On City Government

To mark the fifth anniversary of the launch of Urban Omnibus, we look at themes that have emerged in our content over time and think about what those threads reveal about the needs, desires, and priorities of the city today.

Especially in a metropolis as large and populous as New York City, municipal government can be a sprawling, complex, and unnervingly faceless thing; something we simultaneously rely on everyday, but which is often difficult to make sense of. What are, precisely, the structures and powers of City Hall? The branches of government? The Mayor’s office? Integral to Urban Omnibus’ goal of defining and enriching the culture of citymaking are meditations on government — its places, policies, and people. And of course, New York City has frequently served as subject and test kitchen for this work. We have looked at innovative strategies and policies that city agencies employ to help make the city a little bit better and shape our built environment. In the process, we have reflected on what unique capacities municipal government can lend to the thorny, persistent challenges facing cities, regions, countries, and the world.


Paul Goldberger talks to New York City Commissioners Amanda Burden, Adrian Benepe, and David Burney.

At times, we hear directly from the influencers and decisionmakers working in and with those agencies. Recently, we looked at a compilation of material on the Architectural League website focusing on a decade’s worth of policies and physical transformation in New York City at the helm of the Bloomberg administration. The feature contains, among other things, video of conversations with important Bloomberg city officials about how city policy impacted the work of various departments, from City Planning to Design and Development. In a feature about New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), we talked with Chief of Staff for the Office of Development, Lindsey Haddix, who offered a deeper look at the agency charged with charged with promoting housing equality and viable neighborhoods.


L: Queens Adult, 162-24 Jamaica Ave., 2010. Photo courtesy of the NYC DOP. | R: Resource Hub, 2012. Photo by David Sundberg, courtesy of Esto.

Good, new ideas about what city government could or should look like also have been frequent topics. Laura Kurgan discussed the ongoing effort to design change at the Department of Probation by converting waiting rooms into resource hubs; Jennifer Pahlka explained how Code for America is helping to build the next generation of Gov. 2.0 apps for city governments all over the country; and Steven Higashide’s winning entry to the 2013 UO writing competition humorously imagines a new City agency, the Department of Externalities, which evaluates the social and environmental effects of citizens’ everyday actions.

Of course, to consider the importance of a city’s government and the local individuals it serves, we must also look out to their surrounding states, regions, and countries. Gerald Frug memorably compared the governance structures of New York City and London in order to assess how their differing anatomies impact their ability to affect change. Shin-pei Tsay has called on urbanists to communicate better about the unique and crucial role city governments can play in addressing the global challenges of climate change.

Whether you are a policy wonk or a casual citizen observer, the Omnibus has a wealth of material revealing, challenging, and celebrating how city government works.


Left: New York City by Flickr user Caruba; Right: London by Flickr user Jess J.

Gabriel Silberblatt is an assistant editor at The Architectural League and Urban Omnibus, living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Follow him @GPS_NYC.

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