Design and multi-family anything

So again, usual disclaimer: building new units in good locations is really important in cities, so please don’t feel any need to ‘splain supply and demand to me on Twitter. Save your wisdom for unsuspecting passersby. Oh, and as long as we are at a point where I am saying something I have to say everyday, we should remove parking minimums because they are terrible.

I stirred up the pot on Twitter by getting grumpy about design and the tendency treat citizen design concerns as pretext for saying no. I’m not an idiot: I know that. I’m also sure that the more planners act like that is the case, the more it will be true.

The point of planning is to open up possibilities in place, and if you shut down people’s ideas just because they don’t have design knowledge just because they are looking for reasons to say no, you’ve done nothing to shift them or the dialogue fundamentally–a slow, incremental task. Developers are not social workers; nor are YIMBY advocates who want to win legislative rule changes. But planners do have a job in maintaining local civic relationships, in helping people see their cities and spaces in different ways, and in fostering more capable resident engagement around design and everything else.

One point of contention concerned whether multi-family was zoned out because it was poorly designed or because it was associated with poor people, immigrants, black Americans, etc. Everybody (but me) had the right, simple answer: the latter, or the desire to exclude.

Yes, but no.

In life, you can’t separate the two. You can’t. By design, multi-family is different to begin with–it’s multi-family–and at a fundamental level, the issue has nothing to do with veneers or forms or setbacks. It has to do with the systematic elevation of the white nuclear family and the attendant zoning and housing practices that both grew from that and came to reinforce it. Our social and material (built environment) lives are of a piece. One way to read more about it might be to look up this criminally undercited collection of essays:

Urban Planning and the African American Community In the Shadows June Manning Thomas Marsha Ritzdorf 9780803972346 Amazon com Books

And in it, this piece here: Silver, Christopher. “The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities.”

You also want to look at some Dolores Hayden, Gail Dubrow. I’m missing some younger scholars of color here. Wake me up and send me some to read and highlight here if you have time.

As structures like race, class, and gender took specific spatial forms and ideologies in the US, the single family home–and increased, mass production of them that allowed greater access to prestige goods–zoning helped codify exclusion that was already well-established in American society.

So yeah, it wouldn’t have mattered if the multi-family buildings were nice to begin with because by definition: those people live like that, and those people are bad, and thus we should keep them over there, and over there is where they are so those places are ugly and bad, no matter what those places actually look like.

The story, however, does not end there, and we in 21st century Trump America have to deal with the next 70+ years of that cycle of stigmatization becoming even more entrenched in the cultural psyche, and in the built environment as the cycle of thinking above led to another cycle:

those people are bad and poor; bad and poor people live in bad and poor and ugly places, and oh, we’re building something for the poor so they’ll just ruin it/it will be bad anyway/if they get better they won’t work their way out to better so let’s just build/approve any clapped up shit because it doesn’t matter but I guess they have to live somewhere so there

So to recap, there are a) great multi-family buildings out there, in lots of places, not just Manhattan, that are ascribed with stigmatized characteristics and thus judged through racist and classist aesthetic lenses, as well as b) individuals relegated to low-quality buildings because of the same stigma becoming reality over time.

Breaking that cycle of stigma has not proven easy, but it strikes me as really, really important. First of all, people who are impoverished or oppressed deserve good, comfortable city spaces, too, and they deserve to have the spaces they create treated with respect both culturally and aesthetically. And second of all, anything less than building pretty darn nice with multifamily infill now adds fuel to the NIMBY fire, aided and abetted by American racial and class biases to begin with.

And all bad design contributes to uncomfortable, unpleasant city spaces we don’t want and can’t afford if we want infill to accomplish what we say it’s going to (environmental changes). Not every place has to be uniquely beautifully and preciously wrought. It just has to be comfortable, something that will grow and stitch into a place over time as it changes the place and the place changes it. That doesn’t sound very ambitious, but it’s hard enough.