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Crain’s: Don’t just fix housing projects—redesign them

David Burney, interim executive director of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter and the Center for Architecture, recently penned an op-ed focusing on how to tackle NYC’s housing issue from an architectural standpoint.  David was director of design at the New York City Housing Authority from 1990 to 2003 and commissioner of the city’s Department of Design and Construction from 2004 to 2014.

Via the article:

The de Blasio administration’s much-needed plan to rescue the New York City Housing Authority focuses on injecting money, reducing costs and adding units, as it should. But one element of “NextGeneration NYCHA” needs more attention: design.

Thoughtful design and architecture will not only help the authority get the best return on its housing investment, but also improve safety, health and energy efficiency.

The city’s public housing authority, established in 1934, was the country’s first. Working-class families moved into projects designed by the city’s best architects, following design principles from social housing in Europe, where housing was considered a right and was designed to interact with other social services and infrastructure.

These housing projects were very different from the ones that people now associate with public housing—”towers in the park” built during the 1960s and ’70s with mostly federal funding. The federal government has since backed out of the program, and the city and state have not found a way to accommodate the growing waiting list for public housing, to support mounting operating costs or to address a capital repair backlog.

NextGen proposes to stanch the Housing Authority’s fiscal wound with cost-saving and revenue-generating measures, including sensible ways to increase income, such as better rent collection and higher parking fees.

From a design perspective, the most interesting proposals are to make projects with high crime rates safer, and to use the agency’s underutilized land to generate income and add affordable apartments.

Both proposals could benefit from a design-centered approach with various physical and technological interventions that improve the quality of life for residents and neighbors.
In the 1970s, the authority commissioned a study by Oscar Newman, the author of the theory of “defensible space,” to improve security. Mr. Newman proposed the “eyes on the street” theory and the judicious use of perimeter fencing to demarcate private from public domains. It is time to revisit that study with a more comprehensive design-centered approach that does not limit hard interventions, such as security cameras and fences, but takes a broader view of what it means to make a community safe and healthy.

Design solutions would look holistically at public-housing developments and craft specific responses to the security issue, both by design and by social programs. By activating the ground level with community resources and businesses and by improving lighting and landscaping, spaces will become safer and more accessible for residents and community members.

The new developments planned under the Land-Lease program, which involves providing underutilized land for new affordable housing units and amenities to generate revenue, would be similarly enriched by a thorough review of the architecture and landscape. New housing should not only benefit its residents, but also consider the relationship each development has with its neighborhood. Land-Lease could be an opportunity to correct that frequent disconnect.

These design efforts on new and existing projects also provide an opportunity to address health disparities and other forms of social inequality. Increasing physical activity, access to more healthful food and beverages, and overall well-being could be achieved by designing interior and exterior spaces that encourage residents of all ages to be more active. A better built environment, complete with open space and active transportation, must be considered part of the solution.

Finally, smart design would improve the energy efficiency of older buildings, reducing the enormous heat and electricity bills that burden the housing agency. As the largest residential landlord in New York City, the Housing Authority can contribute significantly to the mayor’s “80-by-50” emissions-reduction goal by cutting its energy use.

After decades of head-in-the-sand policy that has steadily depleted the authority’s financial reserves, a mayor is finally paying attention. Whatever the cost might be of meeting the operating and maintenance needs of the city’s 178,000 public-housing units, the cost of not securing the authority’s future is inestimable. The homes of more than 450,000 people are at stake.

There are many good ideas in NextGen, but increasing its focus on design and returning to the original tenets of public housing would make it even more successful.

For the full article, click here.

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