University of Cincinnati (Christopher)



Sep '06 - Dec '06

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    The Trilemma of Livable Cities

    By archtopus
    Sep 11, '06 3:10 PM EST

    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.



    • archtopus

      I guess I should note that by "respecting historic character/context" I don't mean making new construction mimic the historic styles, but rather two things: one, don't tear down the historic buildings, and two, don't build a skyscraper right next to a 4-story row house.

      Sep 11, 06 3:21 pm  · 

      you used the word ghetto.. not sure if that is good or bad. I personally like the use of it.. modern and a little edgy (haha.. sorry for the 'trendy' words) I would presume that the modern day reader is ready for that in a thesis by now...

      am i rambling?? haha.. sorry

      liked it.

      Sep 11, 06 6:32 pm  · 

      I became comfortable with using "ghetto" in a scholarly context after reading "There Goes the 'Hood", a book-length study of the effects and perceptions of gentrification by Columbia GSAPP professor Lance Freeman.

      Plus, "racially-homogenous, impoverished urban neighborhood" gets cumbersome after a while.

      Sep 11, 06 7:08 pm  · 

      you're all over the place-that ain't a thesis. a thesis doesn't hover. youc ould/should be more a bit more careful and resourceful with your sources on the ghetto term. why did UC switch to that thesis program...

      Sep 11, 06 7:59 pm  · 

      ghetto is fine. as long as you are sure its use is correct in a technical sense. but it would be better to pick a specific place rather than overgeneralise.

      i am curious about new york, a city that lost a lot of its population in the centre up until fairly recently. did housing costs drop during the period when people were moving to the suburbs? it certainly is the case here in tokyo. the city is much more affordable now than 10 years ago, but that is also affected by the bubble bursting, and maybe not a real cause/effect relationship...

      as for afforfability, well towers are not cheap to begin with and with high land costs the traditional way to provide urban affordable housing without govt intervention was in the form of the dumbell tenements and similar. not very nice, and not likely to be improved with just a green suspicion is that affordable housing is only possible in less dense areas where property values are low enough to make it feasible. that is certainly the pattern here in tokyo.

      as for the question about liveable cities. i have only lived in a few really big ones, like london, and tokyo, and in each of these the rich live downtown and the poor are more and more removed from their vicinity. it isn't a conspiracy, and possibly natural that this should be so (although it wasn't historically), though certainly unfortunate if you believe in equal not sure how to reverse the trend...

      on the other hand there are a lot of shrinking cities, like detroit and so on that suffer from empty it may be that the idea of urbanism/the city in general will have to be rethought. it may even be that your topic is better considered not as a rooftop thing but as a way to deal with empty properties in places like philadelphia (as with the recent competition here...or not...;-)

      anyway, though you might have already seen these:
      a simple article on roof top gardens and a thesis on urban gardening done by a lady from my alma mater.


      Sep 11, 06 8:35 pm  · 

      switters, this question is NOT my thesis. It's a research/discussion topic that's related to and will inform it. UC doesn't allow anyone to do a MArch thesis without a design component and I have no intention of trying to. It's a little absurd to me that no one has a problem when someone uses Heidegger or an obscure film to inform their thesis, but when I use practical planning and economic ideas, it's considered illegitimate.

      Sep 11, 06 8:51 pm  · 
      liberty bell

      Are Portland's property values really "falsely" high? Isn't the Urban Growth Boundary a real condition, a state of being brought about by a zoning attitude, just as "natural" as DC's height restrictions?

      Sep 11, 06 10:28 pm  · 

      Jump, thanks for the ideas. My decision to focus on rooftop urban ag is based mostly on the environmental benefits this provides to the buildings to which it's applied. It also doesn't take up land that could in the future be used for more buildings, which would eventually increase overall neighborhood density. While of course a city like Cincinnati doesn't appear to have much potential for greater urban density, I'm responding here to the apparent nascent trend nation-wide of urban reinvestment and the reversal of sprawl based on a number of factors.

      Liberty bell, I think you're right. The prices are indeed high and the growth boundary is in fact a real thing. But I guess to some economists (and I'm certainly no economist) a growth boundary, rent control and height limits are all technically governmental constructs that "falsely" (read: not based on pure market forces) increase demand by limiting supply. All three do, of course, have a real impact on urban spatial organization. So yeah, from an architectural perspective, I guess they're all perfectly real.

      Sep 11, 06 11:35 pm  · 

      easy tiger, these are not ideas, it is a meandering wanderlust into other disciplines. you're throwing doughnuts at the fog. you clearly have an interest in economics and planning but the basic concepts are unformed, understudied, and uninformed. they are cliches of planning. what's wrong with prompting you to dig deeper. i anin't knocking your intentions but it doesn't matter if a thesis topic (AND YOU DID SAY THESIS TOPIC) is some bad read on heidegger or urban planning, the topic is still unformed.

      Sep 12, 06 8:15 am  · 

      switters, how do you expect us to take you seriously when you use the word "ain't" and spell it wrong?

      I'm just kidding, but give the guy a break. Clearly he's thinking (a hell of a lot more than most people, I assure you) and this is the time for him to work these things out, so cut him some slack.

      Besides, he has a TRILEMMA on his hands, and you don't f*ck around with those things.

      Sep 12, 06 8:32 am  · 

      a few comments...

      i think that it is nearly impossible to develop truly affordable housing in an urban context these days without some sort of government involvement... the most common methods being 1) inclusive zoning that requires private developers to include a certain percentage of affordable housing in their projects and/or pay into the city's affordable housing fund, 2) a pseudo governmental entity like a community land trust that purchases parcels of land and then provides long term (99 year) leases to developers to build affordable housing... i'm currently involved with project that is using method 2, one thing to keep in mind here though, is that unless there is some control on the appreciation of the value, things won't remain affordable for very long... thus, a sort of rent control for mortgages is required... this works by capping the amount of appreciation allowed to the owner at a certain percentage per year owned, then when the original owner goes to sell, they can sell at fair market value and anything over the cap goes to the city's affordable housing fund, or they can sell at an affordable level...

      also, i read about a year ago in one of my wife's legal journals that the urban growth boundary in portland had been challenged and gutted in court... i believe that it now stands that land owners outside of the boundary must be compensated if they can illustrate that their property values are being "falsely" held down by the inability to develop... however, the revised legislation did not set up any method of funding this compensation program, so unless something has changed, the urban growth boundary is now functionally dead...

      Sep 12, 06 9:05 am  · 

      it is interesting to reflect for a mo that LA has a higher density than portland, however. so the meaning of such things is pretty relative.

      the portland urban growth boundary has a lot of problems associated with it, but has not been a real issue until recently when the city began to but up against its edge. now it is being challenged from all sides. will be interesting to see how much of it remains...hadn't heard about that particular legal ruling but is not surprising.

      anyway, land and law are interesting parts of our business. i learned recently that most of the land in australia for example is leased to farmers rather than owned outright...anathema to americans (and japanese; they are very jeffersonian here). that means the govt has a different kind of leverage when it comes to solving problems and imposing growth boundaries and so on...

      on the other hand european cities are quite controlled, and yet still sprawl happens...which leads some urban think-people to think that the problem is not density, or planning controls, but rather affluence. which means we have to be really creative in making cities more comfy and agalitarian. maybe...

      Sep 12, 06 9:48 am  · 

      switters, I don't appreciate being treated like I'm an uneducated buffoon. A blog post that I threw together in 10 minutes isn't supposed to be well-researched, not did I claim it to be. I am, in fact, in both the MArch and M of Community Planning programs, and I've had a good bit of experience in preservation, sustainable design and urban policy. And again, this "trilemma" is not my thesis. An architectural manifestation of rooftop urban agriculture and research that directs that will be my thesis.

      Architphil, I would agree that it doesn't seem possible to ensure affordable housing in safe, clean neighborhoods without some kind of government intervention. I wonder if some sort of condo-coversion program that gradually grants home ownership (and thus appreciation profits and credit leverage) to lower-income people might be possible. I also read about a fairly new idea of using the property tax increases in TIF districts to provide housing vouchers. That, of course, would require the city anticipating gentrification.

      Sep 12, 06 10:20 am  · 
      vado retro

      first issue off the bat and one that can be addressed is your roof loading. i doubt if any of the existing buildings are designed to take the loads that you are talking about.

      Sep 12, 06 11:01 am  · 

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