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Vishaan Chakrabarti, Part 1

by Vishaan Chakrabarti
August 22, 2018

This article was first published in frank on May 10, 2018

Okay, let’s begin. Would you introduce yourself?

I’m Vishaan Chakrabarti. I’m an architect and city planner, trained in both. I founded my practice, Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, or PAU for short. I also teach at Columbia.

Then there's this third nebulous thing I do out in the clouds, which is lecture, write, or talk about issues I think are pressing to our field, that don't necessarily neatly fit into either practice or teaching. I wrote a book a few years ago called Country of Cities, I’m thinking about a second book right now. That’s always a third line of activity beyond practice and teaching.

What does planning as a profession look like?

It’s evolved. City planning dates back to ancient China and ancient Greece. It goes back millennia. It’s always had poetic and pragmatic aspects to it. A lot of Roman cities had different ways in which they felt humanity related to the cosmos, and would lay out cities according to that. Similarly with China, in which cities laid out in Cardinal directions, were related to the way in which people interpreted their relationship to deities. City planning has a very, very long tradition.

If you go to a city like Rome, you'll see layers and layers of planning that happened under Pope Sixtus VI, and in more modern times, axis that have been cut through the cities, and that ended up influencing post-enlightenment city planning. Haussmann and ultimately Robert Moses. There is a lineage. And all of that lineage was largely top-down. City planning was always thought to be a somewhat authoritarian enterprise until Jane Jacobs came along. She was really the person who revolutionized this idea of cities being planned by the communities that live in them, and not having top-down structures that would tell them where highways would go.

There are both good sides and bad sides to that story. Unfortunately, too often in city planning education, and even among lay people, there is this sense that the story is all good. The reason that it is not all good is that it has put us in a certain kind of paralysis, particularly in the United States.

There are questions Jacobs never answered. For instance, how do you build big infrastructure under that model? Jacobs did not give us any kind of tool kit for how to fix Penn Station, or the subway lines we need. Because some of that takes governmental planning and agency. It is not all going to be done by communities.

Jacobs also never answered questions about how there are a lot of communities that don’t want people of color living in them. Are you supposed to listen to the community in that instance? Where that really plays out is the affordable housing battle, and through federal housing guidelines. Communities are supposed to take their share of affordable housing, and most cities actually fight that.

Look at what's happening in California today. Jerry Brown tried to pass this thing that said, if a certain neighborhood is within proximity to a mass transit line, we need to build density there, and we need to build a certain amount of affordable housing there. And it got defeated largely by a progressive state legislature because of this idea that communities would lose control.

To me, it's not necessary to come down on one side of that argument or the other,

but to understand that it's an argument — that this idea of community control isn't the be all end all in terms of answering every problem we might have.

Where that really comes to the tip of the spear is climate change. Climate change is completely changing the way we think about, not just city planning, but landscape planning, regional planning, how we are stewards of the planet. A lot of that stewardship requires an adult way of discussing what is rational, in terms of using that land, and often flies in the face of direct community control.

For instance, building density around transit stops, that's an easy one. When Katrina happened, people said, why should we rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward? It’s an area in harm's way. Yet no one seems to ask that question about suburban subdivisions in California that are in harm's way of wildfires or landslides. Or Fire Island. I've seen entire houses washed away in the Hamptons. If you go to a lot of those California hillside communities, in the wealthy parts of Berkeley, or Oakland, what it costs to provide water or fire up there, are not rational land use patterns.

How does one balance this idea? That it should not be all top-down authoritarian, yet we're not going to get at a lot of the problems associated with climate change unless we have a more rational way of using land. That is particularly true in a world that's urbanizing very rapidly.

You have some 200,000 people a day moving to cities, mainly in the Global South. If all of those folks choose to live the way a few hundred million rich people choose to live in the West, the world is screwed. The numbers are really quite clear on this. So, I think this is part of why I do what I do.

I think a lot of people in the affiliated fields, like architecture, planning, landscape architecture, environmentalism, are driven to go to work every day by this set of concerns. Again, going back to the ancients, how humans design habitation has an enormous impact on the planet, and on every ecosystem. We are at this inflection point, and it’s interesting that Jacobs didn’t really have a good answer to this.

It’s interesting because Jane Jacobs was a contemporary of Rachel Carson. You wish the two of them had gotten together. You can’t protect nature without a sustainable way for 7 billion people to occupy the planet. That 7 billion is going to be 10 billion by 2100. Those two things have to sit in balance. We have to find a way to balance the natural world and the physical world. That is at the heart of what good city planning is about.

Do you think there’s been enough progress since Jacobs’ book came out?

I think things have progressed. Certainly because technology has allowed a lot more communication within the community, and communities are much more interconnected than they used to be, and can organize around ideas in very important ways. People don't really believe it, but Friends of The Highline really did start as a grassroots organization. The notion that people can get together, volunteer their time, be concerned about their physical environment, and get things done, is very valid.

The larger issues since Jacobs wrote, is not so much at the community level, where I think people have been doing what communities do, which is organize around things that they’re passionate about.

The real problem is at the academic and pedagogical levels. I think city planning departments have largely become a mess.

They don't know what they’re about anymore. That's changing slowly, but it was a field that really went into doldrums in the 70’s and 80’s because all the stuff that Jacobs fought against. Robert Moses, urban renewal, all of that was seen as politically incorrect. People couldn't be city planners as you would traditionally think of them, physical planners: blocks are here or there, highways, transit systems.

Jacobs completely cut the feet out underneath that paradigm. The problem is nothing replaced it.

When I went to school, I studied planning before I studied architecture, and I was interested in physical planning, and that is part of why I went into architecture because I had to keep pushing the idea of understanding the physical environment, it was really not PC. I went to MIT for City Planning, and I can’t remember how many people were in our class, but I would say maybe 15-20% were studying physical planning because it was considered verboten.

Is the profession coming out of that now?

Yes and no. Our firm just won a big master planning project for the city of New York,

and what I find increasingly is that either architecture or landscape architecture firms are actually commissioned with the big city planning tasks because there are very few “city planning” firms.

You have to approach some of these questions a differently in terms of how you professionally get city planning done.

Do you think academia is still stuck? Do people think it is not PC to be a planner?

Again, it is changing. For example at Columbia, there is a built environment portion in the program now. I think things are changing.

What you notice between the architecture and planning students, is most planning students are not taught to be speculative.

What I mean by that is, in architecture and landscape architecture, it is still very common that you’re given a site and asked, what would you do? You are asked to speculate. But planning students are taught to ask, what does the community think, what does the data show you? Those are all incredibly valid questions, in fact that has permeated architecture and landscape architecture as well.

Most students work on a research basis rather than think they can invent the world on a blank piece of paper. Speculation, in terms of design-thinking, is what allows us to imagine a future that doesn't exist. And that is incredibly important.

Think about bike lanes in New York City. When the bike lanes and Citi Bike were first introduced, people thought Janette Sadik-Khan was crazy. I don’t know what the numbers are right now, but the modal share is pretty high.

Look at places like Brooklyn Navy Yard. It has 7,000 jobs and it's 25 minutes away from the nearest subway station. I think Citi Bike has created a whole new modality of how people move around a place like New York City. That to me is speculation, it’s saying, what if...

I’m not interested in autonomous vehicles for the technology as much as thinking, how can we design the streets differently? If AV’s did learn how not to hit people, could you design a street completely different? In terms of the curbs, parking, how the curb cuts for wheelchairs. Think about New York City two days after a snowstorm, it’s just a nasty mess. That has a lot to do with the way our streets are designed. Keeping pedestrians safe from vehicles operated by people. Those forms of speculation are incredibly important because we have to design better cities, because we have to attract people to live in denser circumstances around mass transit, because we clearly have the data that shows those people have a much lower carbon footprint than their suburban counterparts. We have to create a much higher quality of life in our cities than we have today. That's going to require a lot of intervention.

There's a lot of data telling us that Uber and Lyft are actually increasing the amount of traffic we're seeing in our cities. I’m a huge mass transit advocate. People ask, why do you need mass transit if you have Uber? Do you know what Uber is doing? Both in terms of traffic, and in terms of air pollution?

We have to continue investment in mass transit. It's just fundamentally inefficient to use a 12- foot lane for vehicles with one or two people in them. When we can carry hundreds of people in that same lane.

We have to be careful with technology. Technologists are interesting. They think because they've invented something super cool that it’s a panacea. And oftentimes it can make things a hundred times worse. We redesigned the world around the internal combustion engine in the 20th century, largely to very poor effect. Our cities were much more interesting, wonderful places to be, pre-internal-combustion-engine world. There's a reason gobs of tourists go to Rome every year and not to Houston.

You really can't build very interesting cities if everything is based on the turning radius of an 18 wheeler.