The Will to House!

One of the maddening obstacles to making cities both interesting and affordable in the United States is the opposition to real urban┬áhousing. Back in 1920 there was good reason to fear density: we had just figured out how to deal with contagious diseases. And apartments at that time were still cramped, dim, and poorly-ventilated. In contrast, there is the recent experience of China…

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On my way towards downtown, I came across this bank of housing (like a bank of cliffs). As far as I can tell it is fully occupied. But as in Shanghai, massive housing here does not mean crowded streets. Notice the absence of congestion in the foreground. When I take photos here, I actually have to wait for people and cars to come by so that I can show some humans in the picture! I thought this was peculiar to Shanghai, but I have found this absence of congestion to be typical across much of Suzhou.

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One factor that explains the lack of congestion is that people in Suzhou–just like Americans–stay at home more. Newer apartments are quite spacious, and almost all units are south-facing, with copious daylight. And with internet and big-screen TVs. So I am not saying this new world is ideal, but I can certainly refute the presumption that tower-blocks = teeming streets. If anything, this neighborhood commercial street has a homey, village-like feel. It reminds me of Jane Jacobs’ arguments about Greenwich Village, fifty years ago.

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From a distance you can see two eras of housing in Suzhou.

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Using higher-strength concrete, developers are now able to design buildings with very generous windows.

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Still, the scale and abruptness of new housing developments is a little shocking. What was here two years ago? Farmland? A water-village?

Americans and Brits had miserable experiences with high-rise public housing. We tend to associate that scale and style of construction white flight, “urban malaise,” and authoritarian regimes. I expect that an English-language film director would look at this site as the ideal place to shoot a dystopian film. But as Kate Bristol pointed out in “the Pruitt-Igoe Myth” back in 1991, high-rise design had nothing to do with the failures of housing projects which were horribly mismanaged. The failure of Pruitt-Igoe–and all the public housing in the U.S.–boils down to racist practices of segregation and neglect. Such practices would (and did) render even a two-storey apartment complex into a dangerous nightmare.

In essence, Americans misread high-rise housing, and link them to vivid but misleading conclusions which distract us from real accountability for our very painful social failings. Worse, the dissemble-and-distract policy of avoiding open acknowledgment of our racism has another unfortunate side-effect: we have become utterly phobic about rebuilding our cities with mid-rise and high-rise housing.

Meanwhile we keep wondering why the housing supply in center-cities is so limited and expensive. “The market”, you say? The market in U.S. cities would result in buildings like the ones pictured above. No, as in so many domains of the U.S. economy, social prejudices override ‘market logic.’ Frankly, the urban housing market is freer here in China than in the U.S. Hmmm.


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