The Omnibus Roundup – Measuring Urban Prosperity and Inequality, Learning from Occupy, Political Architecture at MoMA, and Repurposing a Bronx River Landmark

Earlier this month, UN-Habitat kicked off the Sixth Session of the World Urban Forum in Naples with the release of its State of the World’s Cities report (the full report will be available for purchase soon). Entitled “The Prosperity of Cities,” the report calls for a “more robust notion of development” that expands from an exclusive focus on economic growth to include infrastructure, quality of life, equity and social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. These factors, along with economic productivity, constitute the five dimensions of what UN-Habitat is calling its new City Prosperity Index (CPI), a city-specific alternative to economic measurements commonly applied to nation-states, like GDP. While commending the development priorities that the report identifies, a write-up in Next American City criticizes the “toothless” report for failing to back up its new, holistic framework with specific strategies.

One of the comparative metrics of traditional international development policy is income inequality, or the relative wealth disparity between the richest and the poorest in a given country. While the most accurate method of calculating this figure (sometimes called the Gini coefficient) is a subject of debate among demographers and economists, the fact that the countries with the lowest coefficient are concentrated in Northern Europe and those with the highest are concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa is telling. The US, however, is often in the middle of this type of ranking. And, according to the American Community Survey census data released last week and reported in The New York Times, New York City fares even worse than the United States. And the disparity between the richest and the poorest is growing, with median income for the poorest fifth of New Yorkers $463 dollars lower than it was in 2010 and median income for the richest fifth higher by $1,919. Inequality in Manhattan is even starker: “The lowest fifth made $9,681, while the highest took home $391,022. The wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites made more than 40 times what the lowest fifth reported, a widening gap (it was 38 times, the year before) surpassed by only a few developing countries, including Namibia and Sierra Leone.” According the Crain’s, the city’s current economic indicators tell contradictory and often puzzling stories about unemployment, poverty, growth, and wealth in New York, perhaps pointing to some fatal methodological flaws in economic statistics.

Probably the most cited economic statistic of the past year — certainly more catchy than GDP, CPI or Gini — has been the rallying cry of the 99%. Marking the anniversary of the Occupy movement’s beginnings, this week Places published two articles by Jonathan Massey and Brett Snyder that intelligently examine the micro-urbanism of the intentional community that sprang up in lower Manhattan. During and after the occupation, there was no shortage of coverage of Occupy Wall Street. And to the delight of urbanists, the choice of site provoked discussion and scrutiny of the provisions in New York City’s zoning code that have given rise to privately-owned public spaces (POPS) like Zuccotti Park. Last November, Urban Omnibus heard from Jessica Cronstein, Mercedes Kraus and Max Podemski about #whOWNSpace, a series of “classes” and group discussions about POPS. And in May, we learned from Douglass Woodward’s detailed taxonomy of POPS Rules of Conduct signs.

Massey and Snyder’s pair of articles add productively to the discourse surrounding Occupy, benefitting from both the elapse of time since the movement’s beginning and the thorough and even-handed analysis of the authors. The first article catalogues a wide range of tactics: spatial organization, online strategy, and political practice. The second maps Zuccotti Park at six time points, in order to “track the transformation of a staid corporate plaza into a testing ground for radical ideas about the reorganization of state and society.”

Photo by Stephanie Keith via DNAinfo

Other New York City protesters have also learned from the tactics of Occupy. Opponents of NYU’s expansion plans, including some faculty, may have opted to forego the communal kitchens and human microphone, but they are making use of Occupy Wall Street’s “Illuminator,” a van / projector combo, to broadcast messages across the facades of Bobst Library and other NYU buidings, such as ‘“Condemned by NYU,” “NYU: Too Big to Fail?” and “Hey NYU, expand minds NOT property.” The effort was led by NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan.


Of course, in the context of architecture and urbanism, there are other ways to “be political” besides occupation and illumination. Currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art is an architecture exhibition called 9 + 1 Ways of Being Politicalorganized by Pedro Gadanho and Margot Weller of the Department of Architecture and Design. Spanning the 1960s to the present, the show is comprised of works in the MoMA collection, and divided into nine sections. Each offers “perspectives on the ways in which, over the last half century, architects have responded actively to the ever-evolving conditions of the polis.” The “+1” is a performance by the Madrid-based Andrés Jaque Arquitectos called IKEA Disobedients, which is intended to “suggest disobedience to the lifestyles proposed by brands such as IKEA, proposing ‘an urban counter-notion of the domestic’ instead — one that discloses how politically active citizens can and do act outside of the privacy of their homes.” The performance’s international debut will be at PS1 on September 16th and 23rd. The exhibition at MoMA runs until March 25th, 2013.

This Sunday at 11AM, the Municipal Art Society is hosting an Atlantic Yards walking tour with Norman Oder, the watchdog journalist and the man behind Atlantic Yards Reportwho has immersed himself in the details of the Atlantic Yards development proposal for the better part of the past decade. The Barclays Center Arena, which is the centerpiece but by no means the entirety of the mega-project, is set to open next week. In addition to checking out the new SHoP-designed building and its soon-to-be-iconic facade, Oder will lead the tour through the adjoining Fort Greene and Prospect Heights neighborhoods, learning about “debates over urban design, architecture, public process, and eminent domain.” For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

Rendering of the Bronx River Right-Of-Way proposal | Image by SLO Architecture

Bronx River Right-of-Way is a project to reclaim the Westchester Avenue Station in the South Bronx, designed by Cass Gilbert (one of the founders of the Architectural League) and completed in 1908. Built for the defunct New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad and abandoned since 1937, the landmarked station building currently sits in ruins over Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. SLO Architecture, whose previous public art adventures in the waterways of the Bronx include floating watershed model Bronx River Crossing, has been working with the Bronx River Alliance and Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice build support for a proposal to transform the building into an entrance and comfort station for Concrete Plant Park and an amenity for the waterways and the Bronx River Greenway more generally. On September 27th, Alexander Levi and Amanda Schachter, principals of SLO Architecture, will present several of their projects along the Bronx River at the Center for Architecture, and will unveil their full proposal for Bronx River Right-of-Way. The event will take place at Axor NYC, 29 Ninth Avenue, at 6PM. And on October 7th, they will give an on-site presentation at the station during Open House Weekend (details forthcoming).

Tickets are still on sale for tomorrow night’s Beaux Arts Ball at the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower in Downtown Brooklyn. Advance ticket sales are available through 11PM tonight for $75. Tickets will also be available at the door for $100.


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