Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads! It turns out Doc Brown got the future right when it came to one thing: cities. This week Adam & Matt sit down with the visionary planner & architect Vishaan Chakrabarti who cut his teeth in New York real estate as Director of City Planning in Manhattan and recently called for the banning of private cars in New York City. And that’s just one of his transformative ideas for how cities will change in the coming years. This episode provides a glimpse into the future of cities like Vancouver and those interested in real estate should take heed – it will not only impact your investment strategies but how you live. Now hand over your car keys.
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Who is Vishaan Chakrabarti?
I was born in Calcutta and emigrated with my family to the US when I was quite young. My dad was a scientist and lectured in many cities, which allowed us to travel. So, we travelled the world on a shoestring budget, which sparked my interest in art, art history and engineering. I then moved into city planning and architecture in graduate school. My career has been non-linear but always focused on the architecture of urbanism. I’m interested in the design of cities and how that impacts sustainability and equity.
Did your work in Manhattan inform your worldview?
Manhattan was deeply impactful for me. Manhattan is the place in the US that is the most like other cities around the world – it’s transit-oriented, it’s about the streets and sidewalks, it’s about the culture of day to day life in a big city. To me, Manhattan feels like Calcutta or Bombay or Tokyo or Paris. They are all cities about pedestrians, instead of cars. And those cities all suffer from a problem of affordability. The pedestrian lifestyle is a nice way to live, if you can afford it. The demand is driving prices up. In the United States and Canada, there aren’t that many cities that are walkable – there’s a lot of sprawl.
Manhattan has always shown me how one could live in a village-like way. A lot of big cities offer that: how to live in a village in a big city.
The goal for many city planners is increasing density and walkability but that can hurt affordability.
Density is a double-edged sword. You can bring down costs by creating more density – more living spaces. But that’s not enough. We need government intervention and housing options to make cities more affordable. Essential workers are the people getting priced out of our cities.
It’s not just about walkability – it’s about positive social friction. When you walk down the sidewalk and see people who are different than you, and realize they’re not as threatening as the media make them out to be. People yearn for that. Cities are not just a necessary evil. People miss face to face interactions, even when remote working is the new normal. And that’s what cities provide. It will be interesting to see how cities recover post-pandemic.
Do you think the idea that people will move out of cities (commuting 1-2x per week or working remotely) is overblown?
I was the director of planning for Michael Bloomberg after 9/11 and there were many people saying that would be the demise of the city. But soon after we saw cities bloom and continue to grow in the 20 years since. So, I take these predictions about remote work with a grain of salt. Most of the businesses I speak with want their workforce back in the office.
So, I do think it’s overblown, but there are industries where remote work makes a lot of sense. And cities need to think about that. For example, in New York, employees who can’t afford to live in the heart of the city have long commutes and are commuting through tired and old transit stations. So, they have an incentive to work remotely. Cities with those conditions need to ask how they can make their city more attractive once the pandemic ends, so they don’t lose their population.
We proposed banning private cars in Manhattan in a piece in The New York Times. That leaves Manhattan open for rideshare, delivery vehicles, bikes, buses, etc. And we demonstrated how that improves the quality of life not only for people who live in Manhattan but also for the people who commute in. So how can cities remain attractive without it costing tons of money?
How have we got cities wrong in North America in the last 50 years?
I was born in Calcutta but grew up in the suburbs of Boston and moved back into cities as an adult. The issue with suburbia is that we think people choose suburbia because of personal choice but enormous amounts of government resources went into suburbanizing places and people. The US has adopted a number of policies, including racially charged ones like red lining, that forced people into the suburbs. There was a purposeful, multi-decade effort by the government to suburbanize the population. It wasn’t just personal choice or the market.
We had more density and transit in the 1900s than in the 2000s in the United States. People stood to profit with the push to the suburbs – for example, home builders make more building single family homes. And then there’s the consumptive lifestyle of suburban living – like filling your garage with snow blowers, rakes, lawn mowers, etc. Consumer economies thrive off of the suburbs. Cities need maintenance too, but the equipment is shared; not everyone needs their own snow blower. So, capitalism and racial policies have fuelled suburbanization. As younger generations question these things, we see a push back to cities.
People often say the suburbs are cheaper and have better school systems. But those are by design. The things that make the suburbs cheaper – free highways vs charged mass transit, mortgage interest deductions – are by policy. And the better school systems had a lot to do with racial segregation. Older cities weren’t designed to accommodate cars. We are still coming out of this era.
How can we now improve on cities?
I call it SEA change: sustainability, equity and access.
Sustainability to me is about mobility and greener ways for people to get around. So, this could be banning private cars, more shared vehicles, more biking, zero emission buses, etc. In most cities, 30-35% of our city space is roads – which is extraordinarily unproductive. So, using that for people, instead of cars, would help sustainability.
In terms of equity, we will have a big housing crisis following this pandemic. Homelessness will be a problem in many cities. So, we need to invest in housing at the governmental level. If remote work continues, office buildings could be converted into affordable housing, which cuts down on building costs.
When I think about access, it’s about accessing the culture and social infrastructure of the city at a lower cost. With retail suffering, could those ground-floor spaces be repurposed? They could be art centres, community centres, seniors’ centres, etc. How do we activate the sidewalk level of our cities?
What is the major challenge to making these changes? What response have you had?
I heard a really positive response to our piece on Manhattan in The New York Times from everyday people. But I heard almost nothing from political and business leaders, many of whom I know well. And I think that’s because those people think it’s impossible. There are 8.6 million residents in New York City and only one million car owners. So, the majority don’t own cars, but politicians are worried about the minority because they are the wealthy ones.
For real estate and business leaders, they think about the wealthy CEO who will be upset if they can’t drive their car. But I think most CEOs are more concerned with how their employees get to work.
It seems completely impossible, until it’s not. And as soon as it’s not, you’re asking why we didn’t do this years ago. Right now, in Paris, they are banning cars in many areas. Everyone said it was impossible, but they did it and people love it.
I actually love driving on the open road, especially along the west coast. It’s great to get on the open road. But that’s not the same as sitting in a two-hour traffic jam every day in both directions. I think people confuse those two ideas. I don’t know anyone who likes the daily commute in their car, but they want to stay in the comfort, luxury and segregation of their car. They think their problems will go away with more highways or less people – neither of which will happen.
Vancouver seems to be pursuing policies that make it harder to drive without outright banning cars, such as adding bikes lanes. Do you see this as effective?
That’s the first step for cities all around the world. In New York, we also introduced more bike lanes. It’s a good first step and an important one – but it gets to a point where everyone is frustrated. Drivers are frustrated with fewer lanes and there’s nothing scarier for a biker than those frustrated drivers. Road rage amongst commuters can get channelled to those bikers who they see as taking up their space.
So those policies are good stop gap measures but they’re not long-term solutions to this problem. It’s not good to have everyone unhappy.
On the reaction to the idea of banning private cars.
We talk about these policies as if they’re all negative things you have to do that are good for the city or the environment. But that’s not how we should think about it. The change isn’t a loss, it’s a gain. Your life could actually be better.
For example, we proposed curb side parking to be converted into garbage receptacles to get rid of the huge mounds of trash we see all over the city. And that was the most talked about point in the comment section of the article! So, let’s forget anger at bikers or drivers and think instead about how we can make the city better for everyone. Sure, the driver now has to take mass transit but what if that bus was clean, quiet, ran on time, had seating, had Wi-Fi, and got you to work much quicker? These policies could open up new possibilities for how people live – ways that are inexpensive and available with today’s technology.
What is at risk if we maintain the status quo?
Things are hugely at risk. This pandemic is an appetizer compared to what climate change will bring our way. This should open people’s eyes to what is coming. We can’t afford the status quo.
There’s also our social climate. We have huge social problems in the world. There’s racial inequity, in part thanks to policies from the 1950s/60s that continue to impact people today. We have to ask ourselves if we want to go back to how we used to live, pre-pandemic. There is a much bigger risk for us if we maintain the status quo rather than taking moderate steps away from it.
Do you see COVID-19 as a force for potential positive change?
People say that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste but the problem with that is it dismisses human suffering. Not just people who are sick, but people who are out of jobs. Instead of calling it an opportunity, I will say it’s an inflection point. Cities change a great deal in the aftermath of pandemics. They change everything from sewer systems to voting. So, we should be able to build back better.
In our piece for the Times, we wanted to talk about what should happen, and not fortune telling about what will happen. How do we make things more sustainable, equitable and accessible? How do we get there? None of us can get there alone but we can assert ideas.
How do you think these ideas will fit into different cultures, cities, etc.?
I don’t think it’s a one size fits all solution. One of the common things we do have is our youth. There are similar trends amongst the youth. My son is 18 and very few of his friends are interested in driving. And that’s a global phenomenon. So, there’s not a one size solution but are there trends we can build upon.
Every city will have to face the fight for human capital. How do we attract more people to our city instead of another city? Where do young people want to be as they get out of university? So, car-oriented cities will lose young people. And they will take economic hits because of that. With free-market competition, they can’t afford to ignore what the next generation wants.
Which cities do you draw inspiration from?
I like to draw inspiration from places big and small – from Japanese farming villages where the farmers all live on the same street to big cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong. I love Asakusa in Tokyo. Parts of Paris inspire me. I still love central Calcutta – it’s very walkable and fascinating. The common thread is street life. Places that understand that streets are built for social interaction and not for cars are the places I find to be really great.
Are the global cities of today the global cities of tomorrow?
The term “global cities” came into fashion in the 1980s where we saw financial power concentrated in cities like New York, Tokyo and London. Today I think that’s an outdated definition of what a global city is.
There’s a term, cosmopolis, that means a city consisting of people from around the world. Hong Kong is an incredibly diverse city. Bombay has 2000 new people moving in every day. So those are global cities too, whether or not they’re financial centres. The social and cultural power of a city is more important to me than its financial power.
Favourite neighbourhood: Asakusa in Tokyo
Favourite bar or restaurant: The Odeon Restaurant in NYC
Book you would recommend everyone read: 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Piece of advice you would give your 18-year-old self: Let life happen. Work hard and be respectful and you will find your path.
Something you have purchased for under $1,000 that has positively changed your life: Apple Pencil
Find out more about Vishaan Chakrabarti.
New York Times article.