New Songdo’s center is evenly bisected by water, like Budapest’s or Shanghai’s. Canals inspired by San Antonio, Texas, have boutiques and food markets on one side, gardens and cafés on the other. KPF describes its anti-utopian plan as “a patchwork of pieces derived from cities which we know to have provided successful living environments.” Songdo will be shiny and devoid of history at first. Give it time, though. Age enlivens cities, and maybe when food stands, sidewalk preachers, delis, vintage comic-book dealers, and tattoo parlors have had time to sprout, the district will come to life.
The instant metropolis may seem mythic and distant, the mutant spawn of actual cities that have evolved through history, misery, and mistakes. In fact, we have our own New Songdo on the way: Hudson Yards, a miniature New York version of a Korean mini–New York, planned by the team at KPF. Right now, Hudson Yards is still a blank behind Penn Station, an empty landscape of future towers that has been laid out on a map but only partly designed. In renderings released by the developer, Related Companies, the project looks immense, glassy, and cold, barely cozied up by bits of greenery. But this is our immediate frontier, our potential incubator of urban ideas and bold architecture—the place where extreme density can be infused with Danish comfort on a Songdo-like clean slate. These attributes are not contradictory, so long as the goal is a true new neighborhood, not just a landscaped office park. The key to completing the circuit between density and livability is a great public space, a place of civic convergence, like the remarkable Plaza Mayor in the Spanish university town of Salamanca, an ancient place of grandeur, gratuitous detail, and subtle asymmetries. Hudson Yards should revolve around a space designed not for profit, convenience, or crowd control, but for people of all ages and classes to use as they like.
Lessons From Medellín
The activist-architect Teddy Cruz leans confidentially into a conversation and, keeping his outrage at a low burn, issues a stream of urgent abstractions. “Behind informal urbanization there are socioeconomic procedures we can deconstruct,” he says, by which he means that shantytowns have a lot to teach us. Cruz studies America’s southwestern corner, where San Diego’s enclaves of staggering wealth sit just a border-crossing from some of the poorest settlements in Latin America. From that vantage point, New York looks like a global success but a local disaster, a glittering city blind to its own scars, with neighborhoods as scarred and toxic as any Mexican slum.
“What if the city, instead of just making iconic places more iconic, spread infrastructure to marginal sectors?” he wonders. To learn how, he says, New York should look somewhere unexpected: Medellín, Colombia. In the North American mind, the name Medellín remains as fused to “cartel” as q is to u, but in the past decade, the city has worked hard to refashion its drug-war image with an expansive program of urban improvements. Cruz opens his laptop and clicks excitedly through photos he took on a recent trip there.
A new public gondola runs from a hilltop nature reserve, descending through poor neighborhoods and terminating at the subway line that cuts through the valley. A paved footpath crisscrosses a stream, connecting gondola stations with public library-gardens, a Medellín innovation. “It’s a beautiful project because it acknowledges that you can’t just put in manicured landscape,” Cruz says. “A park needs to be injected with knowledge.”
The Parque Biblioteca España, a set of black crystalline structures protruding from the cliff, has become a destination for architectural tourists, but Cruz is more interested in the restaurants, bodegas, and tiny businesses that have sprung up around it. He sees not only the aesthetic but also a catalyst for entrepreneurship.
What we can take from Medellín is not physical infrastructure but a political philosophy. There, former mayor Sergio Fajardo was able to reshape his administration behind the simple, powerful credo: “Our most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas.” In New York, though, even a relatively minor public undertaking might involve the departments of transportation, city planning, design and construction, parks, housing, and buildings, plus the MTA and a couple more state agencies—each with its own procedures, paperwork, and goals. The city will often turn a large project over to a corporation, effectively guaranteeing that the public good is measured in terms of the bottom line.
Good work does get done here anyway. In the Melrose section of the Bronx, the city has spent 25 years turning over empty lots and burned-out squats to private developers and nonprofit organizations, and helping to transform a war zone into a neighborhood of handsome two-tone brick apartments with a lively shopping street—spectacular in its normality. Just as important, the healing of Melrose was guided by the residents and business owners who had endured the druggy horrors and wanted a hand in shaping better days. They called their organization Nos Quedamos (“We’re Here to Stay”).