On the First Six Years of Urban Omnibus: A Founding Editor’s Farewell

Conceiving of the UO logo | Sketches by Meg Kelly
Conceiving of the UO logo | Sketches by Meg Kelly

Today marks the sixth anniversary of Urban Omnibus. It is also my final day as editor. When I signed on in 2008 to work with Rosalie Genevro, executive director of The Architectural League, and Varick Shute, our digital editorial director, on a new way of showcasing innovative ideas for the future of cities, none of us knew the shape this project would take. Indeed, none of us could have predicted what New York City would look like in 2015. The building boom was only beginning to slow, and the scale of the financial crash would not be known until many months later. The first iPhone was less than a year old. Newspapers were in crisis. And we thought term limits would actually limit Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor.

What we did know was that sophisticated discussion of urban issues suffered from a series of gaps. The diversity and quantity of creative approaches to the urban landscape — how to shape it and how to interpret it — was only growing. But media coverage of these projects and perspectives didn’t manage to bust out of silos of professional expertise or even to communicate across neighborhoods. News was becoming hyperlocal while professional trends were increasingly discussed in international, disciplinary echo chambers. Place-based, metropolitan-scale independent media about applied, interdisciplinary urbanism was nowhere to be found. Urbanists in the South Bronx weren’t reading about fresh community development ideas generated in East New York; architectural proposals generated in graduate schools in Clinton Hill or the Village weren’t accessible to a public eager for new ideas; important resonances between ecological initiatives, neighborhood-based advocacy, and novel technological possibilities risked going unnoticed. So we endeavored to bring the full range of this urban thinking and practice under one big tent — an omnibus of urban projects and perspectives, conceived in the public interest and executed across disciplines.

Rosalie, Varick, and I — with the help of our original advisory committee and an incredible team of interns and web designers — spent a few months getting our act together, producing pilot content, and developing UrbanOmnibus.net. When we launched, six years ago today, we had just inaugurated a new president, and real hope existed that urban issues — including infrastructure investment, stable and affordable housing, and disaster preparedness — would become priorities of federal policy making. We wanted to connect some dots and to hear directly from practitioners. Most of all, we wanted to demonstrate that interpreting the existing city — analyzing how it got to be that way — goes hand in hand with showcasing exemplary real world projects that seek to improve it.

Cassim Shepard films in East New York for an <a href="https://urbanomnibus.net/2009/01/eastnewyorklocalfarmers/?preview_id=448&amp;preview_nonce=b8775044fc&amp;_thumbnail_id=44235&amp;preview=true">early 2009 series on urban agriculture</a>
Cassim Shepard films in East New York for an early 2009 series on urban agriculture

Almost 300 features later, we’ve continued to probe these intersections, presenting first-person accounts of urbanists in the field along with original journalism on some of the crucial urban issues of the day: the crisis of affordability, the impacts of climate change, the ways design can contribute to a more just and equitable city.

When I started this job, I knew that I believed deeply in the power of well-told stories, especially those that affirm my conviction that the physical environment and social experience of cities are inextricable. But I did not anticipate that I would become as committed to addressing another gap in the public conversation about cities — one that has only grown as a vast range of media attention on cities has proliferated. Over the last several years, as interest in cities and the processes of urban development has grown substantially, the number of books, websites, and publications now devoted to the subject has exploded. Yet, whether it’s consumer-focused lifestyle reporting about urban experience or investigative journalism into the planning trends that disrupt received wisdom about urban mobility, governance, or public health, there is still relatively little coverage of the individuals who dedicate significant portions of their lives to making their city just a little bit better or a little more clearly understood. These are the stories I have delighted the most in helping to bring to light: the photographer obsessively documenting a building on the eve of its demolition, the planner spending decades masterminding an unprecedented experiment in managing Staten Island’s stormwater, the developer committed to creating affordable workspace for local manufacturing.

I have learned an incredible amount from working with this diverse cast of characters. I’ve learned about timing traffic signals and daylighting urban rivers, the design of probation offices and parking lots, the infrastructures of recycling and radiators. But I’ve also grown increasingly convinced that these systems and projects do not add up to a city without the creative input and stewardship of the individual practitioners behind them — architects, artists, writers, sociologists, policymakers, community advocates, ecologists, and committed citizens.

The first installment in an Urban Omnibus video series about complex urban systems took a closer look at traffic signals citywide through a visit to the Traffic Management Center in Long Island City.

The increased media attention that urban affairs are currently enjoying just might move the dial of how we understand and value cities in the context of broader discussions about our politics, economy, or environment. But if we don’t insistently recognize, challenge, and encourage the individuals responsible for the constituent elements of our shared city, we will be collectively unable to address the deep challenges cities face as inequality continues to widen and the causes and effects of climate change continue to be ignored.

For me, independent media production has a crucial role to play in the recognition of these individuals and their ideas, in the telling of these kinds of stories. This role is all the more vital if realized in the service of a mission-driven non-profit like The Architectural League, which exists to nurture excellence in architecture, urbanism, and related arts. The League took a leap of faith when it decided to expand the ways it fulfils this mission by experimenting with digital content production about urban innovation in New York six years ago. Given the amount I have personally learned since then, I am grateful that the League chose to invest in this kind of storytelling. I am grateful that all of our collaborators — everyone who has shared her work with our readers — have proven again and again that these stories are worth telling. And I am grateful to all of our readers around the world. Your keen enthusiasm for cities and your financial support for the content we produce and make available to you, free of charge, are what will continue to make Urban Omnibus possible, fresh, and vital.

Urban Omnibus at its launch in 2009
Urban Omnibus at its launch in 2009

As New York, and cities worldwide, continue to grow and change, there is no shortage of new stories to tell. My colleagues will continue to develop the League’s robust offerings of editorial content, both here and on ArchLeague.org. On Urban Omnibus, in the months ahead, look out for features exploring everything from 19th century maps of Manhattan to cutting edge hydrology, the borderlands of Brooklyn and Queens, and that big park on Staten Island. I look forward to being an avid reader and occasional contributor. Over the next year, I’ll also be traveling and writing about some of the trends in urban practice we’ve identified from six years of producing Urban Omnibus.

When we began this experiment, we were filled with optimism about the range of creative thinking being applied to urban problems of all kinds. Despite the increasing urgency of those problems — from stronger storms to increasingly vulnerable populations — I remain optimistic about the new thinking that will emerge over the next six years, and beyond. We need a lot more solutions. But we also have to remain committed to communication. We have to share what works and to call out what doesn’t. And we must continue to discuss how cities have become what they are and how they might continue to become — through individual initiative, collective imagination, and sheer will — just a little bit better.

Cassim Shepard is a former editor of Urban Omnibus. He makes non-fiction media, especially films and video, about architecture and urbanism. He lives in Brooklyn.

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


GPS January 7, 2015

Bravo! Excited to see what the next six will bring…

Billie Tsien January 7, 2015

Cassim – so beautifully said – thank you for what you have made in this world and what you will continue to make.

linda pollak January 8, 2015

thank you cassim shepard for these six years. and for a beautiful piece of writing to say your good bye for now. you are a transformation agent. will miss you– so much– here, and look forward to following you from afar in your future work, as well as continuing wonderful collaboration with VS and all of Arch League.

Donald McNeill January 10, 2015

I’ve loved dipping into the magazine every few months from the other side of the world. Remarkable to have such a detailed, eloquent and powerful archive with such immediate relevance. This has set out so many exciting agendas for practice, policy and research with importance for cities everywhere. Great work.

bowsprite January 14, 2015

Thank you, Cassim, Urban Omnibus and all! Looking very forward to UO, and to following your work as well, Cassim!
All the best,