© David Sundberg/Esto

Urban Design’s Role in Creating Housing, Mitigating Climate Change, and Promoting Social Equity

Earlier this summer Lance Jay Brown and Theodore Liebman met at the New York office of Perkins Eastman to discuss their views on the state of housing in U.S. cities. An architect, planner and distinguished professor of architecture at CUNY, Brown was the AIA’s 2007 recipient of the Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education. Liebman’s career as an architect, planner, and principal with global architecture firm Perkins Eastman, spans more than 50 years. Between 1969 and 1975, Liebman was Chief of Architecture at the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC) where he oversaw the building of housing for over 33,000 families. What follows is an edited version of their conversation. —Justin Wolf


Lance Brown: Ted, you’ve often said that neighborhoods are now correcting past transgressions, specifically regarding urban renewal and the use of superblocks. How are we correcting this, exactly, and do you factor in housing models like those championed by Le Corbusier?


Theodore Liebman: Urban renewal and Corbusian ideas had good intentions. Le Corbusier felt that modern man would require what he called “machines for living.” But time has proved him wrong. Culture and lifestyle, although continually changing, remain part of the human condition.


Post-World War II is when urban renewal came into play. The American Dream of big roads and suburban plots was in full force, but in the city there was much decay. The remedy, as the thinking went, was to tear down and begin anew. But no one, except Jane Jacobs, paid much mind to how these superblocks would be received by the public. What they achieved was a sense of isolation and anonymity. They were just gigantic enclaves. And when you consider that versus the standard urban street grid, which provides small walkable blocks and an intimate scale, perhaps the major corrections we need to make are in how we go about creating sustainable communities.


This requires accessibility, open space, community services, retail and economic vitality. It’s not housing alone. Zoning ordinances often segregated uses, with good intentions. But now, the creation of mixed-use zoning may help deliver the most sustainable communities and be a bit closer to our lifestyle.


Brown: I consider that a very rich response to what is a complex and open-ended situation. Why don’t we continue on to the work you did with the UDC and what followed that first round of post-War development. Could you talk a little about that time and the work you did?


Liebman: UDC’s mission was to create housing and jobs. It surely created a lot of housing. My first year there, in 1969, I was often reacting to the mainly high-rise buildings that we built. Fortunately, my boss at the time, [UDC President and CEO] Ed Logue, allowed me to take a year off to do research. So with help from a Wheelwright Fellowship, I moved to Europe with my wife and two young children for a year and visited and lived in many, many housing communities—80 projects to be exact—in ten different countries. I was able to find out first-hand how people felt about their housing and neighborhoods.


Upon my return, I was able to create a set of housing criteria, which addressed basic housing issues: a sense of community, security, supervision of children, maintenance and other livability issues, and the importance of flexibility. We then developed a prototype that was non-elevator dependent; we wanted to get families closer to the ground. We hired the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies to design the first application of the prototype, which resulted in Marcus Garvey Park Village in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 1972. This new low-rise, high-density (LRHD) housing is successful to this day, and helped the neighborhood by introducing livable, quality housing that encouraged community, and differed in every way from the tower-in-the-park structures that are prevalent in that section of the borough. The most important thing about Marcus Garvey Park Village was the housing density we achieved. With 55 dwelling units to the acre, the density was slightly greater than that of its next door neighbors, which were 17-story high-rises with large open spaces between them.


The interior courtyard of Marcus Garvey Park Village, in Brooklyn, ca. 1980.


Brown: You were also involved in the Roosevelt Island Housing Competition, in 1974. What kind of effect did that competition ultimately have on the city and its approach to housing? Why didn’t Roosevelt Island become another Marcus Garvey?


Liebman: We realized that elevators were important for the elderly and the disabled. There were other populations that could easily live in high rises, and 55 dwelling units to the acre may not be the ultimate goal everywhere in our cities. For the competition criteria, we doubled that density figure of the Low-Rise High Density prototype, but also asked that submitters respect the social criteria established for the low-rise model. Interestingly enough, we found that all the winning solutions demonstrated an understanding of the importance of having easy access to the ground level, particularly for large families, and that small open spaces and play areas should not only be accessible but also designed with purpose, as opposed to placing large open plots of grass in between towers. These elements encourage sociability and help foster a community of different uses.


We also learned about the importance of building entrances. It’s assumed that if you’re using an elevator-dependent building for housing then that requires a double-loaded corridor. And with that kind of density in a residential setting, people expect a certain level of anonymity. So you have, typically, studios and one-bedroom units all stacked on top of one another, and the same with two- and three-bedrooms. However, I maintain—and research supports this—that families with young children prefer to be closer to the ground and live in apartments that are more accessible from the street. But what we learned from Roosevelt Island is that—despite the economy of stacking similar units, and stacking bathrooms, kitchens—redesigning the high-rise to offer more entries at the street level to serve different needs is the best approach. This includes main entries for those residents who are elevator dependent, and separate entrances on the street for those residents living in a building’s first two or three floors. That will create a more active street and in turn a better street.


Let’s shift gears now and talk about your work with the AIA’s Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee. As architects, what should be our chief concerns when it comes to climate change?


Brown: In the aftermath of 9/11, I looked at how the design profession could respond to a disaster of that magnitude, and that led me to other questions about how the profession could look at all the challenges it was going to face, including those linked to climate change: sea level rise, extreme heat, flooding, drought, seismic events.


Many of our international colleagues have been way ahead of us in responding to these challenges. So at the AIA, what began as the Disaster Preparedness Task Force—which included members of the APA, ASLA, and other like-minded groups—eventually evolved, in 2011, into the Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee. This gave us a new platform for outreach, particularly to local and state agencies, and offered a superior model on risk preparedness to other AIA chapters.


So with the committee being formed a year before Sandy, the New York chapter of the AIA (AIANY) was prepared to engage in this conversation once the damage wrought by Sandy was evident and cleanup had begun. The committee was one of the first organizations to publish a formal response to Sandy, and since that time the committee has helped train more than 500 architects to be ready to respond to these large disaster events.


Nature does not respect political boundaries. What we can do on one seashore, one block, one neighborhood, may well affect one that is just next door or miles away. Unless we look at this from a regional point of view, we’re likely to fail in our goal of making everyone safe.


A major concern of ours is that there remain rules, regulations, and building codes that are antiquated and not in tune with today’s challenges. We need to start with increasing awareness, need to make sure that the architectural profession is up to speed and that those allied with it are all on the same page—not siloed—in responding to the technical, aesthetic, and economic challenges tied to climate change.   


Liebman: You were an advisor for the “New Housing New York” Legacy Project competition, in 2006, which happened to be the city’s first juried design competition for affordable and sustainable housing. How did you become involved?


Brown: It began with a discussion prompted by the City Council. Some members were aware that the city’s housing needs were not being adequately met. So the Council approached AIANY and asked if we had any ideas about how to solve this, and if a design competition might be a good idea. There’s more housing constructed throughout the world than any other building type. But by the end of the Reagan era, housing and urban development was not being adequately funded and little attention was being paid to producing good and sustainable housing that was safe, accessible, and pleasing to the eye.


This competition developed in two parts. The first was an ideas competition, focusing on what housing should be. We invited schools and architects from around the country to contribute to the discussion, and we promoted it with academic institutions as well as international design practices. Since we were attracting an international level of interest, we had to make something clear to the head of NYC’s Departments of Buildings (DOB), Patricia Lancaster. I said that we’re running a competition that’s engaging some of the best architectural firms and developers in the world. If we’re asking them to bring to us new and different ideas, we needed a commitment from the DOB that, should these design ideas not comply 100% with the building code, that they wouldn’t be rejected outright but instead seriously considered. She agreed.


The second part was a to-build competition, which resulted in the construction of Via Verde in the Bronx. We had the perfect line up of designers, developers, and committed city officials, including Mayor Bloomberg, prepared to support these initiatives. The future Secretary of HUD, Shaun Donovan, who was then head of NYC’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), was a key supporter. All of this helped us attract an impressive set of developers and architects from all over the world who were eager to be a part of it. Beyond that, we had some basic preconditions for the design ideas we received. The housing had to be affordable, sustainable, aesthetically pleasing, and replicable.


This affordable housing development in the Bronx was designed by Grimshaw and Dattner Architects and developed by Phipps Houses and Jonathan Rose Companies. Photo courtesy of David Sundberg/ESTO.


Now, the completed project exhibits many of the goals outlined in the UN’s New Urban Agenda. Via Verde has been enormously successful. It is affordable, touches on all those prerequisites we set forth and in the end, is the definition of a successful housing project, because the people behind it had the will to do it, to find the funding and to get the city on board.


Liebman: Switching gears, both of us attended the Habitat III conference in Quito, WUF9 in Kuala Lumpur, and we’re both involved with the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization. How you view these gatherings of the minds? How have benchmarks like the Sustainable Development Goals and the UN’s New Urban Agenda changed your outlook?


Brown: We need to start to look at sustainable solutions in a more synthesized and interconnected way. Design is a part of the bigger picture and shouldn’t be considered mutually exclusive from sociology, economics, the law, and other pursuits that are equally important. They must all be knit together.


My involvement with the UN dates back to the mid-90s, when our focus was on Habitat II, in Istanbul, and Agenda 21, the action plan for global sustainable development in the 21st century. Agenda 21 was created to address the needs of underdeveloped countries with largely agrarian economies and resources. In 1996 I was approached by Robert Geddes, who at the time was President of the AIANY, and he asked if I would manage a project funded by HUD and test out the Agenda 21 goals and objectives, but instead of doing this in a developing country, this would take place in Harlem. This project became known as the “Crosstown 116: Bringing Habitat II Home to Harlem.” The project stretched from river to river along 116th St., from the Harlem to the Hudson, covering a vast and diverse grouping of neighborhoods and cultures. This was my first real involvement with UN Habitat.


The Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization now brings design to the UN Habitat table. Within the UN, you won’t find a Department of Design. Whether it’s infrastructure, movement, technology, we try to make sure the value of design is incorporated into the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda.


Liebman: Having touched on some pretty monumental global issues, how should we go about approaching smaller and more immediate concerns like bicycle safety, access to transit, building age-friendly communities, equitable zoning?


Brown: We have global needs, but the basic activities that fuel daily life take place at the local level. I believe the one thing we can do that will have the largest impact is to focus on the industry’s young professionals and students, people who’re evolving into practice. Younger generations haven’t succumbed yet to repetition and other inclinations that might slow down progress. We need more rapid change.


More young architects should enter politics. As we broaden the profession’s reach and it becomes more accessible to the public, we should also looking at who can make significant change at the policy level, so that our zoning laws are equitable, that housing stays affordable and accessible and sustainable, that our transit systems are kept working and receive the funding they need. Plenty of young architects go into finance, education, research, and product development. Some from this next generation should also consider politics, and secure seats in those chambers where laws can be changed to make sure these good things do happen.


Featured image: the Via Verde courtyard, courtesy of David Sundberg/ESTO.



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