David Briggs on the NYC of 80s, Gentrification and Urban Preservation
The Midnight Charette is an explicit podcast about design, architecture, and the everyday. Hosted by architectural designers David Lee and Marina Bourderonnet, it features a variety of creative professionals in unscripted and long-format conversations that allow for thoughtful takes and more personal discussions. Honesty and humor are used to cover a wide array of subjects: some episodes provide useful tips for designers, while others are project reviews, interviews, or simply explorations of everyday life and design. The Midnight Charette is available for free on iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, and all other podcast directories.
On this episode of The Midnight Charette, hosts David Lee and Marina Bourderonnet are joined by Architect David Briggs—Co-Founder of Gowanus by Design and Founding Principal of Loci Architecture—to discuss living in New York City during the 1980s, gentrification, urban preservation, the planning challenges of Gowanus, Brooklyn and its severely polluted canal, designing better cities, wastewater treatment and more.
Gowanus by Design is non-profit urban design advocacy whose goal is to shape a design for the Gowanus community that is guided by principles of sustainability, dynamism, diversity, and inclusion. In integrating new development with a post-industrial landscape, the Gowanus can serve as a model for other transitioning urban communities reconciling growth with environmental remediation.
HIGHLIGHTS & TIMESTAMPS
(04:07) David’s education in architecture and how New York City has changed in the past thirty years: getting mugged and the commercialization of spaces.
- (18:46) I remember standing in a subway station and watching the 1 train pull in covered with graffiti; these amazing murals along a ten-car train. The doors open up and all of the sudden people are coming through the mural. It’s a very brief moment, but visually, it was sensational.
(25:06) How mobile communication has changed how people interact with the city.
- A lot of the city now is laid out as destination oriented. There’s no longer that desire to be part of the urban dance of going out and understanding, “Wow, I’m in this great city.” People are too attached to their phones and they’re looking for where they need to go and they’re not actually looking around [and asking], “What does this city represent to me?”
(38:13) David on starting his own business at the age of 30 years, working with clients, taking on different types of projects, office structure and hiring a rock ’n’ roll drummer as his office manager.
(01:11:22) The current state of architecture by American architects and architects designing work in other countries.
- (01:22:01) I get the sense there’s a lot of money spent on this image that’s very seductive and well done but, on the inside these buildings [in NYC] tend to be all about, “How big are the units?” [. . .] I respect that that’s a necessary part of the building process here in New York, [but] I wish that there were projects that weren’t so skin deep, and the entire building was conceived that way.
(01:35:25) Social equity and diversity in city development.
- (01:35:23) I think this is something that the city really needs to start addressing: The way it approaches urban planning and zoning. Is there a way that something like that [building development vis-a-vis the High Line] can happen in a community and not instantly trigger this increase in land value to the point where it’s pushing people out—people who can no longer afford to be there, both in terms of living and working? [Can it be] be part of an urban ecosystem that represents the diversity of the city and also a path of divergence? And that comes out of Darwin’s theory of evolution. . .
- (01:41:37) I would hope that any rezoning would support diversity, which some of it does, [but] it tends to support it mostly for residential use and not so much for commercial manufacturing. [Current zoning requires] when you do a certain amount of housing, you have to include affordable housing units. And what defines affordable is negotiable, because it’s tied into something called an AMI, which is the Adjusted Median Income. There are a lot of flaws in [that], but if you accept for a moment that that is a partial solution towards maintaining residential diversity, you still haven’t really addressed commercial diversity. If 80% of the units are market rate and 20% of the units are affordable, well, anybody who’s going to open a business down there is going to market itself to the 80%.
(01:51:27) The extreme pollution the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn (a Superfund site) and the future development of Gowanus as a model for other neighborhoods and cities.
- (02:04:47) [Gowanus by Design] is an urban advocacy group who look at this as an opportunity to rethink how 21st-century cities are planned at the urban scale, to particularly to deal with sites that in the 20th century were scarred by industries and the operations that happened around them. Is there a new model that could come out of this?
(02:08:55) Interviewing local residents and honoring the neighborhood’s complex history.
- (02:09:52) [The future Gowanus] needs to reflect something that isn’t a disregard of the history, but at the same time, some of the history wasn’t very good and so we have to be very careful about what parts of the history we retain and what parts of the history need to be corrected. And that is a complex problem. [. . .] Let’s say [the Gowanus canal] becomes this beautiful clean waterway; we could see the bottom and see trout or sea bass coming up. That sounds pretty cool. But would someone say, “What was it like back then? Is there a way we could see that?”
- (02:25:26) [The canal] is an important piece of infrastructure that’s cleaning up an unfortunate byproduct of the way the city sewer system works [and it also] it needs to be a place where the community gathers and wants to go to, rather than be repelled by.
- (02:26:39) I’m really interested in trying to understand, and then this gets into really complex algorithms, if you take what you have through a mapping project and try to understand what’s been before and where you’re at now, [. . .] can you come up with a predictive model [to understand how] the decisions made now will influence things that happen 10, 20, 50, or 100 years down the road?
(02:32:04) Working with communities, arriving at a consensus and mapping Gowanus.
- (02:34:25) [New York City] is looking for economic development. And that’s a hard thing to negotiate your way through. So, if the community remains fractious over the issues, then ultimately what’s going to happen is what the city wants.
- (02:40:14) Can manufacturing and art galleries be in the same buildings? The idea is to convey information that really hasn’t been considered right now. Because everything is siloed in the way the City’s information is set up. We’re trying to break through that and overlay information so people have a better idea. [. . .] Hopefully it’s a tool for community organizations to better advocate and understand the conditions around them; so they can then solicit others’ support from places that may not have been expected.
(02:41:15) Interviewing the people living in Gowanus; using top-down and ground-up design strategies.
- (02:43:40) It’s easy for everybody to say we need more affordable living, because that just sounds right, but I think it was important for me to hear from the people who actually really did need it; what their view was. You get into race a little bit, sure. “Why did the canal cleanup happen now, when the neighborhoods are gentrifying and what does that say about me?” “What does it say about me as an African American person who’s lived here for 30 years and no one could be bothered to clean up the canal?”
(02:54:27) Questioning the boundaries of neighborhoods and cities; mixing land-uses.
(03:04:23) How David learned urban planning without formal education and his mindset for success.
This podcast episode is available on The Midnight Charette’s website, iTunes, Spotify, and all other podcast apps.