Saturday, November 7th, 2009
The Great Hall, The Cooper Union
Free admission

Arrested Development: Do Megaprojects Have a Future?

In November 2009, we hosted a public discussion with architects, developers, policymakers and economists on the state of megaprojects in light of the stalled economy.

Astoundingly, this era of economic contraction has brought progress in environmental policy at local, national, and international levels. As megaprojects like New York City’s Atlantic Yards and the UK’s “eco towns” slow down, stall, and even stop, local and national leaders are rethinking the nature of these projects with respect to social and environmental sustainability. Historically, megaprojects have been controversial. Although there have been outright failures, megaprojects can offer opportunities for great urban renewal. Our panels of experts will examine how market mechanisms enable megaprojects, what characterizes their success, and why, how, and if megaprojects have a future.

Panel I: Megaprojects in Suburbs

David Manfredi began by presenting some successful projects in suburban contexts, the Belmar development in Lakewood, Colorado and the Americana development in Glendale, California. He classified these projects as Accelerated Incremental Urbanism. Manfredi then discussed a stalled development in Westwood, Massachussetts, pointing to the lack of a public-private partnership.

Lawrence Levi focused on the demographic change in suburbs, using nearby Nassau County as an example of an older community that despite growing racially diverse, has experienced a youth drain and a diminishing tax base. Staying within Nassau County, Levi then discussed Charles Wang’s infamously delayed Lighthouse project and the light it sheds upon the political fragmentation characteristic of all suburbia. While optimistic about the future of megaprojects, Levi called for increased regional planning efforts.

Myron Orfield raised concern about the future of equality in the suburb: while it is likely that the more affluent white suburbs will reinvigorate themselves through megaprojects, the racially diverse suburbs with smaller tax bases will not have the means to rebuild. Orfield questioned whether suburban megaprojects will provide affordable housing, and if this housing will be openly accessible to persons across the social spectrum.

Robert Fishman inquired as to whether or not any of the panelists could name a specific project in a suburban context that had truly realized the ideals of mixed-use, mixed-income, and what he termed a “cultural excitement for diversity.” Ultimately, the panelists were unable to provide such an example, but suggested that state tax reform and community participation were integral policies for future progress. Many of the problems facing suburbia were identified as matters of cultural inclination. Such ingrained tendencies prove to be much more difficult to reshape than the physical environment. With this in mind, it might be interesting to supplement the discussion with an examination of a built project’s use over time.

Panel II: Megaprojects as New Towns

Chris Corr discussed the community of Celebration, Flordia, as well as a number of projects undertaken in partnership with the company AECOM. Corr emphasized that none of the projects were economic in the near term.

Tom Jost then presented another project in Flordia, the Destiny Eco-City. The Eco-City provides a model for the anticipated growth of the state: concentrated building in areas of high density with large tracts of land left undeveloped. Perhaps the most critical issue raised by Jost came during his commentary on a community development in Mumbai. Although the existing infrastructure of the area was forrible, it was not possible to simply relocate the community and build anew, for despite the unfavorable environment, the neighborhood had developed a vibrant cultural life. New town building is often incapable of producing this cultural element.

Emily Talen addressed academia’s distaste for the new town movement. Talen said the two major problems with new towns are that they tend to be the vision of one person or of one corporation, and that despite the efforts of their planners, they are incapable of existing as “real towns.” Despite these flaws, it is apparent that the new town movement has real momentum behind it and will not disappear any time soon. For this reason, Talen recommended that academia learn to work with new towns to maximize their potential.

Although all of the panelists recognized the importance of density, there was a sense that the idea remains taboo within American culture. Would Americans, given the opportunity, choose to live in a denser neighborhood? It was also clear that it is important to think beyond the American context, as the majority of urban development in coming decades will take place in third world countries, presenting unique problems that require specific approaches.

Panel III: Megaprojects in the Metropolis

Scott Stringer emphasized the need to prioritize: while it may not be possible to complete every megaproject, it is certainly possible to complete the most necessary megaprojects.

Peter Grant attempted to find the positive in the financial crisis: the cessation in development grants the country with time to contemplate how to best proceed once funding returns.

Susan Fainstein noted the difference between megaprojects of the mid-century and megaprojects of today. The old megaprojects tended to displace communities, and thus generated more vocal public opposition. The megaprojects of today are often sited in previously undeveloped areas, lacking the traditional sort of communal resistance. Fainstein also drew attention to the discrepancy between architects’ representations and the social reality of their built works. Her most salient point was that incremental urban development is a better approach than megaprojects.

Vishaan Chakrabarti argued for extreme density coupled with infrastructure investment as the best development strategy for the present. While he did not disregard green technology, he viewed such technology as distracting Americans from the real source of their problems, the gluttonous consumption of land. Chakrabarti criticized the lack of federal funding for large-scale projects, paying particular attention to the misdirection of the recent stimulus bill.

Thom Mayne agreed with Chakrabarti and viewed Fainstein’s incremental approach as unnecessarily limiting. Mayne saw large-scale projects as the result of the increased capital available through globalization: since the trend of globalization shows no signs of reversing itself, the megaproject is truly the future of architecture and urban design.

Jeff Madrick provided historical perspective for the discussion, reminding the panelists that during the Great Depression, America had continued to develop infrastructure. Madrick noted that distrust for government began in the 1970s and continues to affect politics to this day. In the end, Madrick called for increased taxed rates to generate greater funding for urban development, reminding the audience that there is no evidence that countries with lower tax rates grow faster.

While Chakrabarti stressed the need for a public-private partnership and the production of high-density housing, Fainstein alleged the impossibility of raising a significant amount of public money, stemming from the popular resistance to density. Mayne defended Chakrabarti and argued that expert opinion should trump the desire of the public. Madrick provided some common ground for the panelists by remarking that throughout American history cities have been seen as the source of society’s problems rather than the solution to such problems. While all of the experts agree that the city is the solution, convincing the public of this position is crucial.

After the question was raised as to whether or not the design professions have developed a formal language that can communicate with the American middle class, Fainstein celebrated new urbanism as serving such a purpose. Chakrabarti and Mayne both argued that new urbanism was totally irrelevant to the urban center, and that the movement was a regressive, if not repressive, ideology at best.