Innovation and the American Metropolis

We hear the word innovation a lot these days. But the word’s ubiquity in contemporary discourse speaks to the undeniable surge in new ideas of how to make complex systems, like cities, work better. Many of these ideas rely on recent technological advances that enable the capture of huge amounts of data and the interconnection of large networks of individuals. Regional Plan Association (RPA) has been in the business of coming up with new ideas to make the New York metropolitan region work better since 1922. A few months before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, RPA released a plan for the region that helped to pave the way for the systems that supported New York’s recovery from the Great Depression and subsequent growth. Two other long-range plans, in 1968 and 1996 have argued persuasively for coordinated planning across municipal and state boundaries that integrates community design, open space, transportation, housing, and economic and workforce development.

On April 16th, 2010, business, civic, philanthropic, media and government leaders will convene at RPA’s annual Regional Assembly. This year, the theme is “Innovation and the American Metropolis” and the event seeks to ponder the impact of emerging trends in technology and data on new approaches to the design and management of cities and regions (check out the day’s agenda here). Urban Omnibus recently sat down with Tom Wright, RPA’s executive director, and Rob Lane, director of the Design Program at RPA, to talk about the meanings and uses of innovation in the context of the history and future of RPA and the metropolitan region itself. –C.S.

New York and its Environs, 1928
Urban Omnibus (UO):

First, can you sketch a brief history of the Regional Plan Association?

Tom Wright (TW):

In the 1920s, about 25 years after the creation of greater New York City, a group of civic leaders got together to create a single comprehensive metropolitan plan. Today, RPA is still dedicated to pushing those regional ideas that transcend political boundaries and might be too controversial for elected leaders to take on. RPA produces one of these plans each generation and then goes about advocating for its implementation.

Manhattan Land Values, 1923

The 1929 plan projected that the size of the metropolitan region would double by the 1960s, and it recommended that we build the systems to support that growth: highways, mass-transit, airports, housing, and community development. By the early 1960s, the plan was largely implemented with one glaring exception: the transit connections. The failure to invest in recommended transit projects hastened the region’s suburbanization. By the late 1950s, the RPA was already worried about our land use patterns and was publishing reports with names like “The Race for Open Space.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a series of reports came out that are collectively considered the Second Regional Plan. These reports argued for re-centering the region in a constellation of centers, such as New Brunswick, White Plains, the Nassau hub, Bridgeport and Stamford, based on transit networks.

The Second Regional Plan resulted in some big successes, like the creation of the MTA and NJ Transit. But the ethos of the time was the advocacy planning movement, which meant we didn’t feel it was appropriate to dictate, in a top-down way, what the region’s priorities should be. So instead, rather than publish a definitive Second Regional Plan, we put out a “Draft for Discussion” in 1968.

Land Use in the Metropolitan Region, 1954

The Third Regional Plan, released in 1996, had more robust recommendations: build the 2nd Ave subway, connect the LIRR to Grand Central, dig a new commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River, and charge drivers coming into Manhattan to pay for it. Right now is about the halfway mark for the Third Regional Plan. So, 15 years after the publication of the Third Regional Plan, we’re at the point of asking what we need to do before the fourth one.


Which brings us to the upcoming Regional Assembly, whose theme and title is “Innovation and the American Metropolis.” In the context of RPA’s work, what does innovation mean?


The Regional Plan Association has been looking at innovation since its inception. One example is a 1930s photomontage that we used as an advocacy vehicle to stop Robert Moses’ proposed bridge from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn. We painted a bridge on top of a photograph of lower Manhattan to demonstrate what this proposal would mean. It’s what Photoshop does now everyday. But in the 1930s, it was an innovative use of technology.

A Rendering of the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, 1939

Like the 1929 and 1968 plans, the Third Regional Plan in 1996 advocated creating infrastructure and building big systems to protect landscapes and water supplies, to provide more mass-transit, to plan for the region’s growth. But the Fourth Regional Plan might end up being less about creating new systems and more about getting more efficiency and productivity out of the energy supply, the water supply, community development networks. The bad news is that we’re doing a poor job of managing and operating these 19th and early 20th century systems; the good news is there’s a lot more capacity in them if we start to manage the systems better.

This kind of thinking around innovation connects extremely well to things like IBM’s Smarter Cities program. And it fits well with previous proposals we have made, such as on congestion pricing. The next time we advocate for congestion pricing we will come up with a much “smarter” proposal. It will not just look at tolling East River bridges but will think about how to develop an innovative policy that actually manages traffic and uses, for example, the GPS systems currently in thousands of Manhattan taxis in order to determine how to get the most capacity out of the system.

A vision for Times Square, from "Urban Design Manhattan", one of the reports that constitute the Second Regional Plan, 1968

In the past few years I think we’ve seen a return of the big vision. Yet the kinds of innovative practices that will be discussed at the Regional Assembly seem to have a bottom-up nature. Which leads me to wonder, where is innovation coming from and how does it find its way into the system?


Part of the answer lies in the incredible amount of data that we can access. But an even greater part of it comes from new networks and dialogues. In the 1920s, RPA was one of a handful of civic organizations in New York City. By the 1960s, we were seeing a flowering of community-based organizations, but they weren’t coordinated in any way. By the 1990s, our entire implementation strategy relied on local organizations doing the advocacy work while we provided the research. We sometimes refer to this as putting rocks in local organizations’ snowballs. In 2010, we see new kinds of networks – epitomized by things like Streetsblog – and the ways they have matured. If the bottom-up ideas that come from blogs and online communities can be coupled with the new data collection, then we can learn so much more about how systems work.

Railroad Commuting Times, New York, 1922
Rob Lane (RL):

It’s interesting to think about the role that new social media have had on RPA. In the twelve years that I’ve been at RPA, we completely changed the ways we present ourselves and the way we make our information available and accessible to people.

RPA stays with certain projects for fifty years or more. But these days, people expect a much shorter turnaround time between accessing information and being able to move on things. So how does RPA keep its profile out there and stay effective in a 24-hour news cycle? Part of the answer is in graphic media: making the data and the policy recommendations more accessible. The days of thick reports rich with wonderful data but not compelling to look at are over. And part of it is in social media, which we exploit to build coalitions and constituencies around the initiatives we’re supporting.

But it’s important to remember another kind of digital divide that exists within the region: between the city and the suburbs. Even though we’re an incredibly rich and sophisticated region, the world of iPhone apps and see-click-fix and design-your-own bike paths is a New York City-specific phenomenon. We’re resolved to use social media to get people engaged. But the level of complexity will be limited compared to the New York City world of open-source apps for urban planning.

Bus Service in Bergen County, New Jersey, 2009

Is part of RPA’s mission to foment a regional political identity on the part of citizens?


Trying to build a regional identity has always been part of our goal. We want people to understand that a tunnel under the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York benefits both sides of the river equally. There’s a diversity of needs in the market and when we talk about regional development we have to be providing for all of those different needs.

We also want to understand how people are using the system. For example, reverse commuting is the fastest-growing piece of the major transit authorities’ ridership right now, and it’s very poorly understood. Up until very recently, data on this trend has been really expensive and difficult to obtain. New forms of data capture and analysis should be able to make it possible for, say, NJ Transit to learn who is reverse commuting and whether the trend will be growing in the future.

Commuting to Downtown Hartford, 2009

Is there a place for the sort of institutionalized structures for community-based planning – such as community boards – in New York? Which points in the system are most open to innovation?


Most of the tools available to those community groups and community boards that want to be part of a planning process are tools for collecting local information, getting the word out and organizing via social networking. But there’s a huge divide between collecting information and actually planning and designing. When it comes to actual urban design and planning work, finding the points where the stakeholders can insert themselves into the process is still very difficult, and the new forms of social media don’t help with that that much. Therefore, the role of the planner and the designer is still significant – it has just changed somewhat. The planner/designer has become more of a referee of all this new information that’s coming in.


Participatory approaches often turn up very conservative designs. When we get all this data and we try and reflect it back to community groups, it often takes the form of very vernacular and common images.

Long Island Index interactive map by CUNY Mapping Center, with data from RPA, 2010

I think there’s a scale issue here. In terms of new media, it’s one thing to have bicycle advocates provide the information to locate places for better or worse bike routes, but compared to the scale of complex urban systems, that problem is relatively small. The social media model can only get you so far. If you have to make a decision about where you’re going to build a new tunnel under the Hudson, does social media really play a role in these kinds of big infrastructure decisions? I think it does; its role is diagnostic. Locating and building a tunnel will eventually involve a highly technical design exercise that broad-based social media cannot help to address. But you can’t really bring the technical resources to bear in an intelligent way until you’ve really done the diagnostic work. And social media – by which I mean the stakeholder driven world of blogs and websites and Facebook and Twitter – have a huge role to play in defining what the problems are that we are trying to solve.

The Centers of the Region, 2006

All images ©Regional Plan Association. All rights reserved.

Special thanks to Frank Hebbert, Jeff Ferzoco, Ben Oldenburg and the staff of the Regional Plan Association.

Tom Wright is the Executive Director of Regional Plan Association (RPA) the nation’s oldest private regional planning organization. Mr. Wright lectures widely on growth management and regional planning. He is a Visiting Lecturer in Public Policy at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He has taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy; and the New Jersey Institute of Technology School of Architecture.Previously, he was the Deputy Executive Director of the New Jersey Office of State Planning, He resides in Princeton, NJ with his wife and three daughters.

Robert Lane is the Director of the Design Program at RPA, where his urban design projects include the Comprehensive Master Plan for Stamford Connecticut and Transit-Friendly Communities for New Jersey. Before coming to RPA, Robert Lane was an Associate at Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects, PC.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


alice blank July 13, 2010

i am a professor of urban planning at hunter college. we are looking for a project or competition for a group of 10 urban planning students to work on next year, from september 2010 through may 2011. let me know if you have anything that comes to mind.

best, alice blank