A Remedy for Urban Dullness

How can you build a great place? Expand the number of people who own it.
June 2019
New York's Battery Park City
New York's Battery Park City (Shutterstock)
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

For some time, those of us who love towns and cities have been worried about the dearth of great new urban places -- street-centered, full of surprises, locally flavored, spicy and interesting. As the Danish urbanist Jan Gehl put it in 2016, if we were “making a book about great new towns in the 21st  century, it would be the thinnest book you’d ever seen.”

Not that we haven’t seen some visually stunning new places rise up in the past few decades. There are glistening “edge cities” like Tysons Corner outside Washington, D.C.; tidy New Urbanist meccas like Celebration, Fla.; and even the gleaming towers of the new Hudson Yards development in New York City. But none of these has the bustling street life, the sense of possibilities, the sheer randomness that makes a place vibrant and exciting.

In response to this, urbanists have pushed a sort of formula based on street grids, accessible street frontage, units of retail per foot of sidewalk, and other elements of urban design: Set publicly owned streets in a clear grid connected by mass transit, the theory goes, and you’ll get great urbanism. But that doesn’t always seem to be the case. Look at Battery Park City near the southern tip of Manhattan. Built in the 1970s on new land, including sand dredged from New York Harbor and soil that had been excavated to build the original World Trade Center towers, it has all the right ingredients for a lively urban space. It has multistory buildings with apartments and retail, set properly on a grid of city-owned streets. It has oodles of connections to mass transit. It has shops, restaurants, schools, wonderful parks and cultural attractions. It follows the planning formula to a T. It is also deadly dull.

So what gives? Well, I have a new theory. To see where I’m going with this, think about a great urban place you know, some place you have lived and loved or like to visit. Now, go to landgrid.com or, for New York City, oasisnyc.net to see the property lines around buildings and land parcels.

I focused on the East Village in Manhattan and, for contrast, the bustling older resort strip in Virginia Beach, Va., where I grew up. When you zoom in on a digital map of either of those places, you see a finely grained pattern of land ownership. Each block has thin slivers of individually owned buildings. They look like stacks of tiles viewed from the side.

Now look at some dull places like Battery Park City or the new Town Center in Virginia Beach, which was created a decade ago out of some old parking lots and other scraps. Although both have nice street grids, what you see on the maps are large blobs of ownership, with just a few entities -- or even just a single one -- owning everything.

In the older, more interesting places, each property is its own universe. Sure, they must adhere to city rules of zoning and design. But each owner, whether individual or corporate, manages their property as they see fit, working to find the secret to livability or profitability, or just to attract an interesting tenant. When we delight in these places’ active street life and surprises, what we are really enjoying is a dance of human-scale capitalism. Great urban places have many owners. And I don’t mean this as a metaphor. I mean it literally.

Can government do anything about this? The new places typically are built through some sort of urban renewal process in which a city or development agency teams up with a single corporate entity. What if, instead, a government were to produce a master plan, do a lot of the infrastructure development itself, and then lease the property to hundreds of people or companies, who could then construct buildings and engage in their own dance of capitalism?

Maybe our narrower focus on urban design has been a distraction. Maybe the real issues are the invisible property-ownership lines behind the physical lines of the streets, buildings, sidewalks and parks. Maybe great urbanism is created by many hands stirring the soup, rather than just a few.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall | Columnist | alex@rpa.org