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What New York Can Steal From Hong Kong

In Copenhagen, walkability and bikeability slow people down and enhance small-scale urban joy.  

Burned, perhaps, by the blah Time Warner Center, where CNN workers, residents, and hotel guests hardly cross paths, New York has avoided mixing uses and populations under the same high roof. Here, an office building will sit on a thin layer of retail—a restaurant, say, or a sporting-goods emporium—and a high-rise condo might include a hotel. But an Asian-style complex or five would do the city good.

Manhattanites might think they have little left to learn about cramming humanity together, but look beyond the rivers, and the New York metro area thins out to levels that make it more sparsely populated than Los Angeles. Chakrabarti wants to change that. Queens Boulevard, he says, should be an allée of towers, with separated rapid-transit bus lanes that would slice through rush-hour traffic. He’s eyeing New Jersey, too, envisioning a Hong Kong–style high-rise cluster around the new but often empty Lautenberg train station at Secaucus Junction, which sits amid sparsely built marshland. New York–bound buses could terminate there and disgorge passengers to an extended No. 7 line, binding Northern New Jersey closer to Manhattan and creating a chain of business districts linked by subways, buses, and ferries.

Hong Kong and Tokyo have both spread out by filling in their waters with fresh real estate. Manhattan, too, has expanded over the centuries, but the regulations are now so restrictive that the Army Corps of Engineers ships millions of cubic yards of dredged soil away to landfills, at huge expense. Undeterred, a team of Columbia students recently proposed an engagingly mad plan to expand Governors Island into an artificial archipelago, reachable by subway or foot from both Brooklyn and Manhattan. The new land would absorb the punch of storms, create a new neighborhood and campus, and produce enough tax revenue to fund several green-energy plants.

Even if we don’t raise new acres out of the water, New York has plenty of space at the edges for its next high-rise precincts. There are only so many 1,000-foot towers you can jam into Manhattan’s central wedge, but even now we have vast swaths of territory that could absorb stands of skyscrapers. Rather than refurbish the tired and cramped Javits Center, we should build a new convention center near the airports—in Jamaica, say, or Willets Point—and fill in the bleak West Thirties with towers. Instead of lining the waterfront with bedroom communities (as we are in Williamsburg and Long Island City), we could be erecting hybrid-high-rise neighborhoods there, unbound by the old divisions between work, leisure, and commerce. The subway node at Queensboro Plaza, too, is practically begging for a supertall complex to replace the area’s dusting of three-story buildings. The original concept of a dense development at Atlantic Yards, which devolved into the reality of a basketball arena surrounded by a vast hole, could be redeemed by a Brooklyn version of Roppongi Hills. That would add not just residential towers but a pleasing tangle of business and play. Those who think New York is all built out have their eye too close to the horizon.

Borrowing From Copenhagen

Of course, the prospect of foresting manmade peninsulas in steel sequoias for the next generation of money managers may strike many New Yorkers as an urban dystopia of Blade Runner extremes. Where, in this vision of a 100-story future, is the space for those who spend summer evenings on the stoop, train binoculars on herons in Jamaica Bay, or might simply enjoy an occasional glimpse of a cloud? For them, a civilized city is not a more efficient urban machine but one that makes it possible to live at different speeds, a place that values leisure as well as luxury, speed, and work.

Fred Kent shambles into his office near Astor Place with the rumpled look of a man who regularly spends the night on a plane. Kent founded Project for Public Spaces in 1975, and, partly by racking up 150,000 miles of air travel every year, he has nurtured the tiny nonprofit organization into a global think tank on places to hang out. “New York is way behind on public space,” he grumbles. “We’ve turned everything over to the architects.”

Kent is an acolyte of William H. Whyte, the social critic who described the mechanisms of corporate conformity in his 1956 book The Organization Man, then spent the next several decades as a rigorous observer of city life. While mid-century savants declared that architecture could transform lives, Whyte believed they had it backward: Behavior should shape design. He and his team staked out corporate plazas, squares, and sidewalks—Lexington Avenue between 57th and 61st Streets was his favorite—to see how people used them.