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May 20th, 2009
The Next American System
[INTERVIEW] Paul Goldberger

Architecture critic of the New Yorker magazine
and the Joseph Urban Chair in Design and Architecture at The New School in New York City

on the design of development

BLUEPRINT AMERICA: There’s an old saying, right, geography is destiny? But, is infrastructure destiny? Does the way we build cities determine the way we live in them, and the way people go about their daily lives?

PAUL GOLDBERGER: Infrastructure creates the form of a city and enables life to go on in a city, in a certain way. It’s not the only thing that makes the character of a city, but it has a huge, huge impact on it. We identify New York with the great bridges and tunnels and roadways and subway system and so forth. We identify Los Angeles with the freeways. All of those things are infrastructure and they absolutely set the tone and the character of a city. And infrastructure both takes from the nature of a place and then sort of reinforces that nature – strengthens it and keeps it going.

Paul Goldberger

BA: Compare how people live in a place like New York to most other American cities…

PG: New York grew up before the automobile. And even though it’s full of cars, its shape and form didn’t get created around the automobile. The automobile kind of got squeezed in where it could fit and it doesn’t fit always so well – and it’s a problem if you’re completely oriented toward cars.

Most American cities are different. Most American cities are post-automobile age. Maybe they existed, but they didn’t exist in a very big way. They really grew big in the age of the car – everything about them was designed to accommodate automobiles, to assume that people moved around them in cars, not on foot. And, that completely changes the nature of the experience you have in a place.

You don’t walk much in most places in America. You ride.

BA: These cities that grew up with the car, was there a common dynamic with them in terms of how suburbs grew out into the highways? What about Denver?

PG: In this country, we once thought we had unlimited land. And, we grew up in an age when the car and the availability of lots of land made it seem like a perfectly natural thing to do. Why not just keep on moving?

I think Denver’s very typical of American cities in that it has an old core that’s fairly dense and then a huge sprawling region around it that is not so dense, that’s organized around the car. If you turn your back to the Rockies – one of the things that always struck me as amazing about Denver was how little impact the mountains actually have on the urban form of that place – and look east, you don’t really feel their presence. You just feel a big sprawling American city that doesn’t look that different from a city that you might find in Texas or Georgia or just about anywhere else. It’s a classic American city that spreads out.

Denver has a number of old areas that are stronger than they used to be that have re-densified a certain amount. I was very excited a few years ago when they built Coors Field where they did because it makes a whole part of the city stronger than it was – it’s helped revive the urban fabric.

The old Stapleton Airport site – which was right at the edge of the city when it was replaced by the new Denver Airport way out there – they’ve taken that land and a lot of it is going to new developments that are very traditional urban developments. Tighter street patterns, houses closer together, a walkable neighborhood is the goal. Stapleton is an ideal place for that kind of experiment because it is close to the center of the city and it did need to be redeveloped and it wouldn’t have made sense to put a bunch of houses on an acre each there. It’s a much better neighborhood to do in a traditional denser way. It’s not a high-rise neighborhood. It’s houses, but it’s houses in a kind of old-fashioned, village-y way.

A lot of places that are not cities nonetheless give us really good models for how to build. Early in the 20th century there were a lot of early suburbs, villages, small towns built where the center was walkable, maybe there was a train station right in the heart of it. Lots of the older suburbs around New York, for example. You take a train from Grand Central. You get off. You’re in a little village center. You can walk to a lot of the residential neighborhoods. These places are not totally dependent on freeways and cars and expressways and malls and all those other things. And yet, they are not a place of high rises either. And so, we’re recognizing that there’s a huge value in that kind of medium to low density village-y kind of quasi-suburb.

BA: How can we make our suburbs more sustainable?

PG: We’re increasingly realizing that it’s important to make places that do not require you to use the car all the time. This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t have cars and shouldn’t use them for all the nice things you can do in a car, but you don’t want to be dependent on a car every single time you go out your front door. If you want to visit somebody who is a close neighbor, if you want to go to work, if you want to just pick up something at the store do you need the car for every one of those trips or can you create a- an environment, an infrastructure, a neighborhood design that allows you to walk for some of those things? Villages provide as great a model in some ways as big cities do. And in fact, since a lot of people don’t want to live in the center of a big, dense city in an apartment, but really would rather live in a house, it’s really important to also offer that alternative and show that you can make that a little greener also.

This should be about choice as much as possible. And cities and good environments should offer people choices. It’s not about saying it has to be this way. But about different choices and different options, but making them all viable given the broader needs we have as a society to reduce energy, to conserve land, to be green and sustainable.

BA: Why is New York different? Why is New York not Denver?

PG: New York is really big and New York grew big really fast and early on. New York really hit its stride in the 19th century. There weren’t cars then. You had a big city, you needed some other kind of system. So, New York built public transit as part of its infrastructure early on. There were elevated trains. Then, beginning in 1904, there were the first subways and that system just kept growing and growing until we stopped investing in it. But, for a long time it just kept growing and growing.

It didn’t grow up entirely dependent on the automobile. And that made a huge difference. When New York was growing in the ‘20s and ‘30s, there were a lot of new neighborhoods that grew up around new subway lines. They would shoot a new line out to a part of Brooklyn or Queens and then that would become a node around which a neighborhood would grow. Well, that’s the kind of urban village that is now such a great model. And New York was lucky enough to have grown up at a time when we did that kind of thing naturally. A lot of this has to do with time more than place.

I used to think that place and geography determined everything and that the character of a place came from its geography. Some of it, of course, does. Obviously, the mountains play a huge role in giving Denver its character. The water, being at a harbor, along rivers plays a huge role in giving New York its character. But I think time is even more important. The fact that New York, like Boston, Philadelphia grew up as largely a 19th century city. The original urban form of San Francisco, too, is more 19th century than 20th.

Los Angeles, Houston, Denver, Atlanta: those are all cities that really didn’t get big, didn’t hit their stride until the 20th century. And that’s as much as anything the reason they have a different urban form. It’s time as much as place. Now, I think, we’re in a third generation. We’re in a post-automobile generation. So, we’re now looking at cities in a different way. We’re never going to build them exactly the way we did in the 20th- in the 19th century because time never goes backwards, nor should it. But, neither are we building them in the way we did in the 20th century. I think 21st century cities will try to synthesize these two models and pull it together and give us the best of both worlds, if we’re lucky and if we can pull it off.

BA: Who was Robert Moses?

PG: Robert Moses was an incredibly important figure in the history of New York, particularly, but also in the history of American cities in general. He was the head of construction and public works in New York City and New York State for a long, long time. For basically 40 years – from the late ‘20s to the late ‘60s – he was the most powerful single figure in the shaping of New York. He tried to accommodate New York to the 20th century, in a way, and did a mix of really good and really bad things. Most of the system of parkways and bridges and tunnels that was sort of overlaid onto the old 19th century urban form of New York was created by Moses or under Moses’s supervision. And because he did so much he’s come to embody the whole transition from a 19th century to a 20th century urban form.

He’s also a figure who accumulated so much political power that today we look at him- people sometimes look at him almost wistfully and say, “Oh, I wish- if we only had a Robert Moses today, we could get something done.” When people are frustrated that it takes so long to do something and Robert Moses just kind of made it happen. Well, he did just make it happen partly because he managed to maneuver the political and financial system in such a way as to be able to act almost like a dictator. Today that’s not possible. We have a much more democratic view of cities. We’re much more attuned to public opinion and public input. The whole process of building things is longer and more complicated than it used to be. But, nobody ever said democracy was efficient. Democracy is a wonderful thing, but it’s not efficient. Moses was efficient, but he was not democratic.

Today, our value system is very different. We just can’t accept that. But, at the same time, we’re a little wistful about some of the trade-offs because it is really frustrating when we just can’t seem to get anything done. And you look at some of the things Moses did that were amazing in just two or three years from concept to completion, whereas we just struggle endlessly over trying to get stuff done today. And that’s not New York, that’s every city.

San Francisco is famously difficult for getting stuff done. Increasingly Los Angeles is difficult. Boston is difficult. Almost every city is difficult because today everybody wants to be engaged in the process. And they have a right to be. People have a right to be involved in the destiny of where they live. But, that also creates other problems. What’s come to be known as NIMBY – not in my backyard. People say, “Sure, that’s fine. Build a waste treatment plant, but not in my backyard. Not anywhere near me.” Well, if every single neighborhood says that and there’s no overall authority powerful enough to say it’s going to be there, then you never get it built because everybody says, “No, put it there. No, put it there. No, put it there.” And then nothing happens. It’s frozen. And that’s often how we are today with the building of infrastructure. It’s so hard to create consensus and we don’t have a figure who can override consensus and look at the broader good. We also don’t have the money to spend for it. I wonder if we could build the George Washington Bridge today. If we tried to build something like that now, public hearings and environmental impact statements and community board objections and so forth. We could be fighting about it for 20 years.

BA: Moses reshaped New York for the car…

PG: Robert Moses really did reshape New York to make it viable for the car. He wanted to do much more than he managed to do. Thankfully, some of the more damaging things he had in mind never happened. But, many of the things he did did happen and a lot of them actually are very much to the good. So, Moses is a really complicated figure. He’s not a total villain by any means, but neither is he a hero.

There’s no question that New York had to adapt to a certain degree to the car. Had it been 100% indifferent to the automobile, it probably would have died. You need to respond to your time to some extent and the question is finding a viable balance. Moses wanted to do an expressway across lower Manhattan, connecting the Holland Tunnel with the Williamsburg Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. It would have destroyed lower Manhattan, would have literally leveled the neighborhood we now know as SoHo, which is one of the most cherished neighborhoods of urban regeneration in the country. Because in those days – who cared? That wasn’t of value. The value was moving cars from place to place, not conserving a neighborhood. Today our value system’s very different.

I don’t think you’ll find anybody who feels anything but relief that the lower Manhattan expressway was killed and that it didn’t happen. In fact, it was one of the real turning points in our attitude. It goes back to the late ‘60s. It was a sign that Moses’s power was ebbing by then. And that this new view of cities in which neighborhoods and walking were more important than cars was beginning to sort of generate itself and rise up, even though it wouldn’t become really big for a while. But, the beginnings of that attitude killed the lower Manhattan expressway, for which every one of us should be grateful every single day that it didn’t happen. In San Francisco, they resulted in the whole thing of the Embarcadero Freeway. Which was going to go all the way around the entire waterfront of San Francisco. And pretty much the same time, people said no in- on both coasts to this.] And we saw the beginnings of a change of attitude that took a generation to really grow big and take over.

BA: Did Robert Moses have an anti-urban, pro-suburban bias? Was there a disregard for cities? Were cities just places you went through rather than go in?

PG: Moses represented a kind of classic, mid-20th century attitude, only more so. He was kind of the most extreme version, the most powerful version of something that was going on all over the country, not just New York — which was kind of emptying out the city, thinking of the city as a sort of tired, dirty, messy place. And if we could only just clean it up and kind of reduce its density, open it up, run cars through it, get rid of all those slums and so forth everything would be fine.

Well, once we started doing that, we realized that we were, in fact, destroying something very precious. And that while a lot of urban neighborhoods might not have been pretty in the conventional sense of a nice little Cape Cod house with geraniums in the front or something, they had a kind of vitality and a life to them that we were destroying. And we were replacing it with nothing but concrete. In the end, we were losing, not gaining by this. And it took a while to figure that out, but definitely that was what we were doing.

Did Moses hate cities? I think he hated mess. He hated things that weren’t controllable. And he thought he could turn the city into something neat, ordered and controllable. That’s what he felt. I don’t think he totally hated cities. I think he recognized that there was a greatness to cities.

But, he didn’t understand that a lot of the kind of messy, seemingly chaotic aspect of cities was actually a kind of almost natural organic life force that went through cities. And that if we cleaned them up too much, we risked killing them off. But he wasn’t alone in that.

Some of the greatest minds of the 20th century thought that. Architects, almost all thought that. Frank Lloyd Wright had a whole plan for what he called Broadacre City, which would spread out construction all over in a very suburban way, but very ordered and he just thought skyscrapers should not be tight in cities, but should be out in the country, just every few miles you might build a huge tower. Le Corbusier, the great French-Swiss architect had a vision for rebuilding Paris with huge towers and clearing away the streets. It took a long time to realize that the most important thing about cities isn’t buildings, it’s streets. It took a long time for me to realize that actually. As an architecture critic – that in a city, the street is more important than the building. And that the life comes from the street. When you walk up and down Madison Avenue in New York, say, you might not remember a single building, but you have a wonderful experience walking on that street. And that, in the end, is the essence of the urban experience. And you lose it when you clean it up too much, when you build wide expressways and interstates or even wide boulevards and big towers and- and nothing to really make you want to walk up and down that street.

I think the Sheridan Expressway was another one of those examples of an expressway that should never have been built, that was built solely to connect cars to places that always were accessible by train and bus and foot, but to make it easier for cars to get there. And in so doing, damaged a neighborhood hugely. When you ram an expressway through an existing neighborhood, you destroy something. And what are you getting in return for it? Sometimes maybe the trade-off can be justified. I don’t know. But in the case of the Sheridan Expressway, I don’t think we got anything in return for it except a damaged neighborhood.

BA: Was there a racist component to this style of planning, and to the whole suburbanization phenomenon?

PG: I think there was a very subtle kind — maybe we could call it passively racist, rather than actively racist component. It was not a desire to get rid of people, so much as it was a sense that “Oh, it sort of doesn’t matter. This is not important.” So, it was kind of what we might call passively racist, rather than actively racist. Doesn’t make it any more excusable, of course. It’s every bit as vile and as unacceptable as if it were actively racist because it has the identical effect. And there’s no question that expressways rarely were pushed through neighborhoods of rich white people. That was not a common phenomenon. They tended to be pushed through neighborhoods of poor people, generally non white. Not always, but often.

BA: Can we remove a piece of freeway like the Sheridan after it’s existed for 30, 40 years?

PG: We can definitely remove a piece of freeway. Particularly, one that isn’t heavily used and has turned out not to be vital. It would be tough to remove today, the Cross Bronx Expressway, even though that was a pretty awful thing, too. But I think we could probably do without the Sheridan Expressway just fine. And we’ve also figured out that sometimes boulevards can move traffic just as well through a city than actual interstates. And they have much less impact. In New York, along the Hudson River the old West Side elevated highway was torn down long ago. And eventually replaced with a surface boulevard, which has traffic lights and so forth, but also is wider than a normal street and has planted islands in the middle and so forth and is absolutely the right way to go in that case. You need a little more than a narrow- conventional narrow street. But, a boulevard is a very nice way to kind of compromise between the needs of automobile traffic and the needs of the city. And the success of the boulevard on the West Side of Manhattan is a good example.

BA: What is PlaNYC?

PG: PlaNYC is a plan for New York in 2030. It’s looking ahead roughly a quarter century and saying we envision a city that will be greener, more sustainable, less dependent on automobiles and will be able to accommodate up to a million more people. With more public space, denser neighborhoods, and better transportation. It looks to create more density in a lot of the existing neighborhoods. It looks to reduce the impact of automobile traffic. It envisions planting a million more trees in New York. It raises the incentives to go green and build sustainably or retrofit existing buildings and so forth. So, it’s a long term vision for where the city should be going.

BA: Whose vision is it?

PG: The plan was inspired by the values that Mayor Bloomberg holds and wants to see extend beyond his term. It was done under the supervision of Dan Doctoroff who is no longer with the city government, but for many years was the deputy mayor in- overseeing planning, economic development and related fields. And it has real vision to it. At a time when we were not thinking long term, this plan does think long term and says we need to think long term. We don’t have to micro-manage. We don’t have to say in 2016 we will do exactly this on this street corner in Brooklyn because that’s impossible. And you’ve got to figure out those details as you go. But, we need a big picture. We need a kind of large roadmap and a set of goals to where we want to be. And the plan’s goals are achievable. They’re real. They’re achievable. And they will create a more livable, less energy using, more sustainable city.

BA: What is congestion pricing?

PG: Congestion pricing is an idea that began in Europe and has been very successful in London, uses new technologies – same kind of technology that we use for EZPass, for automatic toll collection and stuff – to charge cars for coming in to a very dense urban area. The idea being that you reduce the amount of auto traffic, because some people just are not going to want to bother paying. That’ll be a disincentive to drive. And then you raise some money from the people who do. So, it helps on a couple of levels. And it’s been very successful in London. You have to pay a fee to go into the heart of the city of London, the financial district where traffic is now a lot lighter than it used to be. It actually now moves. It’s manageable. And it should have happened here. It didn’t because the State Legislature, which has authority over the City in a number of areas, was able to block it because of objections from a number of people in Brooklyn and Queens.That it would discriminate against them because they needed to drive into Manhattan for their livelihood. I always found that a little forced as an argument, actually. And, of course, you could always create a system that would have exempted, service vehicles, like a delivery truck or a little- a FedEx truck or a repair truck or something. There are lots of ways around it. One can also create a different tier of pricing if you live there, say.

We never really got to fine tune the system enough. A lot of people objected to the first version of it. And probably politically, it would have been smarter for them simply to announce the intention of such a plan and then invite all the people who were objecting to be part of a task force that would have determined the actual parameters and then everybody would have been invested in it and it might have had some compromises, but it would have gotten through. Instead, they made the political misjudgment of announcing a specific plan with specific fees and a whole schedule of how it would work and there was so much objection to that that sunk the whole idea.

They believed it was so inherently right that people would see the wisdom and see the light. Well, they failed to understand or to take into account the fact that they were dealing with years of built-up resentment on the part of people, largely in the outer boroughs, who felt left out of the larger conversation about the future of the city. And so, even though an idea like this might have ultimately been a positive one, it had to reap the resentment that was sowed through other things years before. I think the idea of congestion pricing is basically right, but the way it was sold was wrong. They didn’t believe they had to sell it. That was the problem, I think. And so, they didn’t have a good strategy.

BA: Is rail the solution to our transportation crisis? Does the United States have the will or the money and the process to actually move into a rail-based society?

PG: I don’t think we’re ever going to move into a completely rail-based system and I think it’s naïve to think we could. The issue isn’t either or. If you position it as trying to put an end to the overwhelming presence of cars in American life and culture, you’re just going to set yourself up for failure. It’s not going to happen. But, should the proportions change, should there be more rail and a little less cars, absolutely. And that’s achievable. I think it’s more achievable now than it has ever been before. With a whole new administration in Washington that’s very pro new ways of looking at it. With the green incentives behind train travel and so forth.

The way to think of it isn’t to imagine getting rid of cars because it’s not going to happen and it shouldn’t happen anyway. It’s to strengthen rail travel where it makes the most sense. Where you really have a dense corridor, a dense core, where you have a place in which you can use rail travel to its best advantage. If you’re in the middle of Wyoming where density is so light it doesn’t matter, there’s no reason to try to get that tiny bit of traffic off the freeway, off the interstate and replace it with a train. That’s dumb. It costs too much money, you’re not saving very much because there’re not so many cars anyway. But, if you can begin to make an impact in the metropolitan area around New York, or on the West Coast in the Bay Area or around Los Angeles where you have huge amounts of population – train travel can really make a difference. And that’s where we should be investing – where we can actually get a real payback from trains.

New York to Washington right now is the most traveled rail corridor in the country. Yet, the trains don’t go at top speed because we don’t have a good enough track system. We don’t have a good enough track bed. We need to invest in improving that so that we can actually take advantage of the technology we already have, which we’re not doing. New York has been trying to build the new Moynihan Station to create a better gateway in New York for 10 years now. Since that was proposed. It still hasn’t happened. It was the thing that Senator Moynihan most wanted and should have been done immediately as a memorial to him and we have not been able to make that happen yet. Maybe now is a time when we can finally do that. So, I think it’s a time where we can actually make trains happen at the margin, where they’re really going to affect things. I wouldn’t worry about, trains in Oklahoma and trains in Wyoming and trains in Montana. There’s no real benefit to that. A nationwide train system, while it would be a nice idea in principle is not worth the money. It makes more sense to go by airplane or car in some of those areas. But, in dense urban regions, trains can transform places if we would only let them do it.

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