Seemingly everywhere, all the time, Vishaan Chakrabarti delivers a timely, or well-coordinated, rally cry to vanquish exurbs and even suburbs in pursuit of the hyperdensification of urban centers as the route to a more sustainable future—environmentally, economically, and socially. In his new book, Chakrabarti supports this argument with 250 pages of well-written, though slightly redundant, prose and clear illustrations. Redundancy here is not a bad thing because many of his basic claims seem to have gone unheeded for decades to disastrous and steadily worsening outcomes.
Part info graphic, part manifesto, and part plea, A Country of Cities grows from a series of articles Chakrabarti began writing in 2009 for Urban Omnibus, the Architectural League of New York’s website dedicated to urbanism. Collected here the missives lose none of their impact, relevance, or timeliness in urging for a densification of American cities.
Much of Chakrabarti’s argument comes down to the densification and intertwining of living, working, infrastructure, and transportation. Currently the earth’s population of 7 billion people could fit in the land area of Texas at 25 dwelling units per acre, still under the economic threshold to develop subway or rail lines. In the U.S., 3 percent of the land—i.e. large cities—produces 85 percent of the GDP while consuming less energy per capita than suburban townships.
In order to get beyond this current malaise of overstretched infrastructure and greenhouse gasses, A Country of Cities argues for hyperdensification in which centers of population are concentrated at minimally 30 housing units per acre in order to be able to provide a tax base for public transportation and walkable mixed-use neighborhoods.
The book grows out of the presupposition that the nation would choose to live more densely. Maybe this is where Chakrabarti’s manifesto falls short—in a democracy politicians cannot curb so easily what people do not want to change. “Despite all the changes politicians promise, reforming our sprawling, gluttonous lifestyle is never among them,” Chakrabarti points out.
After World War II, suburbanization began whittling away in earnest at the U.S.’s pro-urban stance. Vehicle and fuel manufacturers lobbied against mass transit. The National Housing Act of 1934 reduced depression-era foreclosures and promoted affordable mortgages for single-family homes. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 funded highways out of urban centers. A perfect storm for the rise of suburbs—a tab the government charged and citizens continue to pay.
Without multiple nodes of density, the U.S. loses out on the transit-oriented development made possible with increased density around train stations through more housing, cultural, retail, and commercial properties—think New York, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and increasingly Beijing and Shanghai, and Europe on a grander scale. Cities are dense activity centers connected by high-speed rail with open land between—land for farming and recreation, not endless suburban sprawl.
The second half of the book provides a road map of possibilities in creating hyperdense communities by overcoming “contextual zoning” and planning for the future, not merely meeting the present. This includes infrastructure—transit and utilities, but also parks, health care, cultural venues, a lively street life with shops and pedestrian amenities—things that support a quality of life. Chakrabarti, who is a partner at SHoP Architects, illustrates these points with such examples as OMA’s Seattle Public Library, Morphosis’ Perot Museum in Dallas, and a number of SHoP projects, including the Atlantic Yards—”one of the most important redevelopment projects.” SHoP also provides illustrations that appear every other page to provide a sense of scale to the relative quantities of energy usage, tax dollars spent for infrastructure, time and fuel spent commuting, or flow charts of capital, for example.
Chakrabarti makes it sound so easy. By diverting funds from mortgage interest deduction to affordable urban housing and from overextended and underutilized infrastructure to the American Smart Infrastructure Act, aggregated tax bases will support educational and cultural programs that breed innovation and opportunity. The hardest part is getting both politicians and people to buy in and to change their views. By Chakrabarti’s calculations it is nothing short of a holistic policy reform, but the results will take us less time to achieve than it took to get this current malaise.
Chakrabarti summarizes by asking readers to imagine a global network of environmental, economically viable, diverse cities governed by concerns of today’s citizens. It is utopian in outlook, but “everything should be on the table” at this moment of national crisis. However, I cannot help but recall the opening scene of last year’s cinema flop Judge Dredd, based on the wonderful comic book of the same name. As the film opens and pans across a barren wasted landscape, Mega-City One comes into view—a hyperdense city with some living in tower blocks of 50,000-plus inhabitants that operate as city-states, crime havens, and urban oases. In Chakrabarti’s call to arms, I can’t help but think of John Lennon: “You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one.”