Last week, New York City Commissioners Amanda Burden, of the Department of City Planning (DCP), Adrian Benepe, of Parks and Recreation (DPR), and David Burney, of the Department of Design and Construction (DDC), convened at the Great Hall of The Cooper Union for the third in the Architectural League’s series of Conversations on New York. Moderated by New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, the discussion focused on the two major questions posed by the League exhibition The City We Imagined/The City We Made: how has the physical fabric of New York changed in the last ten years, and what is the legacy of this decade for the future of New York?
Goldberger opened the conversation with a question about the recent Active Design Guidelines, an initiative of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that ultimately involved the DDC, the City Department of Transportation (DOT), DCP and the Office of Management and Budget. How did such a cross-agency collaboration come about? Burden credited this kind of approach to the Mayor, who from the start questioned why things never seemed to get done in city government. Dan Doctoroff played a significant role in increasing effectiveness by consolidating all City agencies with an impact on economic development under his authority, thereby allowing such agencies as DCP, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Economic Development Corporation to report to one deputy mayor. The result, said Burden, has been a coordinated and broad approach to planning that benefits both the agencies and the public.
Goldberger asked if New York City is inherently a fitter city than most, in the same way that our density makes us an inherently greener city — a question that drew attention to a voice missing from the table, that of DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. (A last-minute schedule conflict prevented Sadik-Khan from participating on the panel.) Benepe “wore the Sadik-Khan hat” and spoke of her well-known work with bike paths and bike safety as a significant contributor to the city’s overall health. Despite controversies, Benepe said, the bike paths work and they are safe. “But we,” Benepe, a cyclist himself, said, “are our own worst enemy.” The missing ingredient for the bike lanes’ ultimate acceptance is better cyclist behavior: running red lights and close swipes to pedestrians and drivers diminish non-cyclists’ openness to expanding the program.
Goldberger asked each panelist to take a step back and consider the overall evolution of the built environment of New York City over the last ten years. What, he asked, will be the legacy of this decade?
According to Burden, the legacy of the Bloomberg administration will be its focus on the public realm, vibrant street life, and quality design. She focused on the massive rezoning efforts undertaken by City Planning, the goals of which were to focus development around transit hubs in all five boroughs, recapture the waterfront for the public, and protect low-density communities that don’t have the transit infrastructure to grow from disproportionate development. Ultimately she hopes that the administration has allowed the city to “grow in place,” enabling each neighborhood to accommodate the new while retaining the assets it already had. “We plan on a Robert Moses scale, but judge ourselves on Jane Jacobs standards.”
For Benepe, this era will be remembered as “the most exciting period of park design and expansion in decades,” a time when appreciation of the landscapes of Olmsted and Vaux did not preclude pushing the envelope of park design. This administration has insisted that municipal architecture be of the best possible quality. As for the legacy of the Bloomberg administration overall, Benepe surmised that the way in which various City departments worked together, in a fashion that may never have existed before, will prove to be a landmark of these ten years.
Burney remarked on the undeniable influence of 9/11, and the way in which it “triggered a fundamental change in how we think about cities in general.” In the ‘70s, cities were going bankrupt and people questioned the value of cities on the whole, an uncertainty that resurfaced after the 2001 attacks. Ultimately, cities survived these losses of faith because our ideas of ‘what cities are’ changed. Burney stated that people live in cities now because they want cities’ “multiplicity of choices:” culture, educational opportunities, safety, recreation, quality of life – not necessarily because they are mercantile or industrial hubs, their primary attraction in earlier eras. If those offerings and opportunities are sustained, New York City will continue to be a place where people choose to live.
Goldberger, returning to parks, questioned Benepe on the increased privatization of public space and parks. While strained public budgets make this appear beneficial, is it “a Faustian bargain in the long run?” Benepe reminded the audience that the private conservancies and alliances in question were formed because the Parks Department had allowed the City’s parks to become frightening, decrepit places. Citizen participation and investment in the maintenance of parks is an energy the city wants to encourage, as long as “public interest always [remains] paramount.” Besides, Benepe asserted, the existence of conservancies and friends groups for the City’s most visible parks makes more city funding available for the ones without private support.
Turning to Burden, Goldberger challenged her characterization of the rezonings as intending to retain the fundamental character of city neighborhoods. What about the shiny glass towers that transformed certain areas and the complete demographic shift of some neighborhoods? Burden acknowledged the strength of the real estate market pre-crash and claimed that some out-of-character development shot up because developers saw the rezonings coming. But she did not apologize for certain noticeable changes. “The Bowery is a fantastic corridor,” she said, “It is exuberant, which is good for the city.” The city does, and should, change, and though the lasting appeal of certain styles will be a test of time, architecture helps keep a city young and important. “If we want to remain a global city, we have to compete. Architecture is one component of that competitiveness.”
In a question directed at Burney, Goldberger asked what the city is doing about affordable housing. Burney emphasized the challenges, pointing to the deficiencies, historically, of federal housing policy, which contributed to the fits-and-starts development of the city’s housing program. He acknowledged the good work being done by Shaun Donovan (Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development), but noted that any advancement on the supply side, which is already hindered by budgetary constraints, is overwhelmed by the extraordinary demand. Burney called out Via Verde for commendation as a new kind of housing program that is worthy of attention, one that is creating a complete neighborhood in one piece – with mixed typology, mixed income, retail, and gardens.
Goldberger concluded the panel by asking how New Yorkers will look back on this period fifty years from now.
Burden hopes that they will talk about the waterfront and how the water’s edge is part of their lives. She hopes that they will think about the quality of life in the streets, the integration of nature into the urban environment, and improved walkability. And most importantly, she said, she hopes that the city is considered a truly five-borough city.
Benepe also focused on the waterfront, though he characterized the accomplishment as “taking it for the first time.” The waterfront, he reminded the audience, has been a location for business since the Dutch arrived. This is the first time the waterfront is being given to the people for recreational purposes. Overall this administration’s large-scale public works projects will be remembered as ushering in a new ethos of landscape architecture, one with more sensitive engineering and an increased integration with nature. Benepe also pointed out, to put the time frame of large-scale public works projects in perspective, that in fifty years, New Yorkers will just be seeing the completion of Freshkills Park.
Burney concluded the panel discussion on a cautionary note. We are at a crossroads regarding climate change and its impact on the world, he said. “Fifty years from now we might be in a Ridley Scott situation,” and it’s not looking good that we will turn things around. Citing failures of policy on both the state and national level, Burney called for action: “It’s the cities that are having to step up and take the lead to face these issues. What we do in the next ten years will determine what we’ll be seeing in fifty years.”
UPDATE: A podcast of the event is now available on the League’s website. Click here to watch Adrian Benepe, Amanda Burden and David Burney in conversation.
Varick Shute is the Project Manager of Urban Omnibus.