Foreclosed: An Urbanist Reflects on Nature-City

The Museum of Modern Art and The Buell Center invited a series of team participants and observers who attended workshops for MoMA’s exhibition Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream to reflect on the project. Here are thoughts from James Lima, a member of WORKac’s team.

Untitled. Photograph courtesy of James Lima

I grew up amid the salt marshes, ocean beaches, and potato fields of coastal Rhode Island. As a child I had my own wooden dory out in the cove in front of the house from which I would set out eel pots or dive for clams and conch shells. We searched for salamanders under woodland rocks. My childhood front yard was what today we might call an environmental discovery center.

For the last 30 years I have lived in New York City, and I consider myself very much an urbanist. I love the city’s density, vibrancy, and diversity. It’s not at all like where I grew up. But why can’t we have both in one place? That is the brilliance of WORKac’s proposal for Nature-City. It demonstrates that, in fact, we can have both. And that it can be quite wonderful. And, perhaps of greatest surprise, financially feasible, too.

Without question, the most significant element of Nature-City’s economic underpinning is the assumption that a long-planned high-speed rail network for the region is in fact constructed with a stop at the easterly center-point of our site. Greater transit investment has become a critical issue for the United States. In his address to the Foreclosed teams in summer 2011, HUD Secretary Shawn Donovan noted these alarming statistics: the average American family spends 52 cents of every dollar earned on just housing and transportation. And Americans spend five times more time commuting in traffic to and from work than they did 25 years ago.

It is the largely public patient capital investment in core transit infrastructure that creates considerable net new real estate value for our site, value that we then redirect in a variety of ways to provide the funding for other public benefit components of the plan, including affordable housing, community amenities, and access to a 158-acre expanse of nature. Compared with a typical suburban model, Nature-City offers a superior return on investment for all:  for the individual user (costs comparable to today’s sales and rental housing); its real estate developers and investors, who achieve an attractive 18% return on investment; and the city, which, with Nature-City, would reap more than 15 times the current tax revenue generated from the property. We’ll call this the “economics of place-making.”

Detail view of Nature-City model. Photograph courtesy of James Lima

Of the proposed new 4,850 residential units housing 13,000 people, half are ownership units and half are rental. Thirty percent of all units are income restricted, with 10% affordable to families earning up to $45,000, and another 20% affordable to families earning approximately $45–80,000 annually. There are more than 20 different housing types to choose from, from low-rise/townhouse to high-rise, all combined with and performing as part of an efficient, ecological infrastructure of shared sewer, stormwater, infiltration and recharge, urban forest, and climate mitigation.  And while WORKac’s remarkable integrative site design and building forms might suggest that Nature-City will be expensive to build, it is built from a largely cost-effective kit of parts. For example, more than 25% of housing is highly efficient low-rise, stick-built construction. There are also zones that include commercial office, retail, community facilities, and agricultural uses.

And so it seems that we can have it all: urbanity, diversity of choices, a high quality of life that does not revolve around the automobile, and a healthy and economically sustainable community. And the chance to be “roommates with nature.” I particularly love how Nature-City dares to give kids of every age a landscape of opportunity for discovery and joy.

It’s not hard to imagine how the lives of girls and boys growing up in Nature-City would be enriched by having access to both nature and city all of the time. They would enjoy connecting with their neighbors and local shopkeepers along its pleasant squares and shady streets. They’d become educated about the value of urban farming and how the composting facility is helping to provide low-cost energy for Nature-City. Like me on my dory, they’d also value to chance to be somewhat independent yet safe out in nature, open to discovery and adventure. Perhaps they’d take a short walk out onto the oak savanna where they might spot rare butterflies in the grassland, or a Great Horned Owl in the Douglas fir forest, and then discover tadpoles and frogs in the herbaceous fresh-water wetland. It would be good to be a kid in Nature-City. And I think our cities and nature would be better for it as well.