What New York Can Steal From Hong Kong

Hong Kong, where density brings intensity. Photo: Michael Wolf/Courtesy of Bruce Silverstein Gallery

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.

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

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.

Medellín's trams knit together poor neighborhoods and the central business district. Photo: Maxime Dube/Alamy

“It is surprising how many well-dressed people can be seen rummaging through trash containers, and not surreptitiously,” he noted in 1988. Whyte saw that leftover wedges of space, fitted out with seating and a water fountain, often have more life than expensively designed plazas or lavishly landscaped parks. Kent has translated that approach into a mantra: Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper. “Look what happens when you put a bench in front of a bookstore,” Kent says. “Suddenly there are at least ten things to do. People slow down, they sit, they go in, they drink coffee, they talk, they pet a dog. If you have a space that has ten spots, each with ten things to do, that multiplies.”

Kent thinks that New York tends to overdesign, rigidifying spaces with too many benches, lawns, and walkways. A good city, he says, is the sum of its activities, and the best a planner can do is provide focal points for those energies and manage the flow of fun. “It’s not rocket science,” he says. “You just ask people what they’d like to do.” He points to the arid acre around Brooklyn Borough Hall that’s sporadically enlivened by a Greenmarket. He envisions reclaiming it with chess tables, food trucks, a portable stage, planters, movie screens, and bike-rental stations, all overseen by a civic entity to keep it humming like Bryant Park.

While Kent exports lessons formulated on Manhattan’s sidewalks, New York lately has been importing similar teachings from Northern Europe. The Danish urbanist Jan Gehl has spent decades scrutinizing Copenhagen with Whyte-like doggedness and developed a toolkit of improvements: Instead of forcing pedestrians to cross busy roads by footbridge, or scuttle beneath them through stinky underpasses, let them cross at a carefully timed light; rather than interrupt sidewalks with curb cuts, run the pavers right across driveways, so that vehicles pause for pedestrians instead of the other way around. Gehl studied and shaped Copenhagen’s two principal experiments: the gradual conversion of a central traffic artery, Strøget, into a pedestrian boulevard, and the fostering of its bicycle culture. The first has given us a pedestrian Times Square, the second, 500 miles of bike lanes.

A tinge of foreignness clings to some of the transformations Gehl has inspired. New York’s cyclists have been slow to use the green lanes, delivery trucks have been equally slow to get out of them, and it still doesn’t feel natural to sit at a café table in the middle of Broadway. The task of recovering Times Square’s pedestrian identity has fallen to a Norwegian architecture firm, Snøhetta, but its primary focus is on the fresh pipes and cables beneath the new concrete pavers sequined with stainless-steel nubs.

That plan is still evolving, but it heralds an encouraging leap from provisional tinkering to lasting change. Gehl and Kent advocate shoestring fixes that are easy to implement and can be rapidly undone. But New York’s brand of mild anarchy (and high-decibel opposition to every change) suggests that we need to cast them in concrete. A bike or bus lane set off by a median signals that it’s here to stay, in a way that a stripe of paint can’t. A newly widened sidewalk that supports a café is wresting square footage from drivers, not borrowing it from pedestrians. A network of enclosed, secured bike garages would go a long way toward turning the bicycle into a means of transportation rather than a piece of sports gear. New York can never be an overgrown Copenhagen, but it can and should make livability permanent. One modest yet radical move would be to sow the city with hundreds of new drinking fountains (and fix all the old ones), in half a dozen different designs, awarded by international competition. Enshrining pleasantness in stone and steel and asphalt brings immense rewards, some quantifiable, others vaguer but no less real. When people can stroll rather than scurry and dodge, visitors flock, shoppers spend, friends converse, businesses multiply, and crime looks for grimmer pastures. Rome’s role in the world derives from a billion espressos sipped at leisure; as the new New York imprints itself on the fickle global psyche, every step across a well-crafted street can make the difference between a grimace and a return trip.

The obvious solution to the divide between the Hong Kong and Copenhagen models is to merge them. New York already does this somewhat—Bryant Park is a little patch of Scandinavia across the street from the cloud-skimming Bank of America Tower—but the New Yorkers who are doing it most assiduously are working in South Korea. From offices overlooking Bryant Park, the developer Stan Gale and the architects at Kohn Pedersen Fox have drawn up a kit-built metropolis called New Songdo City, a $35 billion project now rising on a 1,500-acre swath of reclaimed land outside Seoul, hard by Incheon International Airport. Imagine filling the wetlands near JFK with a chunk of midtown, and you get the idea. Towers of varying heights give the skyline a vaguely Manhattanish profile. Townhouses, residential high-rises, and office towers mingle. A street grid bisected by a Broadway-like diagonal stretches out on both sides of a green expanse that’s called Central Park.

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”).

No single building can revive a borough, but one that is nearing completion shows what can be achieved by the bundling of government, talent, and goodwill. Via Verde, an apartment building that doesn’t sacrifice either genuine affordability or architectural elegance, was designed by Grimshaw and Dattner and developed by Jonathan Rose Companies and the nonprofit Phipps Houses, who cobbled together every available scrap of subsidy. It’s not the usual brick block or huddled bunker, but a light, airy complex that curls around a skinny lot, rising from townhouses to a tower and inviting neighbors to gather in its open-air amphitheater or stroll through a series of rooftop gardens spread out across multiple levels, like a miniature Bronx Versailles. The design is full of thoughtful details, from the interlocking duplex apartments to the positioning of windows for cross-ventilation, to the syncopated rhythm of light fixtures down each hallway. The minutiae matter because they reaffirm the tattered belief that good housing shouldn’t be a luxury.

The parallel histories of Melrose and Medellín offer a template for a city that is nearly as economically divided as the cross-border sprawl Cruz has studied. A steady drip of individual projects—a green­way, a park, a mall, a food market, a museum, a courthouse, apartment blocks—has brought fresh vigor to the Bronx and made it possible to envision weaving them together with bike lanes, urban farms, pedestrian corridors, and free and frequent buses making local loops on dedicated lanes. A poor borough rich in entrepreneurial energy and bold ideas (tear down the Sheridan Expressway!), the Bronx is poised to turn itself into a global model of enlightened urbanism. Knitting together parks, libraries, transit, streets, and education for a city’s poorest residents—making small changes on a vast scale—is something only government can do. New York needs what Cruz calls an “urban curator,” a municipal architect with the inventiveness and clout to turn a tangle of agencies and philanthropies into a coordinated progressive squad.

Such a person might start a dozen or so miles to the south in Brownsville, where subsidized housing has replaced many empty lots, but there is still room for a colorful and architecturally dramatic network of sports facilities, libraries, community centers, food markets, arts spaces, and public gardens. The specifics of where these facilities should go, whom they should serve, and how they should be built can’t be airily dictated from here; they should emerge from a deep collective immersion into the neighborhood’s needs, followed by a period of urgent construction. New York doesn’t need ski lifts to reach high-altitude slums, but it does need the focused, tenacious eagerness to act on such a crazy idea. Greening Brownsville may seem like a luxurious fantasy, but we can draw a sheepish sort of inspiration from the words: “like they do in Medellín.”

New York has a long if fitful tradition of progressive urbanism. You can see it in the reformed building codes that followed Jacob Riis’s reports of slum life; in the Bronx cooperatives built by Jewish factory workers in the twenties; in the pools and playgrounds that Robert Moses scattered around the city in the thirties; and in the subway system itself. The key to New York’s future is to recycle its pioneering past. We can canvass Asian insta-cities and scrape Scandinavian capitals for ideas, but inevitably we will come up with innovations that New York already has in its bones. KPF has ridden out the recession by building immense multiuse transit hubs in China that act as catalysts for large-scale development—yet two blocks from their office is the source of that model: Grand Central Terminal. The New York architect Steven Holl has designed a cluster of skyscrapers around a public space in Chengdu, China, that he calls “Sliced Porosity” but might more descriptively be called Rockefeller Center East. Even New Songdo’s cutting-edge pneumatic waste system, which sucks garbage through tubes, eliminating heavy bags and smelly trucks, has a generation-old precedent on Roosevelt Island. These things have embedded themselves so deeply in the fabric of metropolitan life that we forget that they were once radical. Conjuring a brighter, higher, faster, and more humane city does not mean indulging in some exotic reverie. New York has always thought of itself that way: in the future tense.

What New York Can Steal From Hong Kong