Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Baby and the Bathwater

Jennifer 8. Lee on urban development in Shenzhen and NYC:

Despite its frenetic growth, Mr. Yaro notes, the city is remarkably well serviced by modern roads, rail lines and parks, and appears to be quite livable. The Chinese government has invested heavily in the development of Shenzhen and other cities in the surrounding Pearl River Delta region, with a commitment of $50 billion in new high-speed passenger rail and transportation networks over a five-year period...

The scale of these undertakings in Shenzhen recalls the early part of the last century in America, when the country was confidently pointed toward the future, Mr. Ouroussoff explains. But it would be unimaginable in New York today, where, in the face of shrinking state and city budgets, expanding a single subway line can seem like a heroic act.

Have we lost our ability to carry out ambitious infrastructure projects? New York has a long history of embracing change, after all. We have Robert Moses to thank for Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, the Triborough Bridge, the Grand Central Parkway, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, Staten Island Expressway, Orchard Beach, Co-op City, Riverside Park, Lincoln Center and the New York Coliseum, to name just a few projects. (Of course, even now debate rages about whether Moses was the creator of indispensable public works or an anti-democratic, anti-urban despot who bent government to his will.)
At the end of the entry, J8L asks, "Is it time for another Robert Moses?" Obviously, fans of Jane Jacobs would say, it ain't time for that guy. But it may be time for another big vision for the metropolis, one that pieces together the large-scale utopia and the small-scale rootedness of our neighborhoods and our cities. Moses's vision -- which wasn't just his -- of criss-crossing our cities with expressways is a loser. But mass transit connecting metropoles + pedestrian-friendly towns and neighborhoods is a winner. And this will require a big vision and a big investment.

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