Is “Manhattanization” the Inevitable Future of Cities?

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0Email this to someone

Whether or not you have been to New York City, you have no doubt seen the famous skyline of skyscrapers in Manhattan, the city’s prominent concrete jungle on TV shows or in movies. The NYC borough is typically what you see in postcards and helicopter shots, and is where the phrase “Manhattanization” originates; the concept of building large buildings in tight clusters and resemble the famous NYC skyline has found its way into other major cities across the country including Miami, San Francisco, and some speculate Los Angeles soon.

Older neighborhood buildings have been torn down to make room for tall commercial offices and high-rise apartments in other cities, and has always been met with opposing opinions about whether these buildings are good or bad for their respective cities. Proponents for Manhattanizing areas believe that it provides a neo-urban feel that attracts young professionals and businesses to come set up shop and generate more economic power in the city. Many urban planners believe that the future is in mixed-use multifamily dwellings strategically positioned in close proximity to many amenities to craft working walkable urbanism in cities, Many also believe building high-rise apartment buildings would help solve the housing inventory issues many cities are currently facing without resorting to increasing sprawl.

On the other hand, opponents to Manhattanization feel that allowing giant skyscrapers to take over neighborhoods will steal the soul away from cities and disrupt local culture already established. For example, residents in San Francisco have expressed displeasure for the large buildings in downtown because they block the view of the bay and surrounding area and are considered decidedly “not San Francisco.” Some also believe that creating these massive concrete jungles only serves the elite class and leaves poorer residents by the wayside; often developers will build luxury apartments that middle or low income residents cannot afford. The fear of not having an ample amount of affordable housing in cities is deeply concerning for the majority of citizens who feel they may be priced out in favor of more wealthy tenants.

While the negatives are troubling, perhaps a compromise that can be reached will come through better urban planning. For example, for every major building erected, a walkable public space must be built nearby in the form of a shopping district of recreational green space so that opponents do not feel claustrophobic and proponents still have valuable real estate. Another possible solution could mean dedicating lower levels of these large monolithic buildings to mixed use purposes in which shops and restaurants can have space to conduct business while serving pedestrians and building tenants alike.

Minneapolis has a good example of mixed use space on the lower levels of commercial buildings while remaining interconnected via their Skyway system, a series of enclosed walkways that let people walk effortlessly from one building to another without having to venture outside. These Skyways were designed to not only allow easy travel between buildings, but also shelter pedestrians from adverse weather year-round. The younger half of the Twin Cities metro area is also beginning to Manhattanize itself with new high-rise apartment buildings to accommodate the influx of young professionals, as are many other cities across the nation; well over 80 high-rise projects are set to be completed by this year with many more in the pipeline.

Does this necessarily mean our future will be a lot like the sci-fi film “The Fifth Element” in which everyone conducts all aspects of life in sky-high buildings built in a row up and down every street? Not necessarily, mostly because many experts have agreed that public outdoor green spaces are necessary to keep us from feeling cramped and claustrophobic. Population density will have to increase into the future if for nothing other than an ever-rising population and a finite amount of land for them to live on.

A bad taste has been left in America’s mouth for tall residential buildings, or “projects,” due in part to the huge public housing buildings constructed in the 1960s and 1970s to house swaths of low-income residents. The neighborhoods where these “projects” were located were never really considered safe and the buildings themselves were poorly maintained, leading to their dingy looks and seedy reputations. High-rise apartments of today have many more advantages such as better construction and proximity to transit in addition to better maintenance standards and building security (perhaps because most of these newer complexes are privately owned instead of depending on bureaucrats to care for them).

Are we destined to be engulfed in corridors of concrete, glass, and steel? In all probability, only downtown and commercial business district areas will be truly Manhattanized while the suburbs will be transformed into mostly mix-use building communities that act as hubs of commerce outside the city center. As detailed in “The End of the Suburbs” by Leigh Gallagher, the concept of single-family homes built in winding housing tracts is all but dead as more and more people embrace denser communities that are pedestrian-centric rather than placing an emphasis on accommodating cars. As American cities look toward more sustainable means of living and building infrastructure, it may be more beneficial to accept the fact that some Manhattanization is inevitable, and only through planning together can everyone benefit into the future.