Sewer Socialism, or Sewer Neo-Liberalism?

One of the most fundamental questions in urban and transportation governance is the role of ideology. There’s inherent tension between trying to run a government or a government program according to the tenets of socialism, liberalism, conservatism, or any other ideology, and trying to run it pragmatically. I wrote some early posts criticizing the latter tendency, for example here and here; an emergent view coming from the corpus of my political posts here in 2011-2 is that instead of removing ideology from transit politics, ideologues should instead learn best industry practices and use them in the service of their chosen political philosophy. In this post, I’d like to present a more nuanced view about whether this is feasible. Ultimately, I think the situation is unstable: the need to run public services well softens ideologues, while attempts to run ideology-free government involve assumptions that breed outside populist movements.

A few months ago, Sandy Johnston called for a revival of a US tradition called sewer socialism, associated with Socialist Milwaukee mayors Emil Seidel (r. 1910-12), Daniel Hoan (r. 1916-40), and Frank Zeidler (r. 1948-60). The Milwaukee socialists boasted of the municipal sanitation system that they’d built, and were notably corruption-free. This was while they remained in good standing in the Socialist Party, which was orthodox Marxist; Seidel was Eugene Debs’ running mate in the 1912 presidential election.

The problem with the sewer socialist tradition that Sandy cites is that it inevitably makes the sewers more important than the socialism, and soon, the socialists turn into technocrats. This happened to European social democrats starting in the 1930s and 40s. Out of power, and even early in power in the 1920s and 30s, they talked about replacing capitalism with socialism. After years of power, they built public housing for the working class, comprehensive education, and national health care systems, and abandoned revolution; within the US, Zeidler was influenced by Debs and identified as a socialist but explicitly rejected Soviet communism.

The people who passed the laws creating public works, social welfare schemes, and public services were usually committed to social and economic equality, but the people running them would be promoted and rewarded based on competence rather than ideology. A politician could succeed in a social democratic party by showing ability to implement a government program rather than by showing ideological commitment. Sewer socialism turned into sewer big-tent center-left politics, and subsequently into sewer neo-liberalism.

Neo-liberalism is the Great Satan of leftist writing today, and has no agreed upon definition other than “what the leftist writer who uses this term opposes.” Few positively identify as neo-liberal, and the most prominent exception I can think of, Brad DeLong, is someone who specifically enjoys needling the left. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to define neo-liberalism around the following points:

  • Neo-liberals philosophically think in liberal, especially classical liberal, terminology.
  • Market-based solutions to most problems, with the remaining problems cordoned off into areas without political interference, such as central bank independence, and (for neo-liberals more on the left) universal education and health care.
  • A belief in pragmatic, non-ideological governance, to the point of preferring solutions that appear to be reasonable; as a result, few of the people most leftists would identify as neo-liberal are climate hawks, since climate hawks, whatever their other political views, definitionally want aggressive action to mitigate climate change.
  • An attempt to incorporate outsider critiques rather than oppose them heads-on, hence neo-liberal attempts to come up with internal solutions to problems of poverty, inequality, and unemployment.
  • Anti-populism, leading to conflict with not only left-populists but also traditional interest groups such as unions.
  • A positive attitude toward the intellectuals, experts, and technocrats within each field, most famously economics but also the other natural and social sciences.

The populist left today defines itself in diametric opposition to some subset of the above points, and this requires defining itself against the notion that competence in governing is important. This is unmistakable in Jacobin, the most important magazine of the American far left today. Here’s founder and editor Bhaskar Sunkara, in an early interview:

Liberalism has always been an inchoate, diverse ideology. You have some who are more or less operative social democrats; they are pro-union and trying to get back to that golden age of the welfare state. In other words, “class-struggle liberals.” Then you have technocratic liberals, your Ezra Kleins, who also have a very long intellectual tradition. You see it in the history of the press, where we went from a partisan, even ideological press to people like Walter Lippman who made liberalism part of a wider “clean cities, clean government” movement. In the 1960s these technocratic liberals were some of the people cleaning up white racist urban machines. Now they are attacking teachers’ unions and what they see as new city machines, which are predominantly made up of people of color—the people who have mainly benefited from public employment. History has cruel ironies like that.

Or see Sunkara in this extended rant, calling Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias less than human. Klein is “a technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet.” Per Sunkara, political success comes not from understanding policy but from emotional appeal, as in the Reagan Revolution, which, he concludes, “wasn’t a policy revolt; it was a revolution.”

There is a reason why ideological movements reject the notion of policy knowledge, of competence. They know that it leads to moderation. Sunkara is educated in the history of socialism and socialist movements, and knows what happened once social democrats had to govern. Even less educated socialists know this on some level, which is why the 1960s’ and 70s’ icon for young leftists was Che Guevara, forever a revolutionary, and not any leader who had to spend any time in power, such as Fidel Castro or even Ho Chi Minh.

While the bulk of this post is about socialism, the same rejection of competence can be seen on the right. Paul Krugman loves to needle the Republicans about it, for example here: for economic analysis, American conservative thinktanks rely on Stephen Moore, Larry Kudlow, and Arthur Laffer, none of whom is a respected economist, rather than on such right-leaning experts as Greg Mankiw, Ed Glaeser, or John Taylor. European mainline conservatives have avoided this, by moderating to the point of accepting the EU, the welfare state, and the advice of the intellectuals. In their stead, right-wing populists have grown in power, taking rejection of any expertise almost as a badge of pride, since they associate expertise with eurocrats; for example, in the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom (PVV) is climate denialist, in the developed country most vulnerable to climate change.

The far left is no more interested in governing than the far right, leading to weakness even on issues the left is supposed to be strong on. In the UK, the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, got his position on the strength of ideological purity rather than any governing experience; most candidates with government experience are tainted with Blair’s policies, especially the Iraq War. The left is supposed to support transit because it is green and friendly to the poor, and in Britain, the privatization of railroads is now unpopular with the broad public. YouGov proposes that a leader more trusted than Corbyn would be able to turn renationalization into a vote winner. But as related by the then-shadow minister of transport, Corbyn botched a very good opportunity, namely the UK’s annual fare hike, to attack the Cameron administration on rail fare hikes and propose renationalization and reregulation.

I stress that this is not about individual incompetence. The far left does not have a deep bench of people who can run a socialist state well; the people who run socialist programs successfully get accolades from the more numerous moderates and surround themselves with technocrats who are usually not committed to left politics. Corbyn’s opportunity to attack Cameron on rail fares came with the support of Labour’s bench, but his relationship with the rest of the party was always uneasy, and completely unraveled after the Brexit vote; fundamentally, it is not easy for a committed far-left leader to trust a more politically diverse bench.

Five years ago, when I talked about the split in US transit activism between politicals and technicals, I said that both groups were on average slightly left of center, but politicals clustered there, where technicals ranged from far left to reform conservatism (e.g. Reihan Salam) and Rothbardian libertarianism (i.e. segments of Market Urbanism, including Stephen Smith). Yonah Freemark would talk about the dangers and failures of neo-liberalism; in comments, Richard Mlynarik would reference Maher Arar’s extraordinary rendition in discussions of airport security theater, and so on.

Today, the situation has changed. It’s been center-left media outlets like Vox that have talked the most about high US rail construction costs and bad regulations. Among moderates and conservatives, interest never took off, with a handful of positive exceptions like Aaron Renn and again Reihan Salam; City Journal’s Nicole Gelinas remains more interested in cutting wages than in improving efficiency (this post of mine is partly inspired by Gelinas’s claims about wage scales). Most libertarians and many reform conservatives have found dreams of driverless car-share services and view transit as old-fashioned, now as in the 1950s. The growth of US right-populism and its attack on urban intellectuals has also limited concern for reforming transit in publications that should be friendly to this message; The American Conservative is publishing Strong Towns’ Charles Marohn, but overall a rural-dominated radical right is uninterested in either urban infrastructure or pragmatic solutions. Finally, on the far left, the message that political support, even rabblerousing, matters more than cost control, has played well with the growing zeitgeist. By now, the technicals are solidly center-left in practice.

The result is that, as happened to the Milwaukee socialists and to the social democrats on this side of the Pond, any modern-day sewer socialists are necessarily going to moderate. Once moderated, they will not get the support of more radical socialists, who will screamingly accuse them of betrayal. The socialists today know that this is going to happen – unlike in the 1940s, there’s historical precedent for this – and this is leading to the new political split. This is not a resolvable tension. At best, individual center-leftists and leftists who succeed in pushing technical reform can tweak it in ways that help rather than hurt the poor, but collectively there is no way to force reform to be more sewer socialism than sewer neo-liberalism.


  1. Stephen Stofka

    I have noted in the past that the immediate impacts of driverless cars in cities will be relatively moderate: modest expansions of capacity due to more efficient road usage, but there are still fundamentally many conflicts with non-drivers that ceiling this increase. The bigger issue, which Youtube’s CGP Grey’s commented on, is that “driverless cars” are on the vanguard of an automation revolution that obsoletes nearly all low-skill work — something that will likely require currently-radical solutions (such as basic income) to cope with.

    • Alon Levy

      Are driverless cars really going to obsolete low-skill work? The problem with this theory is that every time you substitute capital for labor, the money ends up going somewhere – consumers get cheaper things so they spend money on other stuff, or companies end up investing profits.

      It’s certainly something that singularitarian libertarians and utopian socialists like to talk about, but there’s no real evidence the situation is different now from any past episode of mechanization of work.

      • Eric

        Driverless cars, and other innovations, are drastically reducing the cost of performing many tasks. Typically the cost via automation is far less than the cost of a human at minimum wage. So either the humans will be unemployed, or minimum wage will be removed and there will be massive inequality.

        We can see both of these alternatives already starting to happen already. Youth unemployment is extremely high in the EU, and so is inequality in the US.

        Or to look at it from another perspective: Low-wage workers only have a limited number of useful skills. One is image processing (used in driving, supermarket stocking and checkout, and so on). Another is language processing (used to talk with customers). As computers get better at these things, while not needing to be fed/housed/managed, there may eventually be no tasks which humans can do more cheaply than computers.

        • Adirondacker12800

          200 years ago 90 percent of the population was rural. Machines can brew coffee more consistently than baristas. Pour drinks too. The big three produce as many cars as they did in their heyday. With one quarter of the workers. Including many fewer white collar ones. Driverless delivery vans can’t climb the stair or stairs to your doorbell. There used to be armies of women staffing telephone switchboards and working in the data entry department. Gawd I’m getting old. I can remember when almost everyone made some of their own clothes. Before there were washing machines woman could make a living as laundresses. It was my father-in-law’s first wife’s career. She had a washing machine. And electricity. No one takes in wash anymore. But woman who owns the laundromat will, for a small fee, do your laundry for you. It’s not as back breaking as it was for my father-in-law’s first wife.

          Just because the work week stopped shrinking in the 70s doesn’t mean it can’t shrink more. People have been predicting the end of labor for a long time. there are some things we won’t want to automate.

          • Eric

            Shrinking the work week won’t help. A few intelligent or talented people have skills that are worth paying for 40, 50, or 60 hours a week. Everyone else will have no skills that are worth paying minimum wage for. Reduce the workweek to 30 hours and the first group will still work overtime (think of investment bankers and medical residents nowadays), while the the second group will remain unemployed.

          • name99

            “Machines can brew coffee more consistently than baristas. Pour drinks too.”
            And when *I* buy drinks (soda) I squirt it from the fountain manually. At the places *I* buy tea or coffee (high-end fast-food restaurants like, say, Panera) I likewise pour my own coffee or tea, more-or-less. As far as I can tell, in MANY situations (eg tailgate parties, or Superbowl style parties) the replacement for a bartender is prepackaged alcohol, like beer in cans — the bartender is only viable in situations where the alcohol is already crazy expensive.

            The behavior of an elite class and their demands for “hand-made” as a way to show off is not a substitute for mass employment, in the same way that there are a whole lot fewer performers (actors, musicians, etc) today than there were in the past, notwithstanding the occasional visit to a Broadway show or Celine Dion at $100 a ticket.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Over working investment bankers worked out really well back in 2008. Most people aren’t investment bankers or doctors. It might be a good thing if we had twice as many doctors who worked 33 hours a week instead of half as many working 60 a week. Cut accountants and bookkeepers work week you need more accountants and bookkeepers. There are a lot less bank tellers than there used to be but there are still bank tellers. Cut their work week to 20 hours you need twice as many.

        • johndmuller

          Before the industrial revolution, a much higher percentage of the population lived in essentially self-sufficient rural communities. What with potential cash-generating factory or other work increasingly available and rumors about the wonders of civilization a long term trend toward urban life began and many more people became dependent upon very much more complicated economic structures with almost nobody still being anything close to self sufficient.

          Fortunately for us, Agribusiness and Commercial Fishing have more or less kept up with the supply of food necessary to keep the ball rolling; ditto for the supply of drinking water, although one wonders whether this supply of food and water can continue to meet demand in the long or even medium run. Even if you throw in maintaining breathable air and livable shelter, the total labor supply required is probably well under 50%, perhaps even down to 10-20% of the population or less. The rest of us are really just drones.

          Except for a small amount of effort facilitating the productivity of the 10% (like having dinner on the table when they come home, or a few luxury items), anything we drones do is essentially unessential – like make-work or hobbies.

          Many of us here have Public Transit or other Urban Issues as a hobby.

          A large percentage of drones are in denial; they believe that their hobbies are really essential jobs in the 10-20%. Others believe that they should have a say in the allocation of other people’s make-work / hobby resources, not realizing that the required number of people needed to fill the Grand PooBah positions is only in the single digit range and that their number did not come up.

          Bottom line – there are more people than there are fundamentally necessary jobs.

          Problem – a good number of the working people, including many whose own jobs are in fact make-work / hobbies / unessential, nevertheless begrudge disbursing the food/water/air/shelter produced by the 10-20% to persons who do not have a make-work/hobby/unessential job.

          Unfortunately, those same people who want everyone to have a make-work/hobby/unessential job are often unwilling to invest in creating any more make-work/hobby/unessential jobs. Nor do they believe in investing in the infrastructure necessary to convey drones or 10-20% producers to/from their important or make-work/hobby/unessential jobs because the wherewithall necessary for their own conveyance is already extant.

          the Question – what chance have Logic and Facts, no matter how well researched and presented, in the face of massive delusion and denial?

  2. CP Norris

    The technocrat needs to take into account that she may face ideological opposition. On transit projects in particular, the supremacy of the automobile touches on sensitive issues of class and race. One concrete example is when the technocrat says “We can do BRT, and it will be cheap” and then sees her dedicated bus lane killed by politicians representing the interests of motorists.

    In these political fights, I wonder if it is necessary to fight ideology with ideology.

    • Alon Levy

      There’s something very neo-liberal about this, actually. A lot of neo-liberal trade agreement clauses are specifically intended to restrain the government from succumbing to future political pressure from special interests to engage in protectionism. In the same way, building rail, especially driverless metros as opposed to light rail, has the distinct advantage of having just one big spending fight, rather than annual fights over evening and weekend frequency of buses. Far from ignoring political reality, neo-liberalism seeks to disempower the political system whenever possible.

      • Nathanael

        And that is fundamentally what is wrong with neoliberalism.

        Political legitimacy comes from the consent of the governed. When neoliberals respect that, fine, whatever. When they deliberately try to disregard it and disempower the voters, then they are trouble. Even if you don’t believe in democracy as a matter of principle, it is a method for keeping the mob from burning your mansion down — political legitimacy is *vital*. And th neoliberal tendency to ignore this is the most fundamentally wrong thing about neoliberalism.

        Virgnia Beach really ought to have a light rail line. But they voted against it. So the people have spoken. Let them stew in their backwards transit desert; it will shink before it sinks under the rising seas. There’s no point in fighting the will of the peoeple.

  3. Adirondacker12800

    Gawd I’m getting old. Saturday was a workday until recently. The 40 hour week is not the eleventh commandment. It wouldn’t work out this neatly, people tend to get as much done in a 35 hour week as they do in a 40 hour week, if unemployment is 10% make the work week 36 hours. 25%? 30 hours. Double time for overtime.

    • michael.r.james

      Adirondacker12800 2016/10/26 – 21:23

      The 40 hour week is not the eleventh commandment.

      Remember when the world, especially the Anglophone world, sneered at the French when they reduced their working week? And more recently made laws to limit bosses and workplaces emailing/texting to their employees after hours. Well, except Paul Krugman but then we all knew he was a {gratuitious political slur} anyway, right?
      French Family Values, PAUL KRUGMAN, July 29, 2005.

      First things first: given all the bad-mouthing the French receive, you may be surprised that I describe their society as “productive.” Yet according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, productivity in France – G.D.P. per hour worked – is actually a bit higher than in the United States.

      So which society has made the better choice?

      I’ve been looking at a new study of international differences in working hours by Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser, at Harvard, and Bruce Sacerdote, at Dartmouth. The study’s main point is that differences in government regulations, rather than culture (or taxes), explain why Europeans work less than Americans.

      But the study also suggests that in this case, government regulations actually allow people to make a desirable tradeoff – to modestly lower income in return for more time with friends and family – the kind of deal an individual would find hard to negotiate. The authors write: “It is hard to obtain more vacation for yourself from your employer and even harder, if you do, to coordinate with all your friends to get the same deal and go on vacation together.”

      I even disagree a bit on detail with Krugman. Having worked in Australia, UK, France, Japan and the USA, I don’t believe French work any less than these others; except in as much as statistically is accounted for those long holidays and earlier-retirement. Indeed they seem to work more efficiently (the Japanese work hard but they have a massive presenteeism in the upper levels that completely reverses any benefit).

      Incidentally after reading Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City I am irredeemably poisoned against whatever he may write. (I don’t want to raise that nest of wasps here but to remind readers: he seriously proposed that inner Paris and Washington DC, or any beautiful city valued by those nasty elites, should be bulldozed so as to allow a kind of Corbusian paradise of endless hi-rise, so, you know, anyone who wanted to, could live there … or something.)

      Here is a recent article on shorter working weeks; I give some extracts on the bits that describes the ecological angle, and the experiment performed in Utah:
      How three-day weekends can help save the world (and us too)
      Alex Williams, August 27, 2016

      A reduction in working hours generally correlates with marked reductions in energy consumption, as economists David Rosnick and Mark Weisbrot have argued. In fact, if Americans simply followed European levels of working hours, for example, they would see an estimated 20% reduction in energy use – and hence in carbon emissions.
      With a four-day week, huge amounts of commuting to and from work could be avoided, as well as the energy outputs from running workplaces. At a point when we need to massively cut back our carbon outputs, instituting a three-day weekend could be the simplest and most elegant way to make our economy more environmentally friendly.
      It’s happened before. For example, in 2007 the US state of Utah redefined the working week for state employees, with extended hours on Monday to Thursday meaning it could eliminate Fridays entirely. In its first ten months, the move saved the state at least US$1.8m (£1.36m) in energy costs. Fewer working days meant less office lighting, less air conditioning and less time spent running computers and other equipment – all without even reducing the total number of hours worked.
      For one day a week, thousands of commuters were able to stay at home. If the reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions from travel were included, the state estimated a saving of more than 12,000 tons of CO2each year.
      Utah abandoned the experiment in 2011 after residents complained they were unable to access services on Fridays.
      As anthropologist David Graeber has recently contended, many of us work jobs that, at least partially, seem pointless. Indeed, economists have long been aware of the redundant hours contained in many working days, with employees effectively under-utilised in their workplaces, yet unable to leave due to the persistent issue of “presenteeism” – where workers are valued by managers for hours logged in the office rather than productivity. Rather than work longer hours for little productive benefit, we could embrace a shorter working week and help save our planet and our own well-being.

      • Alon Levy

        Les Halles is a lot of things, but beautiful ain’t it. Same is true of a lot of inner-Parisian urban renewal (Jussieu, ew).

        • michael.r.james

          Alon Levy wrote:

          Same is true of a lot of inner-Parisian urban renewal (Jussieu, ew).

          I’d challenge that “a lot of”. Fortunately it is not very much. And luckily it was the stuff built in the 60s and 70s on the various derelict large sites vacated by the relocation of the Les Halles food markets and the Wine Markets (Jussieu) to the suburbs (the Cité des Sciences in the 19th replaced the planned abattoir). I think the Les Halles development was a reasonable attempt though it was beset by controversy and indecision amongst the various powers. I have on a book on the project in which I wrote, comparing the just finished renovation (Le Canopee):

          Given the recent (April 2016) completion and opening of the latest redevelopment of Les Halles it is interesting to revisit the original public process of what to replace the Baltard markets with. This latest renovation is almost as controversial as the structure built in the 1970s, which after interminable political, activist and citizen consultation, was reputedly decided by then-mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac (and possibly part of the reason he acquired his nickname of Le Bulldozer!)

          Come to think of it, a little touch of the Trumps because he got fed up with the professional and bureaucratic indecision and said to hell with the experts, I am going to decide!
          I haven’t seen the renovation (La Canopée, opened in April this year) but the various photos etc look pretty good to me, though of course there are plenty of mindless critics. The topside of this site has always been quite good, and the main complaints were below-ground which did have that 1970s dank shopping mall feel to it. Though don’t forget it is the biggest Metro station in the world and the largest number of passengers outside of Asia. Note that the billionaire Pinault (married to Salma Hayek) is turning the Bourse (the classical colonnaded round building at the western end) into a world class museum with his personal collection of modern art. The building and the collection should make a spectacular addition. With the Canopée, the ground-level gardens (and peekaboo windows to the pedestrian mall, shopping and sports complex below), the St Eustache church and the Bourse de Commerce, I reckon you will have to change your opinion next time you visit.

          Re the Jussieu campus, yes, it is so bad sometimes I wonder if maybe it is good? It is Kafkaesque more than any fictional version I know of. Even has a medieval moat around it, one almost expects a drawbridge for when the students riot! And the central hi-rise central admin tower (a mini Montparnasse) was riddled with asbestos and they foolishly spent a fortune cleaning it out instead of demolishing it. The site is a rare case of this ugly raw concrete Brutalism that “heritage” arguments won the day and they kept it. I reckon they should have demolished the entire site and moved the university onto a modern campus (including some sports fields etc) on Ile de Sequin (the old Renault factory site) but I suppose the problem is that is not inside Paris. (But it is where some international universities are setting up shop; I believe Stanford are building something there.)

          But the sheer ugliness, especially in contrast to Haussmannian Paris, must have shocked them back to common sense (and the dreary modernism of Tour Montparnasse–on the space liberated by building the new Gare Montparnasse further up the tracks) because by the 80s no more of this stuff was built. Luckily because it was the era of Mitterand’s Grand Projects and, though one can argue some of their merits, they mostly work very well. I think there is something wondrous in the contrast between the truly adventurous, modern architecture (Pei’s Louvre; Centre Pompidou etc) and classical Paris.

          I think they learned a lot from the mistakes which were relatively few (and they are repairing some of it; eg. permanently closing part of the Pompidou riverside expressway) and most of the new development is of high-quality. Most of all, after those early experiments with breaking the Haussmannian height limit, they went back to that limit, so even where the buildings are less than wonderful (eg. the Quartier de l’Horloge next to the Pompidou, again a hideous 70s project) and the many other residential ZACs, it is not so intrusive.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The asbestos has to be cleaned out or it can’t be demolished. Demolishing it with the asbestos still in it would release asbestos.

          • Alon Levy

            They are wrecking Les Halles as we speak: they’re building a park there, in a location with a surplus of parkland because of the Louvre and a dire, dire shortage of office space. They can drop 2 million square meters of office space without touching any existing building other than the Forum des Halles (which would be relocated into one of the office buildings) and the buildings that are currently inaccessible above ground because of the park construction. This is especially bad now that the UK is graciously sending over its banking jobs to whichever major rest-of-EU city wants them the most.

            Jussieu is one of the bigger projects on the Left Bank (alongside the national library, which is so bad there’s a nearby pub named after the British Library just to rub it in). It is not the only one. There’s an ugly mid-rise modernist building at Port Royal, plus Paris V, plus probably a lot of bad postwar urban planning that’s less famous than Jussieu. It’s not even that every postwar construction here is bad: La Defense isn’t especially terrible; at Montparnasse, I think the big problem is that they built it World Trade Center-style, with low overall floor area ratio in the overall compound, so the eyesore doesn’t provide office space.

            Rather, I think the problem is that France doesn’t understand it has a productive economy any more than the US understands that France has a productive economy. Paris is one of the richest cities in Europe; it did not get to be this way by being pretty – on the contrary, prettiness, like all other consumption amenities, leads to lower incomes rather than higher incomes. (As a corollary, San Francisco’s natural beauty is far less important than its role as a tech hub, for the same reason. Pretty places without production amenities get the per capita income of retirement spots like wherever British and German people go in Spain.) Nobody here, or nearly anywhere else in Europe, thinks in terms of just letting developers build stuff in the center; any new city-center construction is a grand urban renewal project involving the state, often naming the project after a president, like Pompidou or Mitterand. In New York, too, the public monuments are terrible, because there’s an incentive to overpay for starchitecture, and build based on requirements of both grandeur and social control (e.g. the Jussieu moat, or the post-9/11 security at the new WTC). Private-sector office towers don’t do that, because they’re designed around commercial requirements and not political ones, and developers who can’t tax other people don’t pay Calatrava.

          • michael.r.james

            Alon Levy wrote:

            They are wrecking Les Halles as we speak: they’re building a park there, in a location with a surplus of parkland because of the Louvre and a dire, dire shortage of office space. They can drop 2 million square meters of office space without touching any existing building other than the Forum des Halles …

            Yikes! You seem to forget that not only is Paris the densest western city in the world but that it welcomes some 45 million visitors every year. Part of this precinct is the Place Georges Pompidou (the big plaza in front of the Pompidou arts centre), which unlike those sterile empty “plazas” in front of New Yorks hi-rises, happens to be the busiest outdoor space in Europe; about 8m people each year (of which about 5m enter one or more of the arts institutions, 3.6m to the main one, the Musée National d’Art Moderne). The numbers are so great that they had to prevent everyone using those famous external escalators to the top (one of the best views of Paris). As I said earlier, Chatelet-Les-Halles is the biggest Metro interchange station in the world and most passengers outside Asia. About one billion people pass thru this complex each year (making it the highest foot traffic of any shopping district in Europe). Just to its south-west is the busiest art museum in the world. But you think it is appropriate to build over what open space exists …. so as to … accommodate more … office space??

            In fact there was always plenty of open space here but I assume you mean the new plans as part of the overall Forum renovation:

            The public garden is designed as a vast meadow dotted with flower beds and plants, framed on either side by wooded areas and equipped with playgrounds, benches, petanque courts, chess tables and much more. It will be more inviting, open and accessible to the public and will have more greenery than before. The uncluttered perspectives will create a feeling of space.
            Numerous obstacles and level changes will be removed to make the area more easily navigable for the mobility-impaired. Its branching pathways will also be extended to neighbouring streets. There will be a total of 138 more trees than there are today.
            2,500 sq.m of playgrounds for 7- to 12-years-old
            1,370 sq.m of playgrounds for 2- to 6-years-old
            8,244 sq.m of lawn
            3,780 linear metres of park benches
            4 hectares of uninterrupted parkland

            Other than aesthetics, I think you forget that under all of this are 3 RER and 6 Metro lines, plus in fact several roads, so I’d be fairly confident it would be quite difficult to add any hi-rise buildings. As to:

            This is especially bad now that the UK is graciously sending over its banking jobs to whichever major rest-of-EU city wants them the most.

            I’m pretty sure these bankers and financiers would rather be next to their colleagues up at La Defense (which is a few minutes/2 stops on RER-A from its stop in Forum des Halles). I haven’t been up there for a long time but I am sure there is still plenty of space for those 2 million m2 office space. (Though they won’t want to block the clear vista to La Grande Arche.) Especially as it is much more accessible to their series 7 BMWs with roads and autoroutes under and around it all; also directly next to their favoured up-market suburbs of Puteaux, Suresnes and Neuilly-sur-Seine, where they can find free-standing houses with gardens.

            Do you really agree with Glaeser that it makes any kind of sense to build hi-rise office or residential on Forum des Halles or Jardin des Tuileries or maybe even the Jardin du Carrousel du Louvre? Actually there is even more empty space in the Champs du Mars, right next to the Tour Eiffel, so prime real estate (well until the projects are finished then I suspect the value might decline a bit …).

            “La Defense isn’t especially terrible” because it is not in the middle of old Paris where it was planned to be by Pompidou: ie. Tour Montparnasse was the first tower. Those other post-war horrors you mention stand out because they are in the midst of beautiful Parisian urbanity. Incidentally you missed the stalinist Annex Marie de Paris (aka Centre Administrif Morland) on the river near the Arsenal: it surely must get demolished one day. Arrgh, no; in searching for it online I discovered it is to become the new Prefecture de Police who are being moved out of their famous Quai des Orfevfres palace on Ile de la Cité. Anyway this horror is a foretaste of what they wanted to do to the whole Marais until Malraux declared the district a protected zone. I know, I know. Only international gay hipsters can afford to live or eat their now; just imagine if they had built those hi-rise just how many non-hipsters could have enjoyed the area, though what would they be enjoying since the Marais wouldn’t be there anymore, and certainly not hip?

          • Alon Levy

            The busiest art museum has its own park already; the arrondissement has the largest percentage of parkland in Paris.

            Chatelet-Les Halles isn’t even that busy as an O&D station. I have no idea why people think it’s the busiest station in Europe, when on every mode – Metro, RATP-RER, and SNCF-RER – Gare du Nord is far busier. Wikipedia says it’s the busiest, but the number it cites is for all people passing through on a train, and not just boardings or alightings. It is the best-served location, and it has a lot of people making transfer cross-platform or just passing through on their way from the east to the west, but it’s not the biggest O&D node, because the office space in the area is limited.

            Bankers want to be where there’s good office space. La Defense will be convenient for them, but not for the service workers in Seine-Saint-Denis who’ll be servicing them. That’s why central locations work so well: they’re accessible from everywhere, and not just from the favored quarter. The bankers themselves are indifferent – evidently, they take the Underground to the City and the subway to Midtown every day and don’t seem to mind that those locations are convenient for the poors. Instead, the state is building up Porte de Clichy for the judiciary, and keeps Versailles as the only place both houses of Parliament can sit together, and preserving not especially noteworthy parts of the Palais de Justice. (The medieval towers look nice, but the facade on Boulevard du Palais is uninviting, and there are a lot of internally-facing buildings at six stories with no historic or architectural significance.) In France as in the Anglosphere, the state is ultimately unwilling to make life easier for the working and lower middle classes – after all, some rich 1st arrondissement resident might have to live in a city center and not in a museum.

            I bring up Les Halles because it’s not an active park (nor should it be); the other park locations, whatever – they’re not even that high-demand. I guess the western end of Tuileries is, but the prices are the real charm of Champs-Elysees. The find-places-to-build-up thinking is a really bad direction, and I say this as someone who goes in that direction a lot. Abolish preservation laws on anything built after around 1850, and let owners sell their no-elevator buildings with 12 m^2 apartments to people who’ll build taller. The result won’t be bad; on the Upper East and West Sides, the high-rises are as a rule far nicer than the World Trade Centers, the Jussieus, the Bibilotheques nationales, etc.

          • michael.r.james

            Alon Levy 2016/10/28 – 13:41

            Rather, I think the problem is that France doesn’t understand it has a productive economy any more than the US understands that France has a productive economy. Paris is one of the richest cities in Europe; it did not get to be this way by being pretty – on the contrary, prettiness, like all other consumption amenities, leads to lower incomes rather than higher incomes. (As a corollary, San Francisco’s natural beauty is far less important than its role as a tech hub, for the same reason. Pretty places without production amenities get the per capita income of retirement spots like wherever British and German people go in Spain.)

            That is a very confused incomplete interpretation. The great thing about Paris, including hipster-central like the Marais, is what a mixture it is. In fact that is why they wouldn’t dare move the Jussieu campus because of the tens of thousands of students many of whom live in tiny studios in the 5th etc. and infest the cafes, cinemas etc. (My 18 sqm studio on Ile St Louis was purchased by the parents of such a student–the bourgeois swine–for his period at Jussieu.) It is a basic rule of Jane Jacobs. I am sure you should understand that a city or any community cannot survive by only catering to the richest. They are dependent on whole strata of lesser-paid service jobs. Paris tries to cater to them (with rent control, public housing, tax structure etc) but as you well know, in San Francisco it looks like the wealth will be its death. The same mono-cultural gentrification is happening in lower-Manhattan and London has a death-squeeze on the lower-paid. The 45m visitors certainly greatly help maintain this “eco-system” of jobs, and in fact, combined with its cultural heritage is why Paris continued to thrive in the modern world. The swinging 20s American expat intelligentsia (the inter-war hipsters) didn’t congregate in Detroit, Cleveland or Pittsburgh for their great industrialization (even if that was the source of wealth that allowed some of them to galavant carefree around Europe). Nor post-war in Silicon Valley rather than in North Beach (though Carlos Santana was from Menlo Park!) Likewise the tech-hubs in cities like Stockholm or Berlin are indeed there because they are seen as interesting cities.

            Nobody here, or nearly anywhere else in Europe, thinks in terms of just letting developers build stuff in the center; any new city-center construction is a grand urban renewal project involving the state, often naming the project after a president, like Pompidou or Mitterand.

            Glaeser is very weasely on that. Extract from Triumph of the City:

            It’s hard enough in San Francisco and New York, and it becomes even more complicated in places like Paris and Rome, where humanity’s history is written in stone. The key is to make the most use of the space that is allowed to change. In no way do I favor running roughshod over the most important and beautiful structures in older cities, but in those areas where rebuilding is permitted, it makes sense to allow as much new development as possible. Smarter preservationism would push new buildings to be taller, not shorter. Building taller, newer structures would reduce the pressure to tear down other, older monuments.

            This results in destruction of neighbourhoods by stealth, as he well knows. It is one of the oldest dirty tricks in the developers playbook. That giant Mairie Annex in the 4th is both hideous and taller than should ever been allowed in that location (just like the Jussieu Admin tower) and it wouldn’t take many developments like that to start wrecking the neighbourhood. In any case I have just re-read his section on this and been reminded of the simplistic arguments he makes, which makes entirely inappropriate comparisons between low-density sprawl and already-high-density places like Paris (or even SF which is second after NYC). Indeed in the 13th they did allow 31 floor apartment buildings in the 70s when the eastern sector was being transformed from low-level light-industrial. But it never took off and never made much of a contribution to density compared to the rest of Paris.

            In New York, too, the public monuments are terrible, because there’s an incentive to overpay for starchitecture, and build based on requirements of both grandeur and social control (e.g. the Jussieu moat, or the post-9/11 security at the new WTC). Private-sector office towers don’t do that, because they’re designed around commercial requirements and not political ones, and developers who can’t tax other people don’t pay Calatrava.

            It is too easy to criticize Starchitecture. I do it all the time; for example until recently Paris was free of Gehry which I thought was a signal of taste and avoidance of fashion-victimhood (t wasn’t for lack of trying, several of his schemes were turned down). Turns out it is a commercial billionaire, Bernard Arnault, who brought Gehry and his faked-up “style” to Paris. It has happened since forever with St Peter’s Basilica (Michelangelo) and its piazza (Bernini), da Vinci’s Chambord and of course Le Notre’s Tuileries/Versailles etc.. Our world doesn’t consist solely of commercial requirements and their towers, well except in places that are monuments to them like Houston, Atlanta etc where I would never live. For all the impositions (esp. security-theatre) I suspect the WTC redevo will be a far superior civic space than the old one ever was; and it will serve its commercial function better for it. I remember its dank subterranean shopping mall (master-lease owned by the Australian king of shopping malls, Westfield) and uninspiring office towers and empty windswept plaza–no accident that they too were all peak 1970s.
            History shows that only higher authorities with a large measure of public interest (the state or the church) can bring that balance which in the end works for everyone. Is there anywhere that has been built according to the (laissez-faire? neo-liberal?) precepts of Ed Glaeser?

          • Adirondacker12800

            They drifted into Paris because it was a place they knew that wasn’t infested with Puritans. Nobody cared much what you did with your fun parts and drugs, including alcohol, were available. There was a big American Express office and it was easy to scurry home when they wanted to.

          • michael.r.james

            Alon Levy 2016/10/29 – 07:17

            Gare du Nord is the busiest mainline train station (terminal) in Europe with 100m pax pa. Chatelet-Les-Halles has 750k pax pd while Gare du Nord’s combined train and Metro (+ RER) is apparently 700k pax pd. So about the same. Sure the GdN has all those suburban and northern France train lines but Chatelet has 6 Metro lines plus 3 RER lines so it really makes it likely to be the biggest interchange station, which it is. It has the busiest RER line (A with 300m pax pa) and busiest Metro line (#1 with 120+m pax pa).

            Bankers want to be where there’s good office space. La Defense will be convenient for them, but not for the service workers in Seine-Saint-Denis who’ll be servicing them. That’s why central locations work so well: they’re accessible from everywhere, and not just from the favored quarter.

            You’ve given this reasoning before but it seems you have an odd conception of distance or commuting time for La Defense. Wall Street is more than 6 km south of Central Station and while La Defense is almost 9km from Chatelet, the transport links are faster than the Subway from Central. My point is that I don’t know what you mean by “central” in NYC since Wall Street is not really it. This explains why so many bankers like to live in Greenwich village etc. and the others live up in stockbroker belt in Scarsdale, Westchester and points further north, and commute into Central Station–because commuting in NYC is not as efficient. By contrast these types actually do like Neuilly-sur-Seine, Puteaux and Suresnes, and possibly Boulogne-Billancourt (I only say that because it is the richest district in Ile de France. Of course some live further west in Vesinet and St Germaine.) So I really don’t think your theory works. I am pretty sure they prefer La Defense, and still can get into Paris very efficiently if they need to. But it is the biggest Financial District in Europe so everyone they normally deal with is there, and certainly not anywhere else much in Paris.

            As to the rest, I can’t follow the logic about the parks or open space. I wouldn’t reduce the amount in Paris as it is hardly excessive. Or how anything would be improved by filling it with hi-rise. But then I disagree about living in hi-rise and won’t ever do it long term. The last time I checked the Upper West Side the dominant apartment type is not hi-rise, more Parisian perhaps +a few floors. Finally, many of the hi-rise fancy apartments being built in London and NYC are exceedingly expensive and have low occupancy, and most often not by locals or even citizens; so whatever you believe this Glaeseresque planning is doing, it isn’t. In fact it is forcing up the cost of all apartments and exacerbating the housing crisis. But it is making the developers extremely rich while creating rich ghettos. (Just what we need, more Trumps!) Paris has more affordable housing on more convenient public transport than either of those cities, including right in “old” Paris and in the banlieu. The transport network in greater Paris is improving all the time (as you yourself report) so there is absolutely no need to drastically alter the basic structure of Paris.

          • Alon Levy

            No, Chatelet does not in fact have 750,000 daily passengers. You can find figures for RATP here and for SNCF here (I believe this is both boardings and alightings) or here (boardings only, by time of day). Chatelet has 12.5 million Metro boardings and Les Halles another 18 million; on the RER, total boardings are 26.5 million on RATP and around 15 million (computed from 50,000/weekday) on SNCF. It’s a busy station! It just isn’t anywhere close to 750,000 daily riders. Try 250,000. Gare du Nord has 51.5 million on the Metro, 48 million on RER B, about 27.5 million on RER D, about 22 million on Transilien H, and about 1.5 million on Transilien K. That’s 150 million per year, or 500,000 per weekday. Of course, a lot of that is passengers transferring… but that’s equally true of Chatelet-Les Halles.

            In New York, the Financial District has the stock market, but most of the finance jobs are in Midtown, which has better subway access.

            The issue with La Defense isn’t that it’s far from Paris. Of course it isn’t. It’s that it’s offset in one particular direction, with inconvenient transfers unless you’re coming from the southern section of RER B, i.e. the Left Bank plus mostly middle-class southern suburbs. The Metro-to-RER transfers at Chatelet are downright awful, and even the wrong-way transfers on the RER, like Gare de Lyon to the Left Bank or Gare du Nord to La Defense, aren’t great. It lengthens commutes for everyone who lives in the wrong suburb. Grand Paris Express is going to reduce this problem, but meanwhile the state is building new high-end job centers nowhere near the future Metro 15.

          • michael.r.james

            Reply to: Alon Levy 2016/10/29 – 11:48

            Of course, a lot of that is passengers transferring… but that’s equally true of Chatelet-Les Halles.

            Yes, I was going to mention that. The feature of traffic at Gare du Nord is that there will be almost perfect double-counting: >90% of pax arriving or departing on those SNCF trains (and Eurostar) will have used the Metro & RER to get to the station. Thus the 100m train pax becomes of the order of 200m for the complex. There is no easy way (for outsiders like me) to wean true figures. Your own comment reveals the problem:

            (I believe this is both boardings and alightings)

            My quote of 750,000 daily pax for Chatelet-Les-Halles was not my calculation but from Wiki. I don’t really want to argue about this point (it is only curiosity) but I wouldn’t accept that this double-counting would be “equally true of Chatelet”. Remember that there are 8 million visiting the nearby Pompidou centre and many millions ditto for the Louvre and the rue de Rivoli shopping strip too (some people begin their walk up to the Marais and Bastille here). I am probably misleading myself from impressions biased by the times I have used both stations: Chatelet seems bursting at the seams at all hours, including weekends, while Gare du Nord only at peak times and much more on weekdays (commuters catching those suburban trains), and it seems unlikely that momentary peaks for a few hours a day makes up this observable difference. Maybe not. (Incidentally surely more of the 8m pax arriving/leaving on RER-B for CDG use Chatelet? I don’t know.) Here is another snippet from my files (source not clear, possibly Wiki):

            The evidence of this social impact (of the RER) can be seen at Châtelet – Les Halles, whose neighbourhood and Forum des Halles leisure and shopping facilities are popular among banlieusards, in particular from eastern suburbs.

            Alon wrote:

            The issue with La Defense isn’t that it’s far from Paris. Of course it isn’t. It’s that it’s offset in one particular direction, with inconvenient transfers unless you’re coming from the southern section of RER B, i.e. the Left Bank plus mostly middle-class southern suburbs. The Metro-to-RER transfers at Chatelet are downright awful, and even the wrong-way transfers on the RER, like Gare de Lyon to the Left Bank or Gare du Nord to La Defense, aren’t great.

            I am genuinely having trouble grasping your points esp. “unless you’re coming from .. RER-B”. Three of the five RER lines pass thru Chatelet along with 6 Metro lines. Of course if you use RER-A (which services 108 km of Paris east-to-west, thus a vast catchment from suburbs salubrious and middle-class) you just stay on it for La Defense. You’d probably do the same if you use Metro line 1 even though it will take quite a bit longer (far more stops) if you got a seat and like to catch up on reading during your commute (that’s what I liked when I commuted way out to Villejuif for my first 4 years). Another RER, E1, that serves the Eastern suburbs terminates at Gare de St Lazare/Auber/Haussmann where you have a direct connection to RER-A (not to mention commuters using SNCF to St Lazare). Likewise RER D which serves far northern and south-eastern suburbs (way out to Melun, is that still Ile de France?) connects to RER-A at Gare de Lyon. In fact only RER-C which is multi-branched and probably in total covers 200km of the suburbs has no direct connection to RER-A and would involve two correspondances (for non-Parisians we should explain that the goal in metro travel is to ideally have zero correspondance or at most one; two is indeed a bore however note that two of the Chatelet lines, #4 and #7, are the only two lines of 14 that intersect–have correspondances–with all other Paris Metro lines; living on these lines means never having to have more than one correspondance no matter your destination!). I assume your complaints about the Metro-to-RER transfers refers to those that are at the Chatelet end and which involves a approx. 300m trek (underground) using two enormous travellators. But note that one of those is line 1 and as I said, you would probably just stay on it (it has two stops at both ends of La Defense). Note too that Tramway T2 services La Defense; it has a giant 19km circumferential loop from Pt de Versailles (southern edge of 15th arrondissement) following the river bend (rive gauche, St Cloud, and opposite Boulogne-Billancourt, hah, that is how those BCBGs travel?) and Suresnes and Puteaux opposite Bois de Boulougne; thus servicing all those toney suburbs for those masters of the universe, though also via T3 the southern petite couronnes suburbs if they wish to take the scenic route above ground.

            But overall I am just not convinced about the difficulties you claim with the Metro & RER system within Paris. I am irredeemably biased but I believe my bias is built on actual experience. It is extremely reliable, high-frequency and superbly sign-posted (for pedestrians, correspondances etc) both with directional signs and maps of the stations and quartier. Very few other comparably big Metro systems compare. Especially London which I find a serious bore to use (and unreliable; one always seems to wait and wait, even after boarding some trains). Getting from A to B, even if with two or more correspondances, is efficient and reliable (indeed there is a calculator that is quite accurate which you couldn’t possibly do for London, maybe for Tokyo).

          • Alon Levy

            The transfers at Chatelet are a nightmare, unless you’re transferring cross-platform. From RER A to M7 it’s maybe 7 minutes of walking between platforms, through crowded hallways. It’s somewhat better if you’re transferring internally to the RER, even if not cross-platform, but the mezzanine is still confusing.

            I’m also not sure why, as evidence of the crowds in the center, you bring up Pompidou. The 1st has 57,000 jobs (link)… but it’s very far from the job-densest arrondissement. The 2nd has 59,000 on barely half the surface area, and most likely some of them use stations in the 1st or the 9th, since total 2nd Metro ridership is a hair less than total number of jobs. Unlike museum visits, work trips are concentrated at peak hours, so they tend to drive train crowding. So what’s happening is that peak job density in Paris proper isn’t really convenient by RER, and isn’t even that well-served by Metro compared with the 1st. But sure, parkland is exactly what Les Halles needs.

          • michael.r.james

            Reply to: Alon Levy 2016/10/30 – 08:22

            The transfers at Chatelet are a nightmare, unless you’re transferring cross-platform. From RER A to M7 it’s maybe 7 minutes of walking between platforms..

            I know, because 7 was my line. But seriously it is no drama. Being line 7 that intersects all other lines you always have other options; for example if heading to Gare du Nord you can use 7 directly (to Gare de l’Est) etc. The Paris Metro is a far more integrated network than any other, certainly London and this is one reason why. You know they experimented with two speed travellators to solve this distance issue; even installed them where that giant travellator is in Gare du Montparnasse but it failed (pax couldn’t be trained to use it properly so too many accidents stepping on and off).
            And I’m not sure what your issue is. It is only like that because the Forum complex with its three RER lines were not built until the 70s and they chose to integrate as many nearby 60 year old Metro lines into it. Why complain about the link when it is surely an improvement to be able to use regardless of the weather and on the same ticket. I’m amazed they could manage to do it at all. Would you complain about the longest escalator in the world that goes up to Hong Kong’s mid-peaks?

            The first arrondissement is like that because it is the royal district with the Louvre, Tuilieries, Palais Royal, Conciergerie (and Forum-les-Halles) etc and has the fewest residents but amongst the highest visitors (though Pompidou is in the 4th). So, your “solution” is to build hi-rise over these celebrated 5 centuries old gardens etc? In fact mayor Hidalgo has a different solution to the unequal population distribution:

            The Case for Completely Redrawing the Arrondissements of Paris
            Mayor Anne Hidalgo thinks it’s time to tear up the historic map of Paris and start again. This could get tricky.
            FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN Sep 28, 2015

            There are now 15 times more inhabitants in the 15th arrondissement, Paris’ most populous, than there are in the city’s least inhabited, the central 1st. According to Hidalgo, this creates an obstacle “to the equality of treatment of users,” with residents of the smaller arrondissements getting more attention and influence per capita than they should.

            I’d say that has about as much chance of happening as your towers.

            Incidentally, if new modern towers were built they will not provide better accomodation to those who live in those 12 sqm chambre de bonnes. What would happen is that the people who rent them would have nothing at all and would have to move out to the banlieu to find anything as affordable, then spend more on commuting etc. New hi-rise in inner cities built on demolished older sites never provide lower rents or more affordable apartments to buy for the people they initially displaced.

          • Alon Levy

            You’re making two contradictory arguments: towers would make Paris less desirable, and towers would create more demand for Paris housing or office space to fill the demand without reducing prices.

        • michael.r.james

          Reply to Alon Levy 2016/10/30 – 12:00

          You’re making two contradictory arguments: towers would make Paris less desirable, and towers would create more demand for Paris housing or office space to fill the demand without reducing prices.

          Not at all. It is part of an evolutionary process. You can track the process in Manhattan, San Francisco and in London. Gentrification of some districts is one thing but this is nothing less than destroying these cities for the 1%, and in the end it will have lost the original raison d’etre.


          One Hyde Park: Whoever bought these flats (oligarchs and sheikhs is the usual assumption), don’t find reason to be there very much, hence the blackness. If you tour other luxury areas, you will find two contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, they are enervated, depleted, losing energy, as shops and restaurants find that their businesses can’t be sustained by the occasional populations … .

          The way to kill a complex city is to chase out all the poor people – and their food
          When greed makes a place like New York, London or San Francisco unaffordable, the non-wealthy leave, and the city loses the smells and tastes that made it great
          Samantha Gillison, 2 October 2015.

          and London, which has always been hugely over-rated is more extreme (at least in NYC they can establish alternatives in Brooklyn etc, for the moment).

          The London skyscraper that is a stark symbol of the housing crisis
          Exclusive: Tower under-occupied, astonishingly expensive, mostly foreign owned, and with dozens of apartments held through secretive offshore firms
          Robert Booth and Helena Bengtsson, Wednesday 25 May 2016

          Those are super-lux developments on previous wharves but this disease has spread to the old council housing estates that cannot resist the wall of money raining down, and steadily erodes any original intent to replace some of the original social housing:

          The fall and rise of the council estate
          For decades, the Aylesbury estate in south London has been seen as a symbol of the failure of British social housing. But now – just as it is being demolished – many people are starting to think again
          Andy Beckett, Wednesday 13 July 2016

          Southwark now plans to transform the whole Aylesbury into a more attractive, more mixed, less isolated settlement of almost 4,000 dwellings – 50% more than on the original estate. … the amount of social housing provided by the regeneration, which has been steadily pared away. According to Notting Hill Housing, only a third of the new homes – roughly 1,300, less than half as many as the estate originally provided – will be let at a “social rent”.
          “Councillor Richard Livingstone points out that Southwark are building new council homes elsewhere. He says there will be 11,000 by 2043.”

          Wow, 11,000 affordable homes by 2043! “Elsewhere”. Sounds like a plan. No one believes for a millisecond that any of them will eventuate. This is the material outcome of Thatcherite “reform” in the housing market. No such thing as society. Well, they will inevitably find out that trying to run a city for the rich only, doesn’t work. These social strains combined with what looks like a Hard Brexit might just be enough to bring the rotten system down. But probably not; in all the time I have lived with or observed the Brits they seem especially passive re their absurd and toxic class system.

          There is now some fightback with the new London mayor Sadiq Khan but the forces in train and against anyone trying to change things is too much. The Anglophone world is run by the rich for the rich, and developers are the urban planners. I think the reason they are obsessed with complaining about recalcitrant Paris and the French in general is that they can’t bear to see an alternative that appears to function, imperfectly of course.

          • Alon Levy

            Re the links: London is a 37% foreign-born city, so having a mostly foreign-owned tower is not unusual. It’s the same hysteria that 46% foreign-born Vancouver has, leading it to impose a tax on immigrant owners (it’s phrased as “foreign owners” but is defined by possession of Canadian citizenship or permanent resident permit, so it’s mostly falling on immigrants). In Vancouver the same moral panic is leading to banning Chinese-only bus ads in a mostly Chinese-Canadian suburb, and in the UK it’s why the Mail has been demagoguing about Polish and Pakistani immigrants. There isn’t much to it beyond the usual xenophobia.

            While some towers have a lot of vacant units, overall vacancy rates are very low. In New York they’re about 3% and stable, which is probably the minimum you can go given short US rental contracts and friction (i.e. apartments going vacant for a few weeks because maybe one tenant moved out in July and the next is only moving in in September), and in London they’re sub-2%, at a historic low, and still declining: see chart 3.19 of Housing in London 2015.

            I don’t think contrasting Paris with the Anglosphere is useful here. Paris/Ile-de-France has been building at the same pace as San Francisco proper (and Santa Clara County, though not San Mateo County): very slow last decades, somewhat accelerating now. In Singapore and Paris the share of social housing is high – although the social housing share in Paris was lower last decade – but overall construction is the same as in San Francisco. Going by charts 3.1 and 3.2 of the same link, London either built more than Paris last decade or about the same, and isn’t showing recent acceleration, but going by 3.3 and 3.13, there’s a large social housing share. In contrast, Toronto is building twice as fast today; it has a huge missing middle problem, in which single-family neighborhoods aren’t upzoned to allow townhouses and small apartment buildings, but high-rise residences are permitted.

          • michael.r.james

            In reply to: Alon Levy 2016/10/31 – 06:58

            Re the links: London is a 37% foreign-born city, so having a mostly foreign-owned tower is not unusual.
            While some towers have a lot of vacant units, overall vacancy rates are very low.

            Sorry, but that is seriously misleading. That article was clearly talking about non-citizens and non-residents buying luxe apartments in London. And those foreign-owned empty apartments are not even figured into any “vacancy rates” because they are not on the market. It took the reporter some effort to try to get a complete picture of that building because they don’t show up in most statistics. We in Australia (a higher immigrant country than any other), especially Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, have a similar problem: not luxe apartments but the other end, so called “student” apartments being bought up by Chinese non-residents. They do it to get their money out of the PRC and to establish a safe-haven in a country they like. Most of us don’t mind that at all and I personally think the Chinese make good citizens. However we do have a housing crisis because of crazy neo-lib policies for over several decades with Sydney having amongst the highest property prices in the world. The next generation have more or less given up on getting into the property market (Google “smashed avocado and mortgages” for a media storm on this subject last week) because the Chinese have bid up prices and we have shot ourselves in the foot with all kinds of ridiculous tax giveaways to people who have multiple “investment” properties, and no inheritance tax. The problems observed in Vancouver are the same here and the crunch is coming. Apparently large numbers of a massive wave of new apartments being completed are likely to suffer default by many of these PRC buyers (because of China’s clampdown on exporting capital and threats about the “corruption” that might be involved; who knows?). The Chinese also have a habit of leaving apartments empty rather than renting them (they like to keep their investments pristine). As usual we have just allowed this “market” (casino more like) go like a bushfire because, as usual, it is the developers determining urban policy. Our richest person (Harry Tribubof, himself an immigrant, white Russian via Dalian/Tianjin) is a property developer who continues to own 11,000 apartments in the hundreds of developments he has built over the decades.

            Other than that Paris is not growing as fast as London (agreed) those graphs are not comparing like-with-like. The data for London is for the entire city while for Paris it is less than half of the city (and though I don’t know, logically more new building would be happening in the Grand Couronne than the inner areas (ie. it is probably missing the most active areas). I think you might also agree that inner Paris (including Petite Couronne) land has been intensively used compared to London (eg. vast swathes of east, including docks laying idle for decades). Of course this is why Paris is much denser than London (and no, not a reason for hi-rise to make it yet more dense). There are housing crises in London and SF, while there are the usual pressures in Paris but no serious crisis; not least that in Paris you can live in those other areas (which are much much cheaper than London or SF or Bay Area) and still have good public transport (mostly due to the RER though as you yourself reported, the increasing tram network too). Unless you are saying there is no housing (affordability) crisis in London?

            As to “there’s a large social housing share” I remain unconvinced. The data from that report (extract below) doesn’t seem very high to me, especially the “890 affordable rental homes”! They have destroyed much more than that in the same time period! What about the loss of such low-cost low-SES housing in the 90 London housing estates that are being redeveloped? Going from that ridiculous “towers in a park” to a–dare I say, more Parisian style–they can triple or quadruple the number of homes and build better quality roomier homes too (not difficult given the atrocious quality of that post-war British stuff.) But the problem is that the stupendous money to be made by selling at London market prices mean they are welshing on the original promises to replace the social housing they are destroying. Instead they are making promises to build those “elsewhere”. Sure.

            Over the last three years (2011/12 to 2013/14) a net 68,000 new homes have been completed in London, of which 45,190 or 66% were market homes. Of the remaining affordable homes, 14,500 or 64% were social housing (including 890 Affordable Rent homes) and the remainder intermediate.

            The infamous Heygate Estate had 3,000 occupants (all low-SES) but now:

            A council blunder in Feb. 2013 revealed that it had sold the 9 hectare estate to Lend Lease Group for just £50m, having spent £44m emptying the site and £21.5m on planning its redevelopment.
            In October 2012 MP Simon Hughes called for the first detailed Heygate planning application to be withdrawn because it proposes just eight social rented homes. Outline planning permission for the Heygate site proposes 2,535 new homes in total of which just 79 will be social rented.

            Bottom line is that housing is just too important to be left to a so-called free market, which really just means the wealthy and privileged, including in some markets footloose freewheeling international capital. Singapore and France attempts to look after all of society while the Anglophone world (Vancouver, SF & Bay Area, the major cities in Australia) have a unplanned mess and thus a housing (affordability) crisis. Moreover, the signs of these crises build for years and decades in full knowledge of everyone but are only acted on well after they are full-blown crises, thus the Vancouver measures.

  4. Puzzled about fear of heights


    Can people opposed to taller buildings please post specifically WHY they are opposed to taller buildings?

    I’m a little tired of reading about how taller buildings “wreck” a neighborhood, but no explanation of HOW that happens.

    Don’t assume that everyone understands your particular, peculiar hatred of height.

    You might have a very valid reason, and I would love to hear it. I may even agree with it, if your reason is compelling. But right now I can only assume that your fear of heights is completely irrational. Because it is never explained.

    michael.r.james, you can start:

    “This results in destruction of neighbourhoods by stealth, as he well knows. It is one of the oldest dirty tricks in the developers playbook. That giant Mairie Annex in the 4th is both hideous and taller than should ever been allowed in that location (just like the Jussieu Admin tower) and it wouldn’t take many developments like that to start wrecking the neighbourhood.”

    Please explain the mechanism by which such neighborhoods are “destroyed” and “wrecked” by tall buildings.


    • michael.r.james

      “Puzzled” 2016/10/29 – 10:20

      Don’t assume that everyone understands your particular, peculiar hatred of height.

      Your question is revealing. It shows that you haven’t either thought about the issues and haven’t been exposed to the reasons for a particular vision of urbanism that doesn’t depend on hi-rise. You are beginning with the assumption that anything other than status quo (for some parts of the world/cities) is “peculiar”. Perhaps you really should begin by asking yourself why.

      Really, you need to have educated yourself in the basics. This would start with Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of American Cities (1961) which is significant for being both the first to explain the important aspects of modern urbanism, and from a New World perspective–indeed from the heart of it, lower Manhattan. Then you should read Jan Gehl’s Cities for People (2010) which is an architect/urbanist’s distillation of his 50 years practice and study of the things that count. (His first book Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space was in 1971.) His book is already a modern classic because it is an updating of Jacobs replete with hundreds of examples, carefully explained and documented with photographs, from cities around the world.

      If you haven’t read these then it is a very big chore to ask me to explain to you in a blog, so I can only outline the essence (without all the real-world examples and data that you will find in Jacobs & Gehl; incidentally you will find none of this in Ed Glaeser who is an economist typically basing his notions on raw numbers and very dodgy assumptions about the end result). Really it does distill down to the title of Gehl’s book (Trade review):

      Gehl presents his latest work creating (or recreating) cityscapes on a human scale. He clearly explains the methods and tools he uses to reconfigure unworkable cityscapes into the landscapes he believes they should be: cities for people.

      Above a certain height threshold–approximately the Parisian Goldilocks height of about 8 floors (most of Paris is 6 to 7 floors)–the connection to human scale is lost. This is not trivial and not to be waived away with a dismissive shrug. I experienced this myself long before I read it in Gehl. People and property developers and real estate agents blather on about those astounding views from the 40th floor or whatever, but actually the great thing from a “Parisian” height is your very connection to the street. On the 5th floor of my previous apartment right in the heart of the city (not Paris) I could sit watching all the street activity–and it is captivating in the same way that sitting at a Paris cafe “people watching” is. Once you get to the 8th or 10th floor, it is lost; people are too small and it becomes more like watching a tv screen, with you a distant uninvolved spectator. It has lost its human scale and no longer engages your brain or empathy. As to those views, they rapidly become wallpaper and you barely notice them. (I’ve actually lived briefly on the 21st floor of one of those hi-rises in the 13th arrondissement of Paris with views of the Eiffel tower but have no hankering for it. Give me a Haussmannian building anytime.)

      I am guessing you will dismiss this as airy-fairy nonsense, but then I am confident you have never actually had these different experiences. Note that it is not accidental that many of the awful public housing projects (from London to Paris to the US) exceed these heights, sometimes at 15+ or sometimes even higher.

      At any rate I would agree that if there were all the benefits that, say Glaeser, claims for hi-rise then these issues would not be enough to argue for them. To be clear: I would concede your “peculiar”. But here’s the thing: Glaeser’s (and Alon’s?) claims for those benefits is utterly wrong. The hard data and all the real-world examples disprove the thesis. Indeed when I read Glaeser I cannot believe a top professional has written such stuff that he has not tested against the real world. But then he is an economist, not a urbanist nor a scientist (like me).

      You might think that it is inner cities with massive hi-rise that achieves the other necessary parameter of Jacobs and Gehl and every modern planner’s desire: high resident density. But you would be totally and completely wrong. Paris is the densest city in the western world at overall 25,000/km2 (2.23m in 88km2) with the highest district (arrondissement) being the 11th at 41,600/km2. Just as Alon and I argued in the earlier posts, one could feasibly increase this density further by infilling those “excess” (!) parks and open public spaces with hi-rise but one wonders why one would want to. What is being achieved when Paris is already the highest density of any western city? By comparison Manhattan is the only part of north America similar, at 19,000/km2 (1.644m in 87km2). There are zones that are even higher such as the Upper West Side at 42,500/km2 (209,000 in 4.9 km2) because they are almost exclusively residential but the point about using Paris as an example is that it includes a very large array of government and civic buildings (schools, universities, churches, hospitals, monuments, museums etc) yet still remains the densest in the world. Barcelona’s Eixample district (7.8 km2) has 36,000/km2, and many other European cities have densities much higher than any of the hi-rise areas of modern big cities.

      And of course the fact is that any poll will reveal Paris as consistently rated the most beautiful city in the world. This is not just airy-fairy nonsense driven by tourists’ three day visits. I’m not one for popularity contests but it happens they are correct but not necessarily for the reasons they may believe. I lived there for a decade and it is true (the most beautiful city ..), and not predominantly because of the iconic monuments (Eiffel tower etc) but because the overall city you experience as a resident has a charm and grace on a human scale you rarely get elsewhere, plus all the benefits of that density: an amazingly vibrant street life of boulangeries, cafes, brasseries, restaurants etc on every block of the entire city mixed in with universities, medical-schools, research institutes (Pasteur, Curie etc), libraries, opera houses (or popular music venues like that Bataclan that was terrorized last year or of course Olympia etc), art galleries big and small, food markets, small squares etc etc. It has that quality and fine structure that all urban planners talk about today: walkability. Try to think of a hi-rise district that has it. Hardly those 15+ floor public housing projects but also not the more exclusive Stuyvesant-PeterCooper Village type (which might be very liveable but having them in an enclave without any commercial street life gives them a much lower score). Almost the only hi-rise area that might partly achieve it would be parts of Hong Kong but even there a lot of the outer areas suffer from the same problems of empty windswept public areas between towers (and note: the urban core of HK is 35,700/km² of 3.16m in 88.3 km2 so not much different to Paris or Barcelona etc). Not the hi-rise residential areas of new Beijing or Shanghai–in fact, somewhat incredibly, the layout of those serried ranks of towers achieve lower density, and no accident that the nicest area of Shanghai happens to be the old French Quarter where the cafes and restaurants are.

      So I hope you see that the “peculiarity” is the opposite of what you stated: the densest cities are not hi-rise but of Parisian height and these “happen” (no accident) to be the most beautiful and valued urban environments. Why would you deliberately set out to destroy that by unnecessarily building hi-rise when it won’t even achieve the initial objective (density) let alone the urbanity everyone desires? That would be peculiar and is exactly what Glaeser proposes; based on ideology that would (to use a 60s expression) “destroy the village to save the village”. My position has been arrived at from direct lived experience.

      • Puzzled about fear of heights

        I will save you some trouble by assuring you that I have read Jacobs, Gehl, etc. Despite your assumption, I am also not a fan of Glaeser. I’m originally from New York but I have been to almost all of the places you’ve mentioned.

        You have mainly avoided my question. You seem to be assuming that I’m in favor of Stuy-town style developments. That’s incorrect. We can both agree that Stuy-town style “towers in the park” are terrible for street life. I’m not promoting such developments. Height on buildings does not require “towers in the park”. That is an orthogonal matter.

        If your goal is the promotion of street life, within vibrant and diverse districts, then what seems to matter most is the design at street level. Small blocks, active frontages, pleasant streets, and of course sufficient intensity of activity to make it populated. That’s all good stuff. You are right, of course, that the lower floors of buildings are the ones most linked to the street. So to get to my point really quickly: the height of a building is irrelevant to street life as long as the first few floors of the building are designed to promote street life.

        Walking past an 8 story building, a 40 story building, or even the Empire State Building, most of the time I would not even notice the number of floors. I don’t walk around with my head craned backwards and I doubt most people do. At the street level what matters is a good sidewalk, with shops, cafes and restaurants, and other people being around.

        So given those elements of street life, why does it matter so much whether the building you are walking by has 8 stories or 40 stories? What is wrecked by a building height that is largely out-of-sight, out-of-mind for the typical person on the street?

        • michael.r.james

          Reply to Puzzled 2016/10/30 – 08:00

          I don’t mean to gratuitously insult you but you won’t like my response. First, while you may know of Jacobs and Gehl’s books and their themes, I cannot believe you have read them. Your first post gave no hint of it. Or if you have read them you have ignored most of the content and the lessons therein.

          I didn’t go into the details of relationship of height of buildings to human scale on/from the street but Gehl certainly did. It’s true I spoke of the perspective of someone within the building but it applies to both, ie. the person on the street as much as the person in the building. As explicitly explained and illustrated by Gehl, for example on pages 38 to 45 of Cities for People. In fact he deals with both ends of the scale: the oppressive effect hi-rise has on the streets and equally how a wide suburban street (or indeed main street) with low buildings stretching off into a featureless vista is also oppressive (and for example not inducive to walking).

          Naturally every western country has highly developed building regulations regarding these things. It is why there are rules and mathematical formulae on heights versus street width, and set-backs at certain heights, or how high a facade can be when it is built to the property line (podium height) etc. Indeed these are what tends to generate that awful “towers in a park” syndrome, even in inner cities where the buildings may be contiguous but their podiums form the effect. It also contributes to the inability to achieve the same density as places like Paris or Barcelona’s Eixample. In Asia these building regulations either didn’t exist for a long time or still get over-ridden under pressure of population and building land. Such as in Hong Kong where they specialised in building very tall but very slender buildings; or evolved the snowflake plans (to optimize air and privacy despite these things). This is why westerners generally don’t like those Asian “crowded” city situations–because it is oppressive. Ridley Scott exaggerated these things in Blade Runner (and the pyramidal mega-hi-rises in which the 1% or 0.1% live towards the top and have much more separation from the rest). Nevertheless Asian hi-rise only rarely exceeds Parisian density. The modern Chinese mainland approach of 15 to 20 storey apartment blocks in serried rows with fair separation is repeating the mistakes of Le Corbusier and those public housing estates.

          Second, you’re not correct about “the height of a building is irrelevant to street life as long as the first few floors of the building are designed to promote street life.” Have you not looked at hi-rise? They may have some street-level retail etc but they will usually have some big blank walls too, and several blank steel doors (emergency exits, some utility access etc) and big garage entry etc. To this day they break all of Jane Jacobs’ rules. Further they often don’t have much on their first few floors either: sometimes blank or these days covered with laser-cut (or water-jet) perforated steel screening, often hiding more parking or perhaps other utilities (air filtering, air-con etc). Gehl writes that “low buildings are in keeping with the human horizontal sensory apparatus, but high buildings are not”, the caption to a pic of Malmo’s B001, Turning Torso hi-rise we have all come to recognise from that Scandi-noir series (The Bridge). Or the Tour Montparnasse in Paris.

          Incidentally even when all these attempts to remove the oppressive effect of height, it still doesn’t work for a district, even when it is a wealthy enclave. Take Chicago’s Gold Coast. I was reminded of this recently when I watched the Mel Gibson movie What Women Want. He is a wealthy divorcee who lives in one of those iconic Mies VDR apartments and they showed him exiting the apartment to get in a taxi-limo in the morning: no one walks in that area and though it is not a crime-ridden area, it still presents a rather bleak and sterile desert of separated high-rise on wide empty streets stretching into the distance. And of course its residents don’t want the ground floor to host cafes and restaurants for fear of the unruly disruption to the order they want, or think they want. I don’t think the movie makers intended it, but there was an interesting contrast to the Helen Hunt character who moved into a wonderful old belle-epoque high-ceilinged apartment in a modest height building. In fact it may have been something like Mies himself lived in: Mies lived in one of his twin hi-rise buildings (860 & 880 N. Lake Shore Drive) but soon moved out, to three blocks away, into a “1916 Italianate six-story brick apartment house …of no special architectural merit” where he lived until he died in 1969.

          Third, can you point to any hi-rise district that does what you claim it can do? I can’t, even though I don’t deny that the crowded (rule breaking) Hong Kong context sometimes works fine–but for other reasons such as vibrant streetlife like few other cities, combined with the quirk (in fact the reason that forces this style of building, so it is a circle of cause and effect) that wherever you are in Hong Kong you are not far from wild lush forest and mountain trails etc. (Some 70% of HK is steep hills difficult to build on and I don’t know of any other city like this, except perhaps Sydney which by a miracle of omission much of the harbour foreshore is reserved as national park–like HK, some of the best urban walks in the world.) Nevertheless that is still no reason to impose it on a place that works well as it is. Further, is anyone serious that imposing hi-rise in an ad-hoc (or even systematic) fashion in old Paris would work? Most of the streets are too narrow to support it (without oppression) and even where not, it doesn’t work but to disrupt its environment. Alon himself has criticisms of Tour Montparnasse–it is an island unto itself with a vast podium (that has a giant shopping mall including a Galeries Layfayette). Do you really regret that this was stopped in its tracks, and it didn’t swallow up all those intello haunts such as, La Coupole, La Closerie des Lilas, La Rotonde, Le Select etc.? Why do you think there is that joke about the Tour Montparnasse restaurant at its peak (best resto in Paris because you can’t see the Tour Montparnasse from it).

          In fact Paris did perform this experiment in the 70s when the eastern side of the decrepit 13th arrondissement was being redeveloped (it was previously low-level industrial with tanning factories, horse abattoirs and rail yards). Maybe a dozen towers of uniform height 31 floors were built, some in groups with large podium such as the Centre Commercial Italie at Place d’Italie. I don’t know the precise history but it had stopped by the time I arrived in Paris in the 80s. The remaining development of the eastern 13th eg. around the Biblotheque Nationale reverted to standard Parisian heights.

          So, finally, yes I want all “that stuff” of walkable neighbourhoods and active street life etc. But the various incarnations of hi-rise experimented with in the past century has never achieved it. Enclaves like Stuyvesant-Peter Cooper are only liveable because they are contained within a bigger urban environment. I’m not sure why people persist in denial of this. Except of course it is entirely driven by developers and financiers whose aim is purely to maximize profits from the piece of land they purchased. And the PR that what they build is desirable.

          • Puzzled about fear of heights

            I have read just about everything I could find from Jacobs. And I admire Jan Gehl’s work even while being skeptical of his claims about height.

            Labeling something “oppressive” and asserting that it is thus does not help explain to me why I should also find it “oppressive”.

            It seems that you have again fallen back on assuming that I might be in favor of things like Tour Montparnasse, but I’m not. I found that area around it to be an automobile dominated wasteland that I got away from as soon as possible. Actually, I had a similar reaction to many of Paris’s “boulevards” and traffic circles: at least, the ones of which are nasty traffic sewers with polluted air, infested by nasty cab drivers who seem to relish the opportunity to turn across my path sharply and with little notice.

            Of course there were also many beautiful places and streets in Paris. And Madrid, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and various other cities across Europe. Many of the best streets are small in width compared to building height, much smaller than the typical ratios that you have mentioned. I could hardly have noticed or cared what the precise heights of the buildings were. It’s not relevant to the experience on the ground. The rules and ratios are just that — speculation in dry books by some people with particular preferences that don’t always pan out in the real world.

            It seems like most of your criticisms are not of height but rather of modernism. And I agree: modernism sucks! Blank walls, standoffish designs, automobile-centric regulations, etc: these are things that ruin the street experience for people. But this has nothing to do with height. Even a short stubby building can have obnoxious blank walls or can be turned away from the street. Believe me, in the United States, we have more than our fair share of such buildings. A high-rise building can be designed well at the street level, or it may not be. But that has nothing to do with height and more to do with regulations (especially zoning in the USA). Chicago, for example, is infamous for its parking pedestals. That’s hardly a requirement of height, it’s more a requirement of automobile-infatuated city planning.

            If you are seeking an example of a densely populated, popular high-rise district with storied street life, I’m surprised that you don’t just name the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Many of my childhood friends grew up there (although not me), and I’m aware of its ups and downs, so to speak, but it seems to check off all of your boxes. Helps that much of it was built up before the automobile frenzy of the 20th century took hold.

            By the way, much of this debate has the air of being hypothetical. In actual fact, most of the NIMBY types that I face are completely and totally opposed to Parisian-style urbanism as well as anything else. They consider a 3-story building to be “too big”. It would be farcical if it weren’t true. Gehl’s preferred 5-6 story buildings would be a major improvement to the places that I have lived for the past ten years. But people will come out of the woodwork to claim that a 5 story building is “oppressive”, “overbearing” and “will wreck the neighborhood”. And the building design will get shrunk by the architects, surrounded by parking, and most likely killed off in the end.

            So perhaps you will understand why I would like you to explain your use of such terms as “oppressive”, since they can be deployed to describe just about any building by just about anyone for reasons that don’t make any sense to me.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Puzzled, the yokels are afeared of all the strangers they see in the big cities. That does all sorts of things to their perception of things.

        • michael.r.james

          In reply to: Puzzled 2016/10/30 – 13:06

          I have read just about everything I could find from Jacobs. And I admire Jan Gehl’s work even while being skeptical of his claims about height.

          Again, your original post showed absolutely no sign of that.

          Many of the best streets are small in width compared to building height, much smaller than the typical ratios that you have mentioned. I could hardly have noticed or cared what the precise heights of the buildings were. It’s not relevant to the experience on the ground.

          You are simply wrong about that. And no, it is not a matter of opinion. You may even sincerely believe what you wrote but I doubt you could persevere in the face of evidence. Your own comments about Montparnasse shows that, despite yourself. Your comments about the Parisian boulevards also shows a certain naivety. Which I shared for a while when I first lived there, but came to realize that you can’t have a giant city with all the fabulous urbanity without some of that traffic that lubricates it (by which I mean, keeps it alive). Copenhagen may not have it (though it does of course) but then it is a small town compared to Paris; indeed all of Denmark’s population could fit into greater Paris. The great thing about Paris is that while it has those busy boulevards it has more than enough original small streets and quieter squares etc. (And Jacobs is not against traffic per se as it clearly is part of her formula of keeping street life vital. There is a balance between that and a Robert Moses hell of sacrificing the city for the automobile.)

          In fact I would guess that a long-time resident of Copenhagen or Amsterdam would initially find Paris more “oppressive” because it has an extra couple of floors (6 to 8 total versus 3 to 5). I love Amsterdam (but have only brief visits to Cophenhagen) and once imagined living there, however after Paris I don’t think it would be “enough”. Living in Paris will show that it has achieved the Goldilocks arrangement of height versus density and non-oppressive conditions. I know many Americans may think of the Upper East Side as some kind of nirvana but I don’t. It is simply a fair-to-middling (ie. fantastic in American terms) of a Parisian ideal. Do you think it is accidental that the most valuable residential real estate is that on Park Avenue? (and on Central Park itself of course, but you know that is for the 0.1%). Even the poorest districts of Paris (both intra-and extra-muros) are better with more diversity of street life (cafes, brasseries etc of high and low style/cost) and food markets everywhere. (Is there is a single near-equivalent of the marché Aligre in the Upper East Side or all of NYC for that matter? There are dozens just within Paris intra-muros and they are not just for the wealthy 1%.)

          Those NIMBYs you speak of are actually the exurbanistas and the mortal foes of true urbanists like Jacob, Gehl and me. I came across in my files this schizo piece by David Brooks:

          I Dream of Denver
          By DAVID BROOKS, February 16, 2009

          You may not know it to look at them, but urban planners are human and have dreams. One dream many share is that Americans will give up their love affair with suburban sprawl and will rediscover denser, more environmentally friendly, less auto-dependent ways of living. Those dreams have been aroused over the past few months. The economic crisis has devastated the fast-growing developments on the far suburban fringe. Americans now taste the bitter fruit of their overconsumption.

          The time has finally come, some writers are predicting, when Americans will finally repent. They’ll move back to the urban core. They will ride more bicycles, have smaller homes and tinier fridges and rediscover the joys of dense community — and maybe even superior beer.

          America will, in short, finally begin to look a little more like Amsterdam.

          Well, Amsterdam is a wonderful city, but Americans never seem to want to live there. And even now, in this moment of chastening pain, they don’t seem to want the Dutch option.

          The Pew Research Center just finished a study about where Americans would like to live and what sort of lifestyle they would like to have. The first thing they found is that even in dark times, Americans are still looking over the next horizon. Nearly half of those surveyed said they would rather live in a different type of community from the one they are living in at present.

          His rather strange lament for a lost Americana generated a huge negative response in the comments. He wrote a whole book on this subject though I haven’t read it (On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense). And it was very weird because I think Brooks lived for some years in Brussels (anyone who is posted there as an insider with expenses-paid lifestyle loves it; naturally to us Parisians it is merely a second- or third-rate Paris wannabe), and partly grew up in Stuyvesant Town (and went to school in Greenwich Village)! He lives in the Cleveland Park Historic district of NW Washington. Maybe it has its own La Coupole because it is a veritable coven of journos and literati including his fellow PBS Newshour-ites of Judy Woodruf and Jim Lehrer, Al Hunt (Bloomberg) and David Ignatius (WashPo). Though not exactly Parisian I see it has 9 to 10 storey apartment houses. DC is height-restricted and one of the places that the neo-lib economists turned wannabe urban planners like Glaeser and Matthew Yglesias (and Alon?) want to knock down and replace with whatever hi-rise the developers wish. Somehow I doubt Brooks would accede to that though he might be schizo on the subject like his columns and books reveal.
          I cite him because even a highly intelligent, even worldly and informed type like Brooks can get it totally wrong. Like you!

          Look, I will play “dirty” and say that you simply don’t know, because, while you may have visited lots of places, you haven’t actually lived in them have you? It took me several years in Paris and France to wash out all the preconceived (and inculcated) Anglophone notions we carry around.

          • Puzzled

            I am literally reading your response while sitting in a cafe on 2nd Ave, waiting for a friend. You keep telling me that I should feel oppressed by the high rise buildings outside, but that just doesn’t make any sense. Sure, the street is not perfect, but the height of the buildings is irrelevant.

          • michael.r.james

            In reply to: Puzzled 2016/10/31 – 11:52

            I am literally reading your response while sitting in a cafe on 2nd Ave, waiting for a friend. …. Sure, the street is not perfect, but the height of the buildings is irrelevant.

            Vive le difference. (Except I really really hope it is not a Starbucks …) Not that I think your statement is true, and actually neither do you:

            2016/10/30 – 13:06 … things like Tour Montparnasse, but I’m not. I found that area around it to be an automobile dominated wasteland that I got away from as soon as possible.

            I don’t think you believe the Montparnasse quartier would be much of a place today if President Pompidou had had his way and converted it all into a mini-Wall Street? Not to mention that La Defense is so superior a solution to that “problem” (and successful, it is the biggest financial district in Europe). And that is the thing. Why destroy something so obviously and almost universally acknowledged as special (the whole slab of inner Paris is UNESCO heritage listed) for something that is humdrum and identikit to every major city in the world? (When that can be provided perfectly adequately elsewhere despite Alon’s rather desperate and unconvincing arguments about “centrality” etc.). But more importantly, to achieve what? More office space (to crowd the already bursting PT and Chatelet?) More people? In the densest city in the western world. And I don’t think even Glaeser and Yglesias recommend building on the Washington Mall. Also any argument about Paris staying in the dark ages is hogwash as it has modernised in very classy style, with the Pompidou Centre and Pei’s Louvre Pyramid, and I think the updating of the Forum will prove to be successful too.

            I wonder why neo-libs are seemingly so obsessed with destroying nice things? Europe is filled with truly excellent cities, from the big (Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, St Petersburg, Vienna) to the medium sized (Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Brussels, Prague & others) to small (Seville, Venice, Florence, Bruge, Strasburg, Heidelberg, many others). Why do some people seemingly not rest until they turn them into identikit versions of the rest of the world? And in fact, they might succeed in killing San Francisco one of the few US cities I could have lived in (and did briefly on a work exchange at UCSF). It seems like it must be the symbolism, just like why those terrorists chose the WTC as targets, the neo-libs want to do the same thing to their perceived mortal philosophical enemies, something that has beauty and people at its core rather than all the usual symbols of disembodied corporate and multinational power. I suppose they possess the stronger hand–not least because it is so much easier to destroy something–and when that happens you indeed will have absolutely no reason to sit en terrace at a cafe in Paris because it will be identical to where you are sitting when you wrote your last post.

            It’s me who is puzzled … about why you would want this?

          • Puzzled about fear of heights

            I’m not sure why you think I want to do all those terrible things. I can assure you that I’m not interested in repeating the mistakes of Montparnasse or any of that. I don’t want “towers in the park” nor “towers in the parking lot”, and my primary focus is on creating a good streetscape for people by using the right elements at the ground floor levels. I’m not talking about Paris either, except perhaps as an example to draw upon, as I don’t live there.

            My main question is and remains: what is “oppressive” about height?

            My primary context is: sites that are already undergoing redevelopment (brownfields) or new development (greenfields). The sites in question have already been determined to be suitable for [re]development (e.g. parking lots), so it’s not a question of losing anything of value. Let’s further suppose that construction methods don’t enter into the question: the same construction methods would be used for either choice. Then the question becomes: if 3 floors is okay, why not 6? Or if 10 floors is okay, then why not 20?

            What is more “oppressive” about one choice over the other? You still haven’t answered that question, as far as I can tell. Please do not patronize me, nor ramble on about political ideology. That’s not what I’m asking about. I’m asking: what is “oppressive” about height when all else is held equal?

          • michael.r.james

            In reply to Puzzled 2016/11/01 – 08:13

            Let’s further suppose that construction methods don’t enter into the question: the same construction methods would be used for either choice. Then the question becomes: if 3 floors is okay, why not 6? Or if 10 floors is okay, then why not 20?
            What is more “oppressive” about one choice over the other? You still haven’t answered that question, as far as I can tell.

            In my first response I said that it was unrealistic to expect me to lay out a full rationale and technical explanation in a blog post. I’ve already written perhaps several thousand words. I did explain via specific citations from Gehl why height has such effects. I’ve given plenty of examples around the world. Explain why famous horror/scifi movies present hi-rise futuristic cities as pure distillation of oppressive, like Metropolis, Dark City; Blade Runner (note not the low-rise sunny LA but a future dystopian hi-rise version in which the sun is permanently cut-off and there is a permanent “rain” from aircon plants (a scene Ridley Scott says was inspired by his visits to Hong Kong)). Or the scary infinitely-deep city in Forbidden Planet (I reckon Luc Besson borrowed this effect in his Fifth Element in the taxi scene). Hitchcock even made 6 or so flights of stairs scary and oppressive in Vertigo exploiting a natural human reaction, in fact inherited from our arboreal ancestors, it is hardwired into our reptilian brains (we all have it just some have it heightened). Or Albert Speer’s Berlin plan of gargantuan nightmarish proportions. Then there are those like JG Ballard’s novel High-Rise, recently turned into a movie, about “a 1970s-era (bien sur) apartment tower, which soon becomes a dystopian universe unto itself, full of bloodthirsty, warring factions. The building’s architecture becomes symbolic of society’s own invisible class structure and caste system, with the more elevated higher-ups and repressed lower classes literally going at each other’s throats.” There is similar symbolism in Blade Runner’s Tyrell Pyramid, representing a social hierarchy in which the all-powerful über-rich reside in the penthouses above all the pollution and disorder on the distant streets below on which they never step.

            Hah, Trump as Tyrell in his tower! Now there’s a nightmare for you. You guys (Glaeser, Yglesias, Alon?) might yet get your 68-storey towers on the Washington Mall (all that wasted green space!), equipped with solid-gold taps and diamante-encrusted jacuzzis.)

          • Puzzled about fear of heights

            My friends and family who live on the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side don’t seem to be living in any kind of Blade Runner dystopia. They seem to rather like their neighborhoods, having persisted in living there for decades.

            I realize that you have written a lot of words, but I am not asking you to write all these allusions to movies and fantasies that have nothing to do with reality.

            I am asking you to describe, in cold hard objective fact, what makes height per se “oppressive” when all else is held equal.

            Sadly, I am starting to think that you don’t actually have a rational argument. The problem is that you have only made arguments by either insulting me, by dragging in irrelevant topics, or by accusing me of wanting “towers in the park” style architecture that I have already and repeatedly told you is not what I am interested in.

            This is, of course, just a silly discussion on a blog comment section. But I encounter this same kind of irrational argument from NIMBYs in real life. And in those cases, the NIMBYs are utterly opposed to even putting 5 floors on a building, much less any more. But they use the same facetious arguments that you have used. They claim that 5 floors is “oppressive”. They claim that it ruins the neighborhood. They claim many kinds of fantastical things. But ultimately there is no rational claim. Probably because the underlying reason is not something that they would like to admit publicly: they want to keep “other people” out of “their neighborhood”. That’s what it boils down to. But even they have enough shame to realize that such a claim is reprehensible, so they won’t say it out loud.

            It would have been nice if you could have described “oppressive” height in a way that distinguishes your claim from the NIMBYs who hate 5 floors on a building. Anyway, I’ve got to move on, more travelling to do.

  5. Pingback: Out Of The Sewer, Again | Sewer Socialists

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