think sweepingly about design, land, and money.
“This emphasis on the Copenhagen/Amsterdam model is a distraction,” Chakrabarti says, waving away all the genteel tinkering with bike lanes and sidewalk cafés. “We have a lot more in common with Hong Kong and Tokyo. Our counterparts are dense, mixed, financial-services cities, not cute European towns.” For Chakrabarti, density and public transportation are the conjoined twins of rational city planning. “We have to wean Brooklyn and Queens off cars, but they’re not dense enough. When I go to P.S.1, I get out of the subway—there are four lines converging there—and all I see is one- and two-story buildings. There’s way too much blue sky.” Stacking families and offices in vertical cities conserves energy and steers people out of their cars and into less-polluting subways. It also creates wealth, because so much more is salable on each lot. Hong Kong’s transit corporation, MTR, makes fortunes by erecting agglomerations of skyscrapers on new landfill and simultaneously building the rail lines to serve them. “When they’re talking about transit-oriented development, they’re not talking about a little trolley line,” Chakrabarti says.
Density can go bad. The wriggling masses of Karachi and Mumbai do not speak well for the environmental benefits of packing so many people into so little space. But some wealthier East Asian cities manage to make density exciting rather than claustrophobic. In 2003, the shrewdly starry-eyed developer Minoru Mori opened his Roppongi Hills in Tokyo, a teeming zone of corporate offices, restaurants, and luxury apartments revolving around an ungainly tower. A few years later, a similarly massive project, Tokyo Midtown, opened a few minutes’ walk away. East Asia bristles with these vertical towns where it’s theoretically possible to sleep, dine out, work out, go to work, see a movie, buy underwear or a ball gown, go dancing, visit a museum, catch a train, and park the car, all without leaving the premises. Even if nobody actually lives this way, the cumulative effect of all these options is constant, round-the-clock bustle, with nightspots emptying just as offices flicker to life.