Sep '06 - Dec '06
My thesis topic ("Babylon Reconsidered: community development through rooftop urban agriculture") floats somewhere in the ether among urban design, planning and economics. How can roof gardens be used in an existing histoic ghetto neighborhood to both improve environmental health and act as an economic stimulus to mitigate the effects of gentrification? More importantly, is this even possible?
The three principles around which most of my academic and professional work has centered are green design, historic preservation and economic accessibility. It's my sense (and I don't think I'm alone here) that in order to make a city livable, one has to be environmentally responsible, respect its historic character and provide a mix of amenities that don't push out the most disadvantaged among us. (Of course, if it's an entirely new city, the historic part doesn't apply, but then you have a slew of other issues.)
I'm grappling with the question of whether it's ultimately possible to achieve all three of these principles, on both the local AND macro scales (macro here meaning over an entire region). Is this, in a sense, like the service triangle, in which you can get anything cheap, fast and high quality, but not all three at the same time?
We know that it's possible to acheive any two of the three at once. A hut in the woods is at least superficially green and affordable, if you ignore the problem of context (transportation, infrastructure etc). Sustainable design and preservation work well together in the practice of adaptive re-use (of both buildings and infrastructure) but these schemes are usually expensive.
I think ultimately affordability is the hardest to achieve, especially on the macro scale. Certainly there are plenty of examples of historic rehabs that are both green and affordable, but the affordability often comes from government regulation.
The problem arises when you try to ensure all three for an entire city. It doesn't seem to apply to all cities, but more with ones that have high demand, the ones that come to mind are New York, Washington, DC and Portland.
New York is a city with supposedly infinite demand. No matter how much housing you build, there will never be enough, and thus it can never be affordable without enforced limits (rent control), which consequently raises the rents of all the properties without such limits. While certain neighborhoods certainly do, most of New York doesn't fuss over historic context. While there are zoning restrictions, it's possible to build super-tall residential towers that would, if not for the infinite demand, solve the affordability problem. New York is, in at least one respect, green due to it's high density. It has the lowest per capita energy consumption of any major city in the U.S.
Portland and DC have similar issues in that they both restrict development. In Portland, the growth boundary is to enforce environmentally responsible development, while in DC, building height and set-back requirements are intended to preserve the historic character of the city. In the former, this results in falsely high property values while in DC, it creates vast sprawl as area compensates for height.
So is it possible to create historic, green and affordable cities, or will livable cities only be accessible to those with money?
I know there are many holes in this question and my points aren't formed as well as they could be, but I don't think we can dispute that this is an important, pressing issue.