bk2_236A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America
Vishaan Chakrabarti
Metropolis Books, distributed by ARTBOOK D.A.P.
| Distributed Art Publishers Inc.
155 Sixth Avenue, Second Floor,
New York, NY 10013; www.artbook.com
2013. 252 pages. Hardback $29.95.

Envision dense and prosperous American cities consisting of skyscrapers built in parks and conveniently accessed by transit—places that are healthy, walkable, and affordable for everyone. This is the vision of A Country of Cities. Compare this vision with the present sprawling, class-segregated, and automobile-dominated urban landscape. This unfortunate outcome of obsolete government policies drains natural and economic resources, damages public health, and holds back economic growth, giving America metropolitan areas characterized by their “highways, houses, and hedges.”

Do not be fooled by the author’s fluent alliteration and colorful diagrams. Underneath Vishaan Chakrabarti’s lively prose and eye-catching graphics is a steely purpose grounded in solid data and analysis. He has worked in the trenches of urban development and done his homework on the history of American urbanism.

Chakrabarti is a practicing architect, city planner, and urban development entrepreneur who directs the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University; he also is a partner at SHoP Architects. His extensive credentials include three years as director of city planning for Manhattan during the Michael Bloomberg administration, as well as work in project development and transportation planning.

Chakrabarti is a radical, but pragmatic, thinker. This book is his manifesto, aimed at turning American urban policy, planning, and development from their disastrous path. He is radical in returning to Le Corbusier’s vision of cities as skyscrapers in a park—a vision long scorned by urbanists in favor of low-rise, high-density neighborhoods.

After a brief critique of sprawl and its associated ills, the bulk of the book focuses on why cities are good and how to build good ones. A good city is defined as one that supports rapid mass transit and has a housing density range above 30 units per acre (74 units per ha), which he terms hyperdensity. This is not the popular new urbanist fantasy of small-town America, and it cannot be achieved by retooling suburbia. According to Chakrabarti, the economic and environmental engines of the country are the big cities; they are broken and must be fixed by allowing market-driven urban growth to succeed.

Chakrabarti argues that just as the suburbs were largely a creation of big-government policies and subsidies, new public policies are needed to create healthy cities. These policy reforms would include phasing out the home-mortgage interest deduction, removing oil industry subsidies, allocating federal transportation dollars by population and distributing them for transit and rail projects as well as highways, reducing development red tape by streamlining the National Environmental Policy Act, and pricing gasoline to reflect the societal costs of pollution and congestion. Reforms would include allowing cities to govern themselves through home rule, free from the constraints of anti-urban state legislatures and suburban and rural special interests.

Dense cities are good because they can deliver widespread economic prosperity; enhance the health and safety of the natural environment (“If you love nature, don’t live in it”); and create happier and healthier populations who walk more, have access to better health care, find better work opportunities, and are more connected and joyful. How do we build such delightful cities that make us more prosperous, ecological, fit, and equitable?

To build hyperdense cities, we must first overcome the prevailing urbanist view that low-rise density is good but real estate development is bad. Champions of European low-rise, high-density cities, such as Paris, fail to acknowledge that they are among the most segregated urban centers in the world, with all the poor living on the periphery. Yet these cities built low-rise buildings because elevators and structural steel did not exist at that time. Today’s city planning should recognize the opportunities offered by current technology, use regulations to create policies and promote investments that spur private-market reaction, and plan new transportation, parks, schools, and other critical infrastructure in tandem with hyperdense development. This development should be flexible to recognize and support new projects that serve as development catalysts, such as New York City’s High Line.

America must support dense cities by building not only transportation, water, and sewer systems, but also an “infrastructure of opportunity” focused on social systems such as schools, health care facilities, and parks. To fund such systems, hyperdense cities can up-zone and gain increased tax revenue from increased land values and implement tax increment financing. This must be supplemented with substantial federal infrastructure funding at the scale of construction of the Interstate Highway System under President Eisenhower, funded by a smart-infrastructure gasoline tax. Because cities, which constitute about 3 percent of U.S. land area, generate some 90 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, they should be entitled to federal investments in their infrastructure that will in turn create a virtuous cycle of growth. The new metropolitan areas will lower greenhouse gas emissions, accelerate job creation, and decrease health care costs.

The manifesto also calls for construction of equitable cities in which housing, schools, transportation, health care, and food are affordable. Despite high subsidies, the current public housing policy of vouchers and tax credits produces a relatively small amount of affordable housing. Construction of affordable skyscrapers is needed. Although construction costs are higher for urban high-rise housing than for single-family homes, they can be brought down through hyperdensity, public policies, and technology. Modular construction, such as that projected for Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, New York, can cut construction costs. Capital costs can be reduced by reforming federal housing subsidies—phasing out the mortgage interest deduction over time and using part of the savings for construction of affordable rental housing in cities.

This is a remarkable book— inspirational, thoughtful, intelligent, eloquent, visionary, and moral. Its 100 illustrations constitute a second, visual text as powerful as the written one. Though readers may be skeptical about achieving the ambitious goals it lays out, they will be impressed by the scope, logic, and brilliance of its vision.

David R. Godschalk is professor emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of The Dynamic Decade: Creating the Sustainable Campus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2001–2011 (UNC Press, 2012).