Guess what? Today is our first birthday. So as we begin to toddle our way out of beta and into new territory, the time has come to take stock – not only to remember the past year of features, forum posts and meet-ups, but also to reflect on the premises, process and prospects of shining a light on design innovation in the urban landscape of New York.
In a year when tweeting eclipsed blogging, newspapers stopped printing, and the credit-crunched stopped investing in online start-ups without revenue models, the prospects for a non-profit publication with an emphasis on lovingly produced, fact-checked, long-form multimedia seemed, um, a little bit dim. But nonetheless, on January 7th 2009, the Architectural League of New York launched this site that you’re reading now. And since then, each week Urban Omnibus has presented the most innovative and interdisciplinary design ideas and projects conceived in the public interest and applied to the built environment of New York City. Now why on Earth would we go and do a thing like that?
The Omnibus experiment is rooted in a sense of optimism at the amount, quality and diversity of design innovation abounding in the five boroughs of New York. Here’s how Rosalie Genevro, our executive director (and the person who came up with this ambitious idea in the first place), put it:
From the creative initiatives of forward-looking city agencies, to the self-generated experimentation and investigations of architects and engineers and designers, to the inventive entrepreneurialism of community activists, there is a lot going on in New York that can make the city better. There is a ferment of ingenuity and invention at work that can lead to new ways of generating and distributing energy, of transporting people, of making more beautiful public spaces, of rethinking how we build schools or configure our workspaces or dispose of our garbage.
So that’s our beat: the new design projects, strategies and opinions that make up this ‘ferment of ingenuity and invention’; the topics, individuals and ideas that matter to those New Yorkers insatiably curious about how the city works and passionately committed to make it more efficient, more stimulating and more beautiful; to make it greener, fairer and smarter.
And we wanted to showcase under-exposed designers alongside established decision-makers. We wanted to juxtapose the graphic work of a young designer like Candy Chang with the sociological insight of a great urbanist like Richard Sennett and the policy opinions of a development expert like Vishaan Chakrabarti. We wanted to bring the large-scale public works of an artist like George Trakas into dialogue with the digital taxonomies of an artist like Neil Freeman. We wanted transportation innovators like Robin Chase to rub virtual shoulders with alternative energy innovators like Fluxxlab, the housing advocacy of the Citizen’s Planning and Housing Council to resonate with the public space advocacy of the Design Trust for Public Space, and projects like Adrienne Cortez’s proposed alternative to uncapping fire hydrants to find common cause with the scheme for Queens Plaza designed and discussed by Sandro Marpillero, Linda Pollak and Margie Ruddick.
But the projects we showcase are only part of the story of the Omnibus experiment. We also felt the need to push back against the prevailing trends in online communication that sacrifice accuracy for alacrity, trade insight for snark, and prioritize quantity over quality. That’s why we take pains to put each project or point-of-view we feature into the words of the collaborator who conceived of it, to present its informed back-story and to speculate on its interface with new trends, challenges and opportunities going forward. That’s why each feature functions as a self-contained piece that its author can use for her own purposes and belongs to a cross-cutting collection and conversation that is much more than the sum of its parts. That’s why we work hard behind the scenes (and still have much more work to do) to connect the ideas behind our features to people who can use them: community leaders, elected officials, architects, developers and citizens. That’s why we organize events that encourage New Yorkers to get out into their city and explore it. And that’s why we fill our forum with informed opinions, thoughtful reviews, comprehensive roundups and kick-ass suggestions of stuff to do in this great city.
We want to thank you for suggesting and collaborating on content, submitting stories and projects, attending meet-ups, and generally spreading the word of what we’re up to far and wide. We sincerely hope you continue to do so, and that you remember to let us know what else you would like to see and read here. What topics, neighborhoods, design disciplines and points-of-view would you like to see included? Your eyes on the street make this site what it is. Thank you. And please keep it up.
Going forward, we will continue to bring you the feature articles, videos and events you’ve come to expect. But we also hope to add into the mix journalistic coverage of topics in the news, live salons where Omnibus collaborators can brainstorm with readers, and mobile and interactive media that harness the incredible potential of you guys out there, the urban enthusiasts for whom this city – and cities generally – gets under your skin.
One year ago today, I wrote to our very first readers to say that if you were the kind of person who stopped and poked your head inside the opening of a blue plywood construction barrier to see what’s going on, then this website was going to be the place for you. It is also the place for you if the design projects that excite you most are iPhone apps or open space plans, infographics or infrastructural systems, a new way to get around or a new way of looking at what’s around you – or even an old place, like this ever evolving city, to call home.