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Reinventing Public Housing

The Need to Make Urban Housing Urban

Frederick Biehle


In his 2008 publication Public Housing that Worked, Nicholas Bloom provided an in depth critique of high-rise public housing in the United States, something largely regarded as a failure (a perception I would heartily endorse). His powerful thesis overturned much of the conventional wisdom and triggered a fierce debate among those interested in current housing policy.

His thesis was that while most of America’s high-rise public housing was, in fact, a disaster, New York City’s was not. New York City was different. It was the New York City Housing Authority that had created, overseen, and maintained a product of twenty six hundred buildings and a system that could, and continues to, satisfy the housing needs for over 400,000 tenants. In short, it worked.

To stake this claim, however, Bloom had to redefine the frame through which affordable housing is evaluated. His new position needed to elevate bureaucratic workability over any issues related to the physical reality of its architecture. He readily acknowledged this. To get to his conclusion he had to defend several specific architectural assumptions institutionalized by NYCHA:[/x_text]

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Housing Evolution

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  1. That “slum” clearance was always a net positive. Most NYCHA projects were not built on vacant land, and were thus only possible by the demolition of multiple block neighborhoods, often occupied by tenement blocks or worse. Eliminating these neighborhoods became a critical catalyst as more than just housing advocates were interested in “slum clearance”. Because the system that was in place by 1940 to replace the neighborhoods was consistently based on the superblock housing estate model, clearance not only removed the tenement block, which perhaps could be seen as a net positive from a health and safety perspective, but it also removed the street, the public realm in which the collective activity of the neighborhood took place. While a replacement for the tenement housing would be offered, an appropriate public space to replace the street would not.
  2. That the formula for the superblock housing estate that would a) aggressively and intentionally turn away from the fabric of the city that surrounds it, and b) zone its use to be exclusively residential and thereby eliminate any sense of urban continuity with its mixed use context was an acceptable, rational, even positive idea.
  3. That the decision to construct a kind of housing that was intended to look poor by virtue of its meager budgeting, absent of any sense of architectural detail or identity was also acceptable.
  4. That not shaping the residual space opened up by the smaller lot coverages due to taller buildings was also acceptable if some trees were planted, thus elevating abstract aesthetics over social concern.



    Theo Van Doesburg, Composition Weiss Black


    9_ Theo Van Doesburg, Composition Weiss Black



    William Lescaze, Williamsburg Houses

    10_William Lescaze, Williamsburg Houses

[x_text class=”left-text “]In short, Bloom tells us that we should accept the NYCHA’s public housing ‘project’ for what it is- 2600 buildings on 154 sites and over 400,000 tenants all living with “well maintained brick buildings, mature plane trees and green lawns, active community and recreation programs and first class play equipment …(all of which) have made NYC public high-rise housing a smashing success”(1). As positive as these observations may be, they still disregard the fact that the projects are a psychologically partitioned (both physically by its stigmatized second ghetto appearance and spatially by its withdrawal from any larger idea for the public realm) series of island wastelands, anti-cities within the city.[/x_text]

    NYCHA Apartment Block Configuration

    4_NYCHA Apartment Block Configuration


    Gropius Spacing Diagrams

    5_Gropius Space Diagram


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Obviously “a decent home and suitable living environment”(2) is important to housing, but it is remarkable how antagonistic, even cavalier, housing advocates and planning authorities were to the city’s underlying fabric. The structure of the street and sidewalk was what provided the framework for an urban life, yet between 1932 and 1957 very few architects or urban planners seemed remotely cognizant of this. The crisis of decentralization, relieving urban density and overcrowding, was an at-all-costs agenda for them.

One exception was the Chicago sociologist Louis Wirth, who in 1938 tried to give a more precise definition of urbanism by noting that it “included size, density and heterogeneity” but also that urbanism as a way of life meant something different, experiencing a set of human interactions that were impersonal, rather than intimate (3). This is something Jane Jacobs magically described in her Life and Death of American Cities, as “the daily ballet” of the sidewalk. She was referring to the episodic anonymous interactions which make up an “informal public life, a necessary mediator between ones more personally determined formal and private lives. The informal public life, then, is urbanism as experienced, the unplanned theater of the street and sidewalk (4).

Steven Johnson, in his 2001 publication Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software cites Jacobs specifically for her description of the dance of urban life. For him, she is the boy in the Hans Christian Anderson tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, calling out the planners naked ignorance in not comprehending, even at the most intuitive level, what really made cities work. It was density, diversity, mixed use, and continuity she insisted. Johnson says the city is, essentially, an emergent system, operating bottom up as a constantly mutating multitude of independent interactions. He concludes by saying “better sidewalks make better cities, which in turn improve the lives of the city dwellers…city life depends on the odd interaction between strangers that can change ones individual behavior … encountering diversity does nothing for the global system of the city unless that encounter has a chance of altering behavior” (5).

In his remarkable book Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century, Steven Conn traces a consistent and repetitive attack on the city throughout the 20th century. By declaring the architects, city and regional planners, policy makers, politicians, federal housing administrators, decentralists, social engineers, garden city advocates, folklore enthusiasts, and academic intellectuals to be ANTI-URBAN he opens up a space to actually celebrate the qualitative values of living in the city, to articulate a vision of positive urbanism. William Whyte, an editor at Fortune magazine said in 1958, “most of the rebuilding underway was being designed by people who actually don’t like cities. They do not merely dislike the noise and the dirt and the congestion, they dislike the city’s variety and concentration, its tension, its hustle, and bustle. What made the city so good, was all the things the planners wanted to eliminate”(6). While we might know that statement to be true today, it still remains unclear just what we can do about it. In his concluding sentence Conn lays down the challenge- “the problem of the 21st century will be how we re-urbanize, that is, how we fix the mistakes of our anti-urban 20th century”(7). It will be no small undertaking.[/x_text]

  • Murders in NYC

    12_Murders in NYC

  • Enclosure Diagram

    13_Enclosure Diagram


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Forty three years after the construction of the last NYCHA sponsored public housing project, New York City has finally run out of open space to build. Three recent events have coincided to alter the larger perception of NYCHA’s public housing estates and offer what may be a truly honest opportunity for change

  1. We have seen a progressive and steady decline in the crime rate- beginning even before the Rudolf Giulianni administration and continuing with Michael Bloomberg. The city has experienced 24 consecutive years of decreasing crime and thus a reciprocal reinvigoration of the life of the city street to go along with it. This is particularly critical in more recent years where the urban context around public housing estates have normalized. (In what is an interesting potential feedback loop, the revitalizing of city streets may be a significant contributor to the continued statistical drop in crime that has continued under Bill de Blasio, even with the taking down of the controversial stop and frisk program.)
  2. The remarkable building boom that started in the mid 1990s, fueled in particular by rezoning under the Bloomberg administration, has finally run up against public housing. It is now perfectly acceptable to build highrise luxury housing (the Toren, for example, on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn) or midrise market rate housing directly adjacent to public housing estates without damage to property values, something not even imagined ten years ago.
  3. The RFP issued in Mayor Bloomberg’s final year calling for developers to utilize open space in a series of public housing estates to create new for-market (80-20) luxury tower projects. The carrot with this proposal was that income from the new housing would help pay maintenance and upkeep costs for the housing estates, which is another problem coming to term. Most public housing was constructed with a 50 year lifespan. By 2018 every project will have expired and be in need of serious restoration. While the RFP has been taken down by Mayor de Blasio, in part due to public outcry, the idea has not been entirely taken off the table. Finding a way for private development to fund the financial needs of low income housing is simply too attractive.
  4. After 12 years of a city administration that was pro private development there is a new mayor who has made it a part of his mandate to reengage the idea of public housing. With his Five Borough, Ten Year Plan, Housing New York, he intends to a) foster diverse livable neighborhoods b) preserve the existing housing stock and c) build new affordable housing that will ultimately build and preserve 200,000 units.

This fall, Pratt Institute UG Architecture offered an urban design studio intended as one step toward meeting Steven Conn and Bill de Blasio’s challenges. We started with the question— Must we really accept the super block public housing estate for what it is? Or is there a way to transform and reinterpret, essentially contextualize it, and by doing so eliminate its stigma, its isolation, and its anti-urban grip on the city?

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It has been quite some time since public housing (belligerently) carried the flag of the future by replacing what was then a discredited prior housing model, the tenement house, condemned as a slum and destroyed to make way for the future. But perhaps its time has come again. As the superblock public housing estate has itself been discredited as fundamentally anti- urban, can we identify a way and a means to transform it, only this time without the wrecking ball.



  1. Nicholas Bloom, Public Housing that Worked, (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008, page 3

  2. Stated goal of the original 1949 federal housing act legislation, allowing for the use of eminent domain to clear urban slums and replace them with new housing as quoted in Nicholas Bloom, Public Housing that WorkedQuoted in Nicholas Bloom, Public Housing that Worked, page 2

  3. Steven Conn, Americans against the City: Anti-urbanism in the 20thcentury,(New York, Oxford University Press, 2014, page 306

  4. Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of an American City, page 57

  5.  Steven Johnson, Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, 200, page 94

  6.  Steven Conn, Americans against the City: Anti-urbanism in the 20thcentury, New York, Oxford University Press, 2014, page 155

  7. Steven Conn, Americans against the City: Anti-urbanism in the 20thcentury,(New York, Oxford University Press, 2014, page 306