What Makes Housing Great? Here’s New York City’s Guide

Anyone can use the city’s new guide to affordable housing–and eventually, it could go global.

Who gets to decide what “good” design is?

In the past, it might have been the critic who wrote about a building, or perhaps the architect who designed it, or the city agency that approved it. But a quietly ambitious project from New York City’s Public Design Commission is working to give everyone–from citizens to politicians–the language to talk about and advocate for good design.

[Image: courtesy NYC Design]
This week, the commission published a free document called Designing New York: Quality Affordable Housing in collaboration with the Fine Arts Federation of New York and urbanist Karen Kubey. The 96-page report is a kind of reference guide to great housing across the city featuring analysis of seven affordable housing projects, from massing and circulation to how they were funded and whether they used union labor. As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio moves forward with his plan to bring 300,000 new units of affordable housing to the city by 2026, Designing New York is meant to function as a common source code for everyone involved, from architects seeking inspiration to citizens who want to advocate for better design in their communities. Justin Garrett Moore, director of the Public Design Commission, wants to give New Yorkers what he calls “design literacy,” or the language to talk about and demand better communities. That makes Designing In New York a primer–and while it’s New York-focused, it’s a useful resource for any city struggling with its own housing crisis.

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“It happens everywhere: A developer will say, ‘In order to get the affordability you want, or in order for this to happen in X amount of time, we have to do it this way,’” Moore says. “And these are projects that have proven that is not true.” A moment later, he adds, “in New York City, which is one of the most difficult development environments you’ll find anywhere.”

The buildings in the report are diverse, and the scope of the guide is broad. It details a housing development in the Bronx where access to affordable and healthy food is hard to come by–so the architects integrated a hydroponic farm on the building’s roof, offering fresh food to occupants through a CSA agreement. Another project on a former brownfield site in Brooklyn, once home to a naval prison, was transformed into “mini-neighborhood” with affordable housing organized around a wide common green.

[Image: courtesy NYC Design]
[Image: courtesy NYC Design]
Moore points out that these aren’t the designs of high-profile “signature” architects, nor are they in wealthy neighborhoods–rather, they’re examples of innovative design in all kinds of contexts. “That was something we wanted to use to illustrate,” he says. “What we want to do is to elevate the quality of what is the standard architecture in the city.”

The guide, which is free online and will be distributed to stakeholders in the city, represents just the beginning of the project’s ambitions. The Public Design Commission has received funding to turn the project into an online platform–perhaps even an app–that anyone in the world can access and add to. They’ll spend the next six months developing an initial online version, and eventually, it could function as a platform for sharing successful design solutions all over the world.

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“There’s a really broad spectrum of people that could use a resource like this,” Moore adds. “So that’s really the ambition . . . to not only talk to architects, or people in government, but to [create] a reference point for all the people who need to become more literate and aware of all the different ways that you can accomplish good design in housing and community development.”


This feature is written by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan & originally appeared in FastCo Design.


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