Urbanism isn’t Pruitt-Igoe

from Wikimedia by USGS

Pruitt-Igoe: a 50-unit per acre scar. From Wikimedia by USGS

It’s likely that Pruitt-Igoe, the public housing project in St. Louis, is the most famous and maligned image in architectural history. Its slab-like blocks rose from a scar in the urban fabric, the Corbusian ideal and an American dystopia. Yet at only 50 housing units per acre, this towering symbol of all things bad in urban design wasn’t all that dense. If we want to talk about density, we need to set Pruitt Igoe aside.

I mention Pruitt-Igoe because the image has emerged in Marin’s affordable housing debate. Bob Silvestri recently used it as an example of what he says the state and regional governments will force the Bay Area to build in a recent forum on affordable housing. Density mandates for 30 housing units per acre, he argued, would lead us to the worst kind of affordable housing and away from best practices.

Though there are plenty of reasons to oppose the regional housing needs assessment (RHNA) process, density and the specter of Pruitt-Igoe-like towers from Napa to San Jose is not one of them.

Rowhouses, when built right, come in around 50 units per acre, with older neighborhoods going a bit higher. Boston’s North End is over 50 units per acre. Washington, DC’s fabled Georgetown comes in at over 50 units per acre. In San Francisco, Russian Hill has 50, North Beach has 90, and the area west of Union Square goes as high as 536 units per acre. If density were the downfall of Pruitt Igoe, you’d think Union Square would be the center of a particularly wretched hive of humanity, not a trendy shopping district.

Urbanism means more places like this. Image from Google Maps

Urbanism means more places like this. Image from Google Maps

The causes of Pruitt-Igoe’s monumental failure could (and has) filled reports and books, but the failure can be boiled down to a deliberate denial of urban form. Stacking 50 units per acre atop one another while leaving empty grassy space around each tower for generic community gathering is a discredited idea that should have never earned such credence in the first place.

But to use this particular packaging of this particular density as an argument against density itself is disingenuous. It ignores common sense and the facts at hand. Good urban form can be low density and it can be high density, just as poor urban form can be either one.

And good urban form is based on the needs of the human as a creature. We walk, so a good city tries to maximize the pleasure of that activity. We are social, so a good city tries to maximize the incidence of casual socializing. That requires a certain level of compactness of buildings so that we can walk to the store and we can walk to the neighbor’s home, but that look like Midtown Manhattan and it can look like downtown Mill Valley.

Let’s have a debate about height and character that is really about how to build new development than enhances character, how to grow in that uniquely Marin way and make our county better. Let’s leave behind the straw men and phantoms.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

6 Responses to Urbanism isn’t Pruitt-Igoe

  1. Richard Hall says:

    You’re right that Pruett Igo is an extreme. Likewise you are referencing examples on the positive side of the extreme scale – although I think many residents of San Rafael, Saratoga and Mill Valley would oppose row houses as being in architectural character with their small town character. So let’s get down to what’s happening now in Marin.

    In Novato we have Wyndover Apartments and Bay Vista – a friend living in Novato said that similar housing when added to his area turned his neighborhood into one ridden with crime with drug users walking in the middle of the street.

    The real focus needs to be:
    - the new housing needs to be put in livable, healthy locations, not right up against polluted freeways where no one wants to live which is what’s being advocated.
    - there need to be genuine safe gaurds preventing property developers leaving buildings neglected through lack of maintenance and not properly vetting new residents
    - the new housing needs to be in character with existing housing, otherwise the new residents will be resented / alienated
    - we need to respect that car technology has and is continuously improving through lower GHG emissions, cars that drive themselves
    - we need to respect that all residents rank privacy and distance from neighbors (not adjoining walls)
    - we need to respect that there’s plenty of existing vacant buildings that can be used that are in architectural character that would be a lot cheaper to re-use rather than building new housing
    - we need to work through the real costs of the new housing so that all are aware of any implied tax increase and impact on the community such as traffic and this is mitigated/addressed.

    Residents have so far found it near impossible to find a voice and be heard; so now we should suddenly trust the same entities that brought us Wyndover and Bay Vista, and railroaded through the Civic Center Station Area plan directly contradicting residents input (see visioning comments, then the claim that these would be used as guiding principals).

  2. Stephen Nestel says:

    Sorry you couldn’t make the event Dave. I think you could add to a thoughtful conversation about affordable housing. You can see it on an unauthorized tape of the event on youtube at http://youtu.be/-QrBu5wvilA. Bob Silvestri only illustrated Pruitt Igoe as a failed housing experiment of the past. I hope you have had a chance to read his book or his mill valley patch articles. He also is an architect and has built about 2000 affordable housing units. His current project follows the models of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City- a kind of opposite to the Smart Growth Urban ideas you champion. The idea was is to provide a place for gardening and individual artistic freedom. Suburbia done correctly, is far more “green” than big box apartments by the train station or bus stop any day. I believe the One Bay Area Plan and Smart Growth will die by the fiscal, political and market realities. In it’s place will grow a “greenurbia” that will utilize low impact landscaping, green transport, some public transit and internet workplaces. (much like many in Marin are living today) The Smart Growth ideal is merely a nostalgic yearning for the streetcar villages of the 1890s.. When the government goes away, Smart Growth will go too.

    • I have read his Patch articles and found myself overwhelmed with how much I disagreed with, so I couldn’t even begin to untangle it and left them alone. I am pondering a response to Broadacre City, however, which seems to be a linchpin. Another time.

  3. Stephen Nestel says:

    Dave, I have lived in all levels of densities in places like Boston, San Francisco, etc. I enjoyed living there at the time and recognize its advantages. What is particularlly exasperating, is we destroy suburban places so that EVERONE must live in these densities using f, government mandates and government funding.

    So you are going to tell Aunt Minnie, to stop gardening and move out of her cottage and into a crowded apartment building near a bus stop and either ride her bike or walk to the stores.

    Smart growth destroys freedom and creates a fascist Disneylandia. No thanks.

    • While I disagree mightily that smart growth destroys suburbia, we can look at examples where redevelopment has occurred in suburban areas to evaluate this thesis. Santana Row is probably the best-known example of suburban redevelopment in the Bay Area, and it happened entirely within an existing commercial block. It included more than enough parking to accommodate the needs of residents and visitors, and so it functions like a mall/apartment/office hybrid. Arlington, Virginia, also built on existing parking lots but left the single-family housing alone. You get this two blocks from this. (No, I don’t propose this tall of infill for Marin, but I hope you get my point, that single family homes are untouched.)

      Other redevelopments focus on brownfield, grayfield, and empty lot development. This is similar to what Bob Silvestri once argued would work best for Mill Valley before he started conflating infill development with, well, fascist Disneylandia.

      If the government uses eminent domain to raze Aunt Minnie’s house for a highway or a condo development, you can bet I’ll oppose it. But if she wants to build a second unit and isn’t allowed to, you can bet I’ll be on her side then, too.

  4. Stephen Nestel says:

    You can say you want to protect Aunt Minnies house but you want to take away her democratic freedom to participate in the zoning and character of her town. Through government policies you effectively “take her freedom” and burden her with the costs of urbanization through government fiat. She can stay, but no longer has her town.

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