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© Frank


Vishaan Chakrabarti, Part 2

by Vishaan Chakrabarti
May 11, 2018

This interview with Vishaan Chakrabarti, the founder of PAU, was conducted and condensed by frank news. This is part two of an ongoing conversation between frank and PAU.

How do planning and politics exist with each other?

Progressives think it’s only the right wing that’s anti-government, but the left wing is pretty anti-government too.

The thing is, if you completely distrust the government, how is planning supposed to operate?

When I worked as Manhattan Director in the Bloomberg Administration, it was one of the hardest jobs I ever had. It was fascinating. But you’d go to some cocktail party and people were like, oh you go home at 5? Because people just assume anyone who works in government is a lazy ne'er-do-well. That is just as prevalent among progressives.

It's fascinating to me.

I often tell young students to go work in government for a while. Go find out how the world really runs. It’s amazing how much you can do in terms of fixing things, if you want to try to fix things. But it’s also amazing how much resistance there is across the political spectrum to the idea that government does anything.

Without it, where are we? Who’s supposed to run the subways? Are we going to turn it all over to private hands? Is that the solution? I don’t think so.

I think Mr. Zuckerberg, if nothing else, has proven the problem with turning our lives over to private companies.

Let’s turn to more specific projects of yours.

Our work is a spectrum, and we try to keep it as a spectrum. There's no urban planning department. But everything we do is urban. There’s architecture, that are more discrete assignments about architecture. But even with the building, thinking where does the door go? That’s an act of urban planning. All the way to the other side of the spectrum which are large-scale master plans. What's really interesting is the middle zone. We have a number of projects, on distressed, post-industrial sites, that are inner-ring urban. These zones sit right outside of the city. And because of gentrification, there's housing demand now. It takes both planning and architecture to tackle those sites.


Planning, because obviously you've got to think about the much larger picture, the community, the larger chess pieces in terms of how close you are to transit, things like that. But then architecture, because you have to think about how it’s all woven together physically.

One of the big challenges right now in the profession, I think, is what to do with parking. Once you get to those outer urban areas, they're not as well served by mass transit. People are used to driving in those areas. There's this whole little space between the downtown and the suburbs, that I think is densifying. And how it densifies is something that we're really focused on.

There's great opportunities there in terms of equity and social mobility. I think those projects have an opportunity to help be catalysts for a turn around in those communities because they’re dense enough.

Clients often come to us with questions about programs, so the program brief isn’t completely written when they approach us. One of the things we convinced a client of, is to do what we call education-oriented development. Let’s build some schools, the development will help finance some of those schools, and let’s work with the municipality to figure out how to make them better schools.

Public schools?

Yes. The whole idea is that if they’re good schools, it's good for the development because it’s going to attract people. One of the things we're seeing in cities like New York is, a young couple might have one kid, live in Brooklyn, second kid comes a long and then suddenly both real estate and school seem like a real challenge. 30 years ago that couple might move the the suburbs. But increasingly, what we’re seeing is that couple moves to St.Louis or Kansas City.

There’s an urban homesteading going on all over the country.

A lot of people are saying, I like an urban lifestyle, I want to be able to walk, I want to to do all these things. I can’t afford to live in Brooklyn or Berkeley, so what cities could we move to?

I think people are looking for alternatives. For our region, we have this opportunity in that outer ring to help capture some of those people that can't afford to live in Brooklyn anymore. We offer these folks an alternative that's affordable, where they can send their kids to a good public school. They still have urban life. They’re still 20 minutes from midtown Manhattan if they want to go. I think that's a real possibility.

Given our politics I think it's really important to try to get into those friction zones and create places that are building bridges across those elements.

I think some of why the architecture profession has been so roundly criticized in the last 20 years is that you see famous architect after famous architect doing luxury condos and highfalutin museum projects in the heart of extremely expensive cities. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, I’m just saying we should be able to do more.

There are a lot of physical problems, look at Flint, Michigan. There's so many physical problems in these cities that no one pays any attention to. Which is, I think, what the last presidential election was about. Rather than curse the darkness, can you go in an say there may be some points. It’s not about exporting Manhattan. What can local carpentry do? There’s forms of timber construction that are very healthy for the local forestry. Can you create building blocks that are not just important for architecture, but operate at a city planning scale?

There are ways to densify a place. Places that are asking for densification. It's not the concrete glass towers we're used to seeing, but something that actually speaks the local.

Do you think to be an efficient planner you have to have an architecture degree?

No. I loved getting a city planning degree. But I thought of it as a generalist degree about cities, almost as a liberal arts degree about cities. I think that some of the most effective planners I know, took that and paired it with something that had a bunch of hard skills associated with it. They got a law degree, or a business degree, or architecture degree, or landscape architecture degree, or engineering degree, so that they could take the soft skills of city planning and match them with a set of hard skills, and actually kind of say, yes,

I think about cities in a global way, but here's the specificity with which I address the task.

An example of PAU's vision for policy and planning below. PAU writes:

In partnership with twelve other local architecture, urban planning and public space advocacy organizations, PAU helped draft a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio commending seven actions the city can take to support and encourage demonstrations, political speech, and other expressions of civic engagement in the city’s public spaces. The letter emphasized the importance of both policy initiatives as well as the physical characteristics of public space in fostering an environment of free expression in the public realm. In addition to helping with the letter itself, PAU produced a series of maps analyzing the demographics around the nodes in new proposed network of protest sites in the five boroughs. The maps demonstrate accessibility of the network to a broad cross-section of New Yorkers, rather than relying solely on traditional, centrally-located sites like Union Square.

Screen Shot 2018 05 11 at 12.59.59 AM

Image via PAU