Kate Ascher on Our Urban Environment

Kate Ascher

Kate Ascher, head of Happold Consulting’s U.S. practice, has perhaps become better known for her popular books on how cities work. Ascher received her masters and doctorate degrees from the London School of Economics, where she focused on the interface between the public and private sectors. She previously worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the City’s Economic Development Corporation, and Vornado Realty Trust. Currently, Ascher teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation as the Milstein Professor of Urban Development. Ascher explains the complex systems and structures of cities in her books, The Works: Anatomy of a City (Penguin 2005), and the recently published The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper (Penguin 2011).

Inner workings of a city. Ascher uses reader-friendly illustrations and diagrams to illuminate the hidden side of New York City’s infrastructure in The Works. She uses the same format in The Heights, which explores the world’s skyscrapers. Ascher’s books follow a graphics-led approach: she first produces the research and decides which elements to explain, then backs into the accompanying prose. In The Works, Ascher examines the networks of infrastructure that City residents rely on every day like the subways and sewers, as well as the lesserknown, such as the disused pneumatic tube system that distributed mail between post offices. The Works also delves into the processes involved in the City’s large infrastructure projects, such as dredging the harbor and digging the third water tunnel.

Ascher looks upward in The Heights to trace the evolution of the skyscraper from New York City’s classic office buildings to modern mixed-use buildings, such as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Today’s skyscrapers function like small cities with demand for many of the same infrastructure needs. Ascher reveals unseen aspects of skyscraper design, including the use of dampers that minimize a building’s sway in the wind. Among the skyscrapers featured in The Heights, Ascher’s personal favorite is the Chrysler Building because it represents not only a building, but a whole ethos and period in its own right.

The anatomy of infrastructure and skyscrapers are largely invisible to people, which is part of the reason why Ascher authored the books. There is a lot we take for granted in our horizontal and vertical lives, Ascher says. It is good to credit the work that goes into keeping the built environment around us operating.

Academic approach. Based at Columbia’s Real Estate Development program, Ascher teaches courses on the subjects of The Works and The Heights. She prefers to teach on a multi-disciplinary basis, both to real estate students and to those studying urban planning, historic preservation, architecture, and urban design. Her intent is to expand and embrace the disciplines within the graduate school as well as those outside of it, including engineering. Ascher’s courses exemplify this approach, blending instruction in real estate, urban planning, and architecture.

Ascher tries to get her real estate students to understand both perspectives of the public-private relationship. Those that do, she believes, end up with better, more successful projects. Ascher adds that urban development is a complex phenomenon to understand. Construction that significantly affects the physical fabric of a city can also affect the city’s social interactions and economic underpinning. Ascher believes thatstudents have an obligation to think beyond one particular site or building to understand the way a city works on a broader scale.

Jamaica Bay. Ascher is currently working with the City and National Park Service on a study of the parklands around Jamaica Bay. Approximately 10,000 acres of Cityand federal-owned parkland form a ring around Jamaica Bay in south Brooklyn and Queens. While the bulk of the Jamaica Bay parklands lie within the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area, the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation controls lands including Canarsie Park, Fresh Creek Nature Preserve, and Spring Creek Park, among many others. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signed an agreement in October 2011 to coordinate park management and connect urban communities with the natural beauty and history of the region. The idea of the partnership, Ascher says, is to create something that is akin to a typical national park experience on the City’s doorstep.

Jamaica Bay, Ascher notes, has a rich ecology with wetlands and a wildlife preserve that attracts hundreds of species of migratory birds in addition to its recreational resources. The area’s size is the equivalent of three Central Parks, three Prospect Parks, and three Van Cortlandt Parks combined. It has suffered damage from surrounding industrial development, including the construction of John F. Kennedy Airport. The relative remoteness and lack of public transportation options makes access challenging for visitors to Jamaica Bay. Ascher acknowledges that the project to integrate the two sets of parklands faces a series of financial challenges in the present economy, but thinks that the payoff from an integrated park could be tremendous. — Frank St. Jacques

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