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Housing Management as Design

by Peter Sigrist

The Starrett City housing development in East New York. Source: New York Magazine

Rosalie Genevro's article "Starrett City: A Home of One’s Own — With Party Walls" traces the history of a beloved modernist housing project in East New York. Cassim Shepard, editor of Urban Omnibus, explains its significance:
Looking a little deeper into the social story that inhabits the built environment — in this case, the story behind one of the last New York City developments built on the tower-in-the-park model — can only help illuminate new thinking about the relationship between people and buildings, and just might challenge us to question some of our basic assumptions about house, home and the American landscape.

Iconic demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Mo. Source: Wikipedia

Genevro combines historical research with resident interviews to shed light on the factors that foster comfortable urban density. Her findings offer a more thorough understanding of the apartment blocks that Jane Jacobs and so many others have written off as isolating slums. She notes that:
Management is more important to creating successful places than architectural form. Form can be supportive, but it is not determinative. ... New York has plenty of examples of towers in the park that work, including Stuyvesant Town and Penn South and Fordham Hill in the Bronx.

Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan. Source: NY Daily News

The Starrett City case highlights management practices that contribute to attractive residential settings. Two that stand out are the employment of a local security firm and substantial investment in public green space. Troublingly, these measures were part of the developer's efforts to gain approval of the rental project by attracting a 70 percent "white" population. By 2007 that percentage had fallen to 32, and the development remains as successful as ever. Clearly, the determining factor isn't racial composition.

Khrushchev-era apartment buildings in Moscow, with balconies that open onto well-maintained courtyards full of mature trees. Source: Peter Sigrist

Based on archival work and interviews in Moscow, I've found that management is also the key to comfortable public green space in residential areas. When a housing development is well managed, people are more satisfied with their surroundings. The most valued management responsibilities include litter removal, maintenance of shared amenities (such as benches, greenery, playgrounds) and enforcement of rules for the use of public space. It's also essential for residents to have an attentive management body to approach when problems arise.

Central courtyard in the Moscow housing project where scenes from "Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!" were filmed. Source: Peter Sigrist

In many ways, management is a design issue. Setting up an effective, affordable and flexible management structure should be part of the design process for new housing developments. Management also goes hand-in-hand with aesthetic appeal. Litter is a perfect example, because its removal creates a more aesthetically pleasing environment. Developers can also invest in architecture, landscaping and building materials that stay attractive over time. The study of residential developments offers insight into the elements that work best, helping us achieve what Genevro describes as "well-built, carefully managed, desirable and long-lasting housing" in cities.

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