Urban Design Studio I: Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation, Columbia University

Public Housing: An Urban Design Challenge

Category : BLOG · No Comments · by December 9, 2015

See the combined work of the Summer 2015 5 Borough Studio in this PDF.

Over 400,000 New Yorkers live in public housing provided by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the largest public housing authority in the country. NYCHA manages more than 178,000 apartments in over 320 developments across all 5 boroughs. If NYCHA was a city, it would be more populous than Cleveland or Miami. Distributed throughout the five boroughs, public housing was largely built between the 1930s and 1970s during an era of massive public investment in housing and infrastructure. Today, the federal government continuously reduces its financial support for housing authorities to sustain this asset leaving the New York City Housing Authority with an estimated $16 billion deficit for needed repairs. Superstorm Sandy, which hit New York City in 2012, revealed yet another weakness. More than 30 public housing developments were damaged by the storm affecting more than 80,000 residents and adding to the financial and physical problems.

Despite numerous declarations of failure of the modernist housing ideal beginning with Jane Jacob’s critique in 1961 in the Death and Life of Great American Cities and the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe Houses in St Louis in 1972, our inheritance of this type of urban fabric is enormous and cannot be ignored. Commonly attributed to the ideas of the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM), cities around the world subscribed to the ideal of single-function districts with modern housing towers surrounded by green spaces, light and fresh air that replaced and contrasted the dense and inhuman conditions of overcrowded and tuberculosis-ridden tenements. In time, the ideal turned sour, the isolated developments into concentrations of poverty and neglect instigating endless discussions whether architecture and planning are to blame for their demise or failed public policy and mismanagement. While recognizing the challenge of the aging buildings themselves in need of significant repair (80% of the building stock is older than 40 years) this studio turned its attention to the urban dimension of the superblocks and the neighborhoods they are situated in.

Some common themes emerged from this studio:

Tactical Interventions
Several proposals used relatively small-scale interventions to activated spaces within NYCHA’s campuses and at its edges. Driven by the ambition of bottom-up approaches, these are intended to be implemented by ‘external’ actors –community groups or groups of residents– to provide a mix of uses, and activate public spaces as a way of increasing safety in and around the developments.


Open Space
The promise of the tower in the “park” seems unfulfilled. The existing open spaces can rarely be called parks. Fenced in lawns, often trash-strewn and inaccessible, are a burden on NYCHA’s maintenance staff and of little resource to residents or New Yorkers. Are they private or public? Rather than reintroducing the street grid into the superblocks, students sought to assign higher performative values to the existing open spaces, be it for food production or water management. In the process of redesign, open spaces can also be redefined more clearly along a gradient of public to private offering public connections through the superblocks where it seems appropriate and assigning greater privacy through design to spaces used by residents.

Infill as part of a comprehensive plan for the development/neighborhood
Unlike the current procedure at NYCHA, which is in the process of issuing several RFPs for development of individual sites on its property for housing, students proposed infill as part of a comprehensive concept to improve the overall site. Unafraid to touch existing buildings, integrate new and old, the emphasis for infill developments are uses that benefit the existing neighborhood combined with housing for new residents or for those being displaced by new ground floor uses.
groundfloor Download a PDF with all projects here.