Watch the density of New York City grow...and then shrink

Josh McCarty is Chief Analytics Researcher and resident Geo-Accountant at Urban3 (a firm we often partner with on data analysis and other projects). Today, he has graciously allowed some of his thoughts on growth and history to be shared in short essay form on our site.

When we look at the cities around us, we tend to see only what's in front of our eyes—not the history behind it. We look at the gaps, voids, and lacunae in our cities and assume they have always been there. We can't see that under flat pavement and sanitized lawns was a packed living place. 

What does this stunted distorted view of our urban habitat mean practically? We see it in the way people fight and fear growth and consolidation. How often do we hear "don't turn Durham (or insert town here) into Manhattan?" In fact, Manhattan isn't even Manhattan anymore. It has just 70% of the residents it did in 1910. Watch this video to see that in action (and learn more about the methodology behind the video here).

If people understood the context of their history it would be "don't turn Durham back into Durham from before we razed so much of it." That just sounds ridiculous. 

I think we need a new approach to planning policy—the "put it back" approach. What this entails is a comprehensive inventory of the residential and commercial base, the housing stock, and overall quantity and quality of development in our city cores and neighborhoods before the flood. Before we can put any real restrictions on development or whine about the "character" of a place, we have to catch up with what we had half a century ago.

How many downtowns, I wonder, are still far behind what they once had? This was one of the fundamental failures of urban renewal: Tear down 100 modest homes packed tightly together to build 50 apartments packed skyward on a big empty green lot. 

I'm torn between optimism and despair about how we treat our urban heritage in this country and the possibility that we could actually "put it back." It's not impossible after all. Almost every city in the world that lasts long enough gets destroyed. And most—not all but most—just pick up the pieces. Hiroshima looks fine today. So does Warsaw, Hamburg, Budapest, and countless others. We have precedent here too. Charleston rebuilds itself and so does New Orleans (though there is an important difference). 

Somehow after winning the war, and with tremendous wealth, we managed to do the exact opposite in our cities. Paving over a city, it would seem, is vastly more destructive than bombing one.

Related stories