Archive for the ‘Land Surveying’ Category

TwoBridgesJune2016My interest in urbanism has recently shifted to absorbing its visual elements and textures. Working in Lower Manhattan has given me a chance to process the city’s massive urban fabric much more deeply. I use my lunch hours to explore, and I try to go slowly. Also, my S.O. lives in Battery Park City, so I’m often here in the evenings. Being in the city has led me to more photography and less writing. I’ve been able to absorb common law urbanism on a spatial, tactile level: walking the old blocks with their pavements of slate, cobblestone, and concrete; studying the varied architecture, from pitched-roof, colonial row houses to futuristic Art Deco skyscrapers; sitting on park benches in triangles and churchyards; touching the iron and stone and cement. It sometimes surprises me how much there still is to discover in this embryonic core of New York, and how the organic city still lives and exerts its patterns, in spite of all the modern forces that promote homogeneity.

Since I’ve had less to say lately, I’m going to start posting some of the pictures I’ve been taking, in place of frequent commentary. I will add links to Flickr albums with particular themes, and will backdate them to (roughly) when the pictures were taken. (I was hoping to embed entire albums directly into the LT page, but that turned out to be more time consuming than I can handle, given the amount of material I’d like to share. So, a cover photo that links to the Flickr album will have to do, for now). Hope my readers enjoy. And please do comment on the photos. : )

One last thing: if you have a Flickr or Yahoo account, please SIGN IN. Doing so will prevent you from having to occasionally click through distracting ads when navigating my albums. Thanks!

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We hear more and more about the threat to coastal cities from rising sea levels. But being able to visualize the local spatial implications of this phenomenon brings it home in an entirely new way. One of the most interesting tools is the Surging Seas Risk Zone Map, from Climate Central, a Princeton-based independent organization that promotes public awareness about climate change. Here, you can search for any location, and visualize the contours of new shorelines with sea levels that have risen in increments of feet and meters.

Here’s a map of what would happen in the Newark Bay basin by 2100 if sea levels rose by more than two meters, as envisioned by a recent analysis of the potential loss of significant Antarctic ice sheets:


Urban New Jersey, plus 7 feet of sea level. Source: Climate Central, Princeton, N.J.

In this scenario, Newark Airport, the entire Seaport area, and much of the Ironbound has been flooded. In addition, Newark Bay appears to have swallowed up most of the salt meadows, and the blocks along the tidal portion of the Passaic River are under water. Finally, take a look at Hoboken and downtown Jersey City, on the far right: the Hudson River waterfront has essentially become a barrier island, while the blocks leading back toward the Palisades have been saturated.

Meanwhile, here’s a look at some of the coastal areas of New York City, under the same scenario:

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Coastal New York, plus 7 feet of sea level. Source: Climate Central, Princeton, N.J.

The submerged areas on this map (e.g., the Rockaways, Coney Island, Howard Beach, Canarsie, Red Hook, and the South Shore of Staten Island) line up almost perfectly with the areas that experienced the most destruction from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Keep in mind that these maps offer a vision of what could happen with just a seven-foot (7′) rise in global sea levels, which is now being held out as a plausible scenario for 2100. Some of the projections to the year 2500 show global sea levels rising 49 meters.

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The Ghost Blocks of Manhattan

Bridges 1811At the time of its adoption, the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 envisioned the eventual urban development of all the raw land that would become Central Park. Intersections that would never come to be — like West 64th Street and Sixth Avenue, or West 109th Street and Seventh Avenue — were surveyed and marked on the rural land of New York County.

Recently, some physical evidence of the preliminary grid-platting has, quite literally, come to light in the right places. In a recent New Yorker article, Marguerite Holloway describes the discovery, and explains the origin of the mysterious markers in Central Park — as well as why they had disappeared and remained buried for nearly two centuries:

So the grid plan sank below the park, largely lost to the sculpted waves and undulations of landscaping. Just a few white marble pillars remain, marking a forgotten aspect of Manhattan’s original street plan, and evoking a wilder, emptier landscape in which white stones stand like cairns.

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Stones once set off private property. Photo: John Fielding. Used with permission.

Stones once set off private property. Photo: John Fielding. Used with permission.

In a piece called, “This Land Is Your Land. Or Is It?” Justin P. McBrayer uses the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as a jumping-off point to question some of the most pervasive assumptions about private property, including how it comes to be, and the moral standing of one’s claim to ownership. Challenging the idea that history illuminates claims, he writes:

What are the chances that the money you used to buy your phone can be traced backward through your employer, your employer’s customers, and so on back through history without passing through the hands of a serious injustice? Slim to none. The same can be said for the seller’s side of the transaction. Chances are excellent that your phone arrived in your hand only after the exploitation of workers, abuse of the environment, theft, fraud, human trafficking, or any number of deal-breaking injustices.

This is true. It is especially true of currency, which passes through so many iterations of title, often in short periods of time. But even with tangible or intellectual property, and especially with land, a good number of today’s titles were created or have changed hands since their creation via some form of trickery or theft. Knowing this to be the case, one of the major challenges of property law is to determine when, if ever, the law should throw its weight behind a private claim to ownership. One could make the argument that the presumption ought to be against such claims; that the burden of proof should fall on the person in possession who seeks to claim anything more than mere possession. To some extent, this burden already exists. Buyers take title at their own peril, hence, the need for title insurance. But the burden could be greater. Good title, itself, could have to be proven against the presumption of historical wrongs, before it could vest. That is to say, the moral rationale that underpins legal title could have to be proven by the one claiming ownership.

One inevitable result of such an approach would be to have much more property in common ownership. That is to say, such a burden would be so difficult to meet that, were it to be established as a requirement, nearly everything in private hands would default to the commons. From a socialist viewpoint, this mass erosion of title might seem desirable, providing as it would a basis for tearing down claims to private property that are undoubtedly dubious, but that nonetheless, because they are supported by legal presumptions, provide the basis for real economic and political power in the present time. But, as with most attempts to legislate an ideal, such a structure would present its own host of difficulties through its intrinsic conflicts with human nature. The human propensity to fight over property creates powerful incentives for the law to sanction and settle who has title to what, without necessarily examining the immemorial chaos that has gotten us to the status quo. By decisively recognizing titles, and presuming that possession can be equated, in most cases, with recognizable ownership, the law averts an infinite number of potential conflicts, and creates incentives for individuals to acquire wealth peacefully, rather than by force.

This compromise, like most law, remains both logically and morally imperfect. But, so what? If, as Holmes famously remarked, the path of the law is experience, not logic — that is, if there is no perfect answer to the power struggles that characterize life within civilization that can be reconciled with what we know of human nature — then why shouldn’t practicability have the last word on these matters, at least when what is most practicable is not in direct conflict with any fundamental moral consensus? From such an angle, the current system of private property titling is actually quite defensible, so long as there is sufficient opportunity in the marketplace for those who act legally and peacefully to acquire enough private property for the system of incentives to work. With this caveat, the system largely keeps the peace and provides incentives for individuals to work, invest, and improve their property. The practicable imperative, therefore, is not to divest a large number of economic stakeholders of their admittedly dubious but nonetheless socially stabilizing claims; it is to ensure that enough economic opportunities exist for others, still in line, to ensure that existing claims do not become the obsessive objects of jealousy and scrutiny.

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In contrast to the orderly subdivisions of East Coast cities, or the predictably square farms that dice up the countryside of the rural Midwest and Texas, variations on the above mish-mash can be found on tax maps throughout the Intermountain West: long, rectangular parcels — some overlapping others — with no apparent rhyme or reason. Apparently, these parcel patterns are the legal remnants of old mine claims. Here’s a map showing claims in the Leadville, Colorado vicinity as of 1880:


1880 mine claims around Leadville, Colorado. Source: David Rumsey Map Collection.

This map makes you realize how intense the American mineral rushes really were. Claims covered every inch of land in the promising places, and even overlapped each other as new claims supplanted abandoned ones — or maybe the claims just conflicted with one another in the legal vacuum of the old West. The names claimants gave their mines are usually funny — names like Dead Broke and Legal Tender, Last Chance and Grand Prize.

Apparently, the similarities between the dimensions of different miners’ claims is not coincidental: Legislation at both the federal and state levels had attempted to standardize the rules for mining claims on a number of occasions; these efforts culminated in the U.S. General Mining Act of 1872.

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Princeton has a massive archive of Sanborn fire insurance maps of New Jersey, which it has now scanned and placed online. The maps depict the urbanism of the state from the 1880s through the 1920s, showing in fine detail all of the components that made up towns and cities during the heyday of heavy industry and the first great immigration wave.

Here’s an industrial slice of Newark, from 1892:


Here’s Nassau and Witherspoon, in Princeton, from 1885:


Here’s Rutgers College and the New Brunswick train station, from 1892:


All before zoning. Great materials. One thing that strikes me whenever I look at Sanborn maps is the diversity of uses in Victorian neighborhoods, and how the live-work arrangement was so much more accessible to people with small land holdings in the pre-zoning era. If you look around 1892 Newark, you’ll find bakeries and saddle-makers’ shops mixed in among the unnamed row houses. You’ll also find large industrial sites. Clearly, the possibility of having a glue factory open up right next to one’s house was far from ideal, and the onset of increasingly heavy industries necessitated a more formal way of segregating nuisances from peaceful living and working spaces. But I wonder what role comprehensive zoning ultimately played in squashing what still remained of the home-based workshops tradition from the 19th century. There’s a certain democracy to business and industry when one can venture into productivity without a whole lot of overhead. But regulation has a tendency to create moats around marketplaces that protect those with deep pockets: Requiring prospective businesspersons to invest in properly-zoned real estate rather than resourcefully modifying an existing parcel is certainly one way of creating a formidable moat. And with zoning, all goods must be transported to market, because they can’t be made where the markets exist — another moat.

Given that land use regulation has the potential to create moats around all kinds of economic opportunities for individuals — not to mention its potential to stifle other forms of individualism, community-building, and general resourcefulness — I think the fundamental question of land use law is just how much land use regulation is necessary to achieve the objective of nuisance-avoidance, because (ideally) that point should be its limit. Keeping glue factories out of residential neighborhoods is a reasonable goal. But is keeping apartments out of single-family neighborhoods really the business of government? Or keeping retail space and offices away from housing? (And, if these development filters are important to some, why not let them work out common-law private covenants to achieve the same goals?) To their credit, the New Urbanists have raised some of these questions over the last generation. But their responses, to me, seem flawed: Better zoning! Form-based codes! Going from the mish-mosh of postwar Euclidean suburbia to the ultra-planned paradise (or dystopia) of pseudo-urban neighborhoods whose every inch is legally dictated by someone with graduate planning credentials and (in many cases) distorting political considerations.

Nassau Street, Princeton. Winter 2013.

As a counterpoint, Princeton was built without any of that, and it remains a great town — largely because it hasn’t changed very much. Look at the Sanborn map from 1885, and you’ll find liquor stores, a billiards club, bookstores, a pool hall, and hotels. It’s so well planned! But nobody governmentally authorized those businesses to be there. There was no years-long process of planning-board meetings; no formulaic response by applicants to mind-numbing RFPs; no political sycophancy to become an approved tenant of the borough’s official redeveloper. These businesses were on Nassau Street in 1885 because there was a university across the street; because it was logical for them to set up shop there, and so they did. And looking around the 1885 neighborhood, you’ll also find tenements, “work shops”, a sausage-making plant, watchmakers, a cabinet maker, and a bookbinder. Presumably, the attaching plates all have similar uses — none of which would ever make it past the planning board in such a neighborhood today. But, really, what harm did they do? And what is the cost in terms of the richness of our neighborhoods and the spirit of our culture when we accept the canceling of so many opportunities for people to work from or near home, in their chosen trades?

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A Planimeter for Google Maps

A useful tool for measuring the areas of land parcels– from Acme Laboratories. Wile E. Coyote would be impressed.

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