Thursday, May 16, 2013

Economy/Urbanism: Why Cities Go Vertical

I like big cities like New York. They offer so many opportunities for jobs, education, medical services, entertainment, sports and more. There are lot of cinemas, libraries, museums, restaurants, bars, gyms and much more.

Hence I was surprised as I saw this statistic last week: The density of large U.S. cities like New York City is shrinking, at least in the decade 2000 through 2010 (reuters). That means that in the year 2010 in big cities fewer people lived per square mile than in the year 2000.

This is puzzling in the face of all the advantages New York and other metropolises have to offer. Do people really prefer living in the suburbs and on the countryside?

Felix Salmon, a columnist and blogger for Reuters, has an interesting explanation (reuters). He observes a rise in the number of wealthy & politically powerful groups and individuals who move back into the city from the suburbs.

"They decrease density just by moving to the city: they do that by dint of the fact that they live in larger homes with smaller families…..Rich people like to maximize the amount of space they live in, whether they’re buying suburban McMansions or downtown lofts."

Salmon also sees a second important effect: The rich and powerful use their political power to prevent construction of (large) tenant buildings in their neighborhood. He labels this elitist strategies with "Not In My Back Yard" and "Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything"

I find Salmon`s arguments very plausible and valuable. But I reckon those developments that have been dominating the development of large cities are just temporary and the density of New York City and similar places will rise again soon or has started already.

There are other trends that should overcompensate the political effects of the political-economical influence of wealthier power group:.

1.  Last Sunday the New York Times reported that wealthy people like to buy or rent apartments in higher floors of skyscrapers (nytimes). The paper labels this trend:  "Living vertical". Those people enjoy the gorgeous views and the absence from street noise. They quote a couple who migrated to a New York City tower because their kids want to join a ballet class in the neighborhood (Upper West Side of Manhattan). I call this trend "piling up the rich".

2. Living vertical gets a lot of support from the omnipresent technological progress. Advances in materials, engineering, architecture and other areas allow building awesome skyscrapers which you can see at many places in the world (skyscraperpage). Those advances also permit buildings with interesting designs, there are more and more skyscrapers that look stylish and cool. Residing there is a part of an exquisite and modern lifestyle.

 Take for instance 8 Spruce Street New York, a rental building designed by star architect Frank Gehry (wikipedia). According to the New York Times is this skyscraper presently Manhattan’s tallest occupied residential tower at 76 stories (nytimes). And Manhattan has more of those elegant building to attract the wealthy crowd, like the 432 Park Avenue ( and the One57 (in construction

But not just new towers are attracting the rich. There also are traditional buildings in already crowded areas that get refurnished for affluent buyers & tenants. An example for this is the almost ancient Woolworth Building 233 Broadway, Manhattan, New York City, where now the top 30 of its 58 floors are transformed into luxury apartments (wikipedia).

3. The mentioned statistics covers just a single decade from 2000 through 2010. This era included 2 severe recessions which may have stopped many large construction projects.  The financial crisis of the years 2008 and early 2009 had especially frozen the financing of skyscrapers.

Since the spring of 2009 the U.S. and the global economy are growing again. Now you can see a lot of gigantic construction cranes in New York City, a sign that the economic upswing has reanimated the financing of skyscraper constructions. 

And there is more. Over time, the general rising wealth improves the heart of the cities: There is a growing market for classy restaurants, bars, galleries, sports clubs and more (gentrification), which attracts more people to the cities. Even Manhattan has areas of spare land which will be used for residential buildings. The City of New York is owner of large area on the Lower East Side (Seward Park) which will be used for a big housing project that also includes affordable apartments for the not so rich (.thelodownny).

4. The flip side of the gentrification is rising rents of course. But there is a solution: Last year New York`s mayor Michael Bloomberg started a competition for architects to submit designs for apartments measuring just 275 to 300 square feet (25.5 to 28 square meters) "to address the shortage of homes suitable and affordable for the city’s growing population of one- and two-person households" (drivebycuriosity ). This may be a good idea for singles who aren´t especially demanding and don´t want to agglomerate too many things in their dwellings. They also could function for couples who like to go out very often, aren`t too claustrophobic and don`t plan to have babies in the next years.

Hence I reckon that verticalization, tailored mini apartments and other urban developments will attract people to the centers of the large cities like New York and raise their density again. Maybe its already happening. This would reduce traffic (less commuting from the suburbs) and could lower oil prices and dampen the greenhouse effect.

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