Last week, a group of leading New York City designers met to discuss the future of New York City at New York Next: The Future City, hosted by the Architectural League and Architectural Record. The panel consisted of Betty Chen, currently a member of the New York City Planning Commission, formerly the Vice-President for Planning, Design and Preservation for the Trust for Governors Island; Guy Nordenson, of Guy Nordenson and Associates Structural Engineers and Commissioner and Secretary of the New York City Public Design Commission; Richard Olcott, founding partner and design principal at Ennead Architects and former member of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1996 to 2007; Rob Rogers, principal of Rogers Marvel Architects, a firm whose portfolio includes streetscape design for Manhattan’s financial district, and flood mitigation strategies and street furniture for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority; and Claire Weisz, founding partner of WXY Architecture + Urban Design and adjunct professor of planning at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service at NYU.
The conversation was organized without a moderator, allowing the panelists to pose questions to one another. Their discussion revolved around questions of the physical city — In what kind of city do we want to live? Who decides what kind of city ours will become? — as well as questions of pacing, framed by their own experience with major redevelopment projects across the city over the last decade. The panel set out to define what constitutes the public realm, as well as the responsibilities of both public and private entities to that public realm.
Guy Nordenson opened up the discussion with the question, “Is privatization a good thing? Or should the public sector take over?” Nordenson situated himself as undecided. He referred to a recent New York Times article that claimed that the government pays more when using private contractors they they do when using government workers, but also noted examples of particularly successful public/private partnerships around the city, such as the Central Park Conservancy. Other answers varied: Richard Olcott cited issues of capital, and the private sector’s ability to raise funds where the public sector can’t. Rob Rogers, speaking specifically about New York City, claimed that the major boon of the last decade of building in New York City was the high skill level of public sector staffs: a high quality client begets a high quality project. Claire Weisz added that New York is the right kind of city, with not just an educated city government, but an educated and involved populace. Ultimately, we hope for a well educated, well meaning, capable government, but we have to be prepared to make design decisions without one.
Betty Chen’s questions — “Is there a way for architects and engineers to play more of a role in setting the public agenda? Are there other opportunities not generated by the traditional client model?” — led the discussion to one of timing and environment. According to Guy Nordenson, new public design ideas need to have a public sector champion to become institutionalized. The consensus of the panel was that the major success of the Bloomberg administration has been its ability to institute long term, visionary planning and policies and to institutionalize progressive ideas about what kind of city New York should be in the future.
Rob Rogers and Richard Olcott asked questions regarding the widespread attention on the public realm that has been generated by the World Trade Center site, whether that has led to a more interested and more involved public and, in a more disciplinary light, how it has changed how architects work. Betty Chen answered with a fear of complacency: New Yorkers are excited about their city, but does that excitement lead to satisfaction with the status quo, and thus a lack of urgency to push the city forward? According to Chen, designers have the training and the imagination, and therefore the responsibility, to look at the urban fabric and show the rest of the city its potential.
A surprising moment of consensus on the future of the city came when the question was asked, “What is the most urgent civic design issue facing New York today?” Across the panel, there was a call for further activation of the city’s waterways, specifically through reinvestment in a ferry network, to engage our “sixth borough” and alleviate our traffic problems.
The panel opened up for questions from the audience. League Executive Director Rosalie Genevro stayed on the topic of city transit by asking about what can be done to resolve the conflicts and frustrations that arise from, as an example, the city’s subways being controlled by a State agency. A State agency is less capable of responding to the needs of the primary users, less able to act nimbly. The question harkened back to Guy Nordenson’s first question, in that it asks how large an active government agency can be before it is no longer able to be responsive to it’s citizenry. Rob Rogers suggested that the need to wrest back control and funding extends beyond the MTA, using education as another prime example. Richard Olcott pointed to the mayors of Los Angeles, Newark and San Francisco as examples of how to think regionally, without looking to their States for help, and suggested that approach as a model for New York City in disentangling itself from the State as much as possible. Claire Weisz seconded the need for regional thinking, citing the US Northwest as leading the way, but also acknowledged that some of the State/City divide is an issue of timing and balance: there was a time when the city was less capable, Battery Park City needed the State to step in, and there are still circumstances in which it makes sense for the State to take control. It is more about how to work within those constraints tactically, using state or federal capabilities when necessary.
There was, all around the table, a real sense of apprehension about what could come out of the next administration. When the Bloomberg administration leaves, who will take over? What kind of city will they want New York City to be? And will they be capable of, or even interested in, instituting the kind of long ranging, forward thinking policies that the Bloomberg administration promoted? We’ll have to wait and see. But the panelists agreed, regardless of what’s next, we have to be willing to challenge and reimagine the status quo, drive the conversation and demand quality planning and design in dialogue about our public realm.