Sunday, March 11, 2012

Off the grid

Last week experienced an interesting one-two punch in New York: first the exhibit Foreclosed and symposium "Shifting Suburbia" at the Museum of Modern Art, a conversation put on by the Forum for Urban Design and the Lincoln Institute. Teams of architects, economists, and artists re-imagined five areas devastated in one way or the other from the 2008 housing crisis. In some ways the landscapes were easy reinventions -- compared to zombie subdivisions miles from anywhere in places like Idaho and Florida. Those single-family subdivisions, platted but empty save for PVC and the occasional streetlamp, are unlikely to be occupied, ever. They never should have been built.
Better planning for growth was thus on my mind at The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan for Manhattan 1811-2011, the equally well-done exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, where I journeyed uptown after a too short comfortable night's rest at The Chambers (highly recommended). The planners had to make a bunch of calculations: radiating streets, location of squares and parks, the big intervention of Central Park, the dyanmics of the fledgling real estate market, even informal settlement (there were shantytowns of Irish and Italian immigrants all over, at places like 105th Street and 5th Avenue). The commissioners planned the grid up to 155th Street, judging the rocky and hilly terrain to be inhospitable, and perhaps satisfied they were adequately planning ahead; how otherwise to imagine filling up every hectare of Manhattan.
My next book subject, Le Corbusier, makes his cameo, urging superblocks and more light and air, and implicitly, husbanding more urban land to the horizon. I was reminded of Solly Angel's work in Making Room for a Planet of Cities. Planning at the scale of Manhattan's master plan will doubtless be needed in the megacities in the developing world. But how far is too far? Probably safe to say, 100 miles outside Phoenix or Boise.