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The Covid pandemic brought new demands on the city’s public spaces, and with more use came increased scrutiny on everything from traffic volumes and fatalities, to air quality, policing, and the highly unequal lines of race and class that determine New Yorkers’ access to parks and pedestrianized streets. The fundamental issue is how public space and its benefits are distributed: between cars and people, between commercial operations and uses that are free for all, and between affluent neighborhoods and those with less resources and clout.
A sustained moment of reckoning has also brought opportunities to reimagine the public realm in ways large and small. The last two years have seen a proliferation of experiments and proposals, from open streets and streeteries, to a new NYC Streets Plan, to calls for a new Deputy Mayor for Placemaking and the Public Realm . . . or a new city department dedicated to the maintenance and care of our public spaces. A Department of Care, as Justin Garrett Moore proposes, would “strengthen local capacity to reimagine, maintain, and care for public spaces,” and address unequal amenities and geographies. Maintenance and care are having a moment in the built environment, but what they really demand is a long-term commitment. Below, we talk to the architect, urbanist, educator, and for many years, urban designer and then head of the Public Design Commission for the City of New York, about lessons learned over the last two years, and also the previous fifteen. What might care look like at the municipal level, and how could it help bring everything from equity to good vibes to every corner of the city?
You’ve been developing this proposition for a municipal Department of Care for some time now. Where did that idea come from?
The origin was a combination of things. Obviously, the pandemic; but then, after George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests, there were also conversations happening about public resources and police funding. There were calls for essentially moving $1 billion from the police budget to other services that communities want to see. The question was, “What would you do with $1 billion out of New York City’s [then] $88 billion budget?” And one response was, “Well, let’s address everything that we’re collectively going through and seeing when you walk around pretty much any neighborhood in New York City.” Lack of maintenance and care, and how much these issues were affecting all of us, were becoming more apparent.
Simultaneously, there were a lot of conversations happening about general health and wellbeing (physical, public, mental, and emotional), as well as equity and social justice. In places that have some mechanism for taking better care of their communities — places that have higher incomes and things like business improvement districts — we were seeing one kind of reality of pandemic life. And then there were communities that were seeing other effects. The Department of Care would be a way to fill that gap.
What the pandemic starkly made visible are hierarchies and structures of injustice that are not new. What had you already been seeing from the perspective of your years in city government?
The Public Design Commission was a unique place because you see what’s being built across the entire city. The idea is that we’re advocating for high-quality design, and thinking about how to make all of our city’s communities better. The administration was intentionally doing equity-focused capital projects all across the city. But when it came to the actual results, a big issue was maintenance. If you’re creating a park or a plaza in a wealthy neighborhood that has a “Friends Of” group and a maintenance regime, that community gets one level of quality. A park located in a community that doesn’t have that social infrastructure in place gets a lower level of investment and quality. The $18 million, 1.5-acre Battery Playscape is an example of this dynamic in action. During the same time that it was in development, several other parks and playground projects in less affluent areas in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Upper Manhattan were given significantly lower budgets, usually around $2 to $6 million, and include design choices driven by long-term maintenance costs. Yet, the Battery playground has a champagne-finish stainless steel puppet theater.
Maintenance and care were determining the design and built outcomes, regardless of the capital project budget. It makes one ask: how and where is funding being allocated in the first place? Those decisions impact how a project could be maintained and cared for over time. There was just this clear recognition that inequality is being designed into the city, every day. It’s not something that happened 100 years ago, or 50 years ago. It wasn’t just Robert Moses. In a very different way, we do it every day by designing this imbalance into our city.
Maintenance is a tangible thing you can look at: Does the agency or community have the funds to maintain the quality of space and materials over time? But then there are other layers including health, mental health, social cohesion, social services — everything from youth activities and engagement, to assisting houseless people, or people that may have other issues — that are apparent in all these communities. Understanding those layers of what makes our public spaces, our commons, our neighborhoods really work and do their job for society is connected to larger questions: “How do we take care of each other?” and “How do we take care of our places?”
Obviously, there are existing agencies that do all of these things, but they are in silos. And if there were a way to create some infrastructure and resources to fill the gaps, you could see real improvements to people’s lives.
At the same time, the idea of a bureaucracy dedicated to care sounds paradoxical.
In theory, that’s our city government’s entire job. And I honestly do think it’s been set up to do its best, but there are definitely some gaps that prevent working in a connected way, in a thoughtful way, and in a way that’s adaptable to different communities.
The concept of the Department of Care isn’t to create another silo of bureaucracy. It’s more “rhizomatic,” for lack of a better term. There would be people within every related agency whose role it would be to make the connections, to facilitate decision-making — frankly, compromises — and to interface with the different needs of communities, so that people don’t have to go through the multiple structures of the city’s organizational bureaucracy to see results or receive services. It would go beyond having people who are specifically responsible for taking care of the houseless, cleaning up the trash, policing the public spaces, or building the new public infrastructure, to having people across city government who are responsible for making sure that people and places are cared for. Over 335,000 people work for the city and all these different agencies. New York City’s municipal government is one of the most complex organizations in the world. There’s just something missing to help people connect the dots.
How do you actually connect those dots, and at the same time navigate the starkly different needs across the city?
It needs to be adaptive and even bespoke: community by community. What Flatbush needs is very different from what Bushwick needs, or from what a neighborhood on the North Shore of Staten Island needs.
There’s a communications effort that’s needed first, to help people understand what is possible in terms of making changes in their neighborhoods. It would involve more local levels of leadership: City Council members, Borough Presidents, and Community Boards. You would rely on the citywide civic and nonprofit organizations to provide additional resources for people to navigate changes in city administrative structures.
On the community level, there would need to be a campaign to get people engaged and involved, to help them understand a new resource. That’s something that has already started to happen with all of the mechanisms that have been put in place for the City’s more progressive initiatives, like participatory budgeting.
There is work underway that I think the Department of Care could connect to and build on. There are initiatives for technical assistance and knowledge sharing from the High Line Network and other higher-resource organizations to assist communities that haven’t had access to those resources. But in government, you have to be proactive to meet the communities halfway, because if everything is a community-initiated or private effort, it’s not going to create citywide system change.
So many attempts to improve the public realm in recent memory have run into this issue. If you rely on community buy-in or contribution to make the project happen, it’s only going to succeed in areas where there’s more money and capacity. The fact that the Open Streets program has been overwhelmingly located in and successful in more affluent neighborhoods is only the latest example. Prior to the pandemic, the Department of Transportation (DOT) plaza program, and things like street tree planting, have run into the same problem. If you rely on community partners, community maintenance, to improve the public realm, you’re going to reproduce inequalities.
I think part of this overall prompt is to not let a big crisis go to waste. In both wealthy neighborhoods and in lower income neighborhoods, during the pandemic, people were working to just comprehend that things can be done a different way. The open streets and the streeteries have been really good examples of this. There was a huge transfer of property in the past year, from all of those people parking their private cars in commonly held public spaces, to something else. The caveat is that the “something else” was still privatized space. So, I do hope, when people are rethinking and transitioning these temporary programs into more permanent policies and changes in the streetscape, that it’s not only for private purposes, or that there are regulations put in place to make sure that you don’t have to spend money to benefit from and enjoy public space.
Right. So much of the rationale is connected to encouraging economic activity. It’s how you also count on the private actors . . .
To maintain it. Something that’s come up, especially in light of the imbalance between the BIDs and conservancies, is the idea of a citywide equity BID, and a citywide conservancy mechanism.
A lower income or smaller community obviously won’t be staffed up to manage some of the things that the major BIDs do. There may need to be the equivalent of fiscal sponsorship for nonprofits, where infrastructure, and some of the funds that they have, are made available to support those communities.
On the city’s side, to DOT’s credit, they did develop the OneNYC Plaza Equity Program, which included committed maintenance funds as a part of a capital process to support new plazas in communities like the Bronx and Queens. This is a little in the weeds, but capital and operations are totally different universes in the city’s budget, and there needs to be more of a marriage of capital and operating or maintenance expenses in every project. The circumstances that lead to places not being cared for and maintained happen because the resources needed to build a place are too divorced from the resources needed to keep it. And what it takes to keep a place is care.
It also implies a different timescale than a construction timeline, or a mayoral administration, that is more generational.
The timescales are definitely out of whack. I was at a really wonderful American Society of Landscape Architects conference session on the Portland Japanese Garden. Sadafumi Uchiyama, the garden’s curator, was saying that maintenance is continuous incremental construction. You have to go from thinking about a certain timeline — it’s a construction and capital project, and then you open the thing, and then you maintain it — to the mindset that you’re doing continuous incremental construction. As soon as you make that shift, how you resource things happens very differently. Obviously, this is a garden, so you have to bring the trees in and it’s a lot more intentional. But the city is the same thing. A city is a lot more like a garden than it is like a building. It constantly has to be cared for.
Workers from The Horticultural Society of New York plant new flowers
in Brooklyn’s Hillel Plaza, Spring 2021
Who does this care work? What does this longer-term focus mean for the kind of training and expertise people are bringing to the city’s public spaces? And where do designers fit in?
I love that question. One of my colleagues was joking, but not joking: “Is there going to be a uniform for the Department of Care?”
Within the city government, is it going to be the uniform agencies or is it going to be the white-collar bureaucracy? It’s sort of both. And what the uniform would be in Crown Heights is probably different from what it would be in Flushing, if there is a uniform at all. But who’s doing the work? It has to be this continuum from who’s picking up trash or assisting someone in the winter that may be houseless, to who’s figuring out the legal contracts between a local group and the City, to who is figuring out interesting financial mechanisms for community ownership of spaces.
It’s a very broad thing. And the role of architects is very interesting. The discipline of architecture is structured in connection to professional licensure, and what you can be paid to do. You build something that depreciates over time; but you’re only responsible for a certain piece of it. The premise of the professionalization of the field, which has some race-related origins, was framed around this concept of health, safety, and welfare. That was how you distinguished people who were designing and building things — the white people who were making decisions — from other skilled Black laborers. When that line was drawn, the legal premise was that architecture has some kind of ethical responsibility for health, safety, and welfare. That premise is completely false, right? As Covid cases and deaths maps, or things like urban renewal and highway construction, have shown us quite clearly.
In design schools, you’re meant to learn how to speak to a builder, or a client. There isn’t a lot of time spent teaching you how to speak to someone who’s actually caring for the space and maintaining it long-term: to actually connect to and understand all the different types of users; to think about all the types of social and environmental changes that a built space undergoes that designers should be connected and responsible to. Obviously there have been shifts, in particular for climate, energy, and sustainability, but I think design needs to continue to be broader, to take more responsibility for that whole spectrum of how the built environment operates relative to our social and environmental ethics.
Where can we look for ways forward?
It would be a different world if you are able to think about where public infrastructure is built with a different understanding for how the city generates its revenue. The Department of Care could be funded by reallocating money from the police budget. Or it could be funded by shifting how our taxing is done through a broadly systematic and spatial approach. When Mayor De Blasio ran way back in 2013, he had in his campaign the idea of land value taxes, where you tax land based on public infrastructure and investment, and not on all these other premises, like speculation. Land sharking, or other kinds of problematic practices in New York’s land market, would be mitigated, and you would have a shift in how and where land generates revenue, which could be integrated into different processes: whether that’s capital planning, or a more democratic mechanism of governance, like participatory budgeting.
Another great place to look is Rwanda, where they have something called Umuganda, which is the last Saturday of every month, when everyone does community service. The place is spotless. Businesses are closed — the whole society that day of the month shuts down. Some people are clearly just at home, but a large number of people are legitimately out doing work and projects in their community.
There’s a branch in New York City government, NYC Service, that does that kind of community care work. A lot of it is connected to corporate social responsibility: “I’ve got a Manhattan headquarters and my employees are going to put on blue t-shirts and go clean out a gutter somewhere.” But it’s not really scaled and distributed in a way that’s consistent. The Umuganda principle in Rwanda is more integrated into the culture of what it means to live in that place, in that society.
When you think about it, it’s half a day, one day a month. But if they have at least half of Rwanda’s 13 million people doing it, there are more than six million people helping out. You can see the difference. And it also builds social cohesion, because people are doing it somewhere they can walk to, connecting with their community and with their neighbors, in a place where, because of the genocide, there are really significant divisions in their society. So Umuganda is a really wonderful example of what it means to be civic and connected through caring for actual communities and neighborhoods.
This is more of a national, US picture, but there have been a lot of people working to find alternative models for how community change happens in a holistic way, starting from land ownership and control. They’re rethinking how governance works, which is a long-term proposition. There’s Africatown in Seattle, Dudley Street in Boston, and Soul Fire Farm in Upstate New York. The premise that you have property and therefore it must appreciate, and all the financial mechanisms are engineered around that, and then you cash out — people really challenging that is, I think, a good thing. Typically, what is central to organizing people’s lives is some form of commerce, or some form of wealth accumulation. Whether we really buy into it or not, we all end up participating, because that’s how our socioeconomic systems are set up. And so, people that are saying, “Let’s try this from another angle,” to me, is of great interest.
These are big transformations. Where do we start?
Obviously the new administration isn’t going to say, “Yeah, we’re doing this.” But I think if we can find a nucleus of people to say, “We should try it,” that would be the best possible result of this advocacy, for now. And you would obviously learn. Some things might work, some things might not.
Even when you’re setting up something new, we must ask: Who’s participating? How do decisions get made? How do resources get allocated? What are the timeframes and timescales? I would offer that the Department of Care should, by design, not operate on the standard four-year political cycles. And as you’re making connections, ask: What’s the framework of care, and who has created those ideas, and who’s been innovating in that work? Who are the people in spaces that would need to be engaged and a part of the conversation as you’re setting up the system?
I do have a little bit of a fear of when things become too much about “design,” that a lot of people are not going to get to participate in the value that it can bring. Even if you try to actively promote it, for whatever reason there is a gap. So that’s another underlying purpose for framing things in this way: for more people to understand that the built environment and design are part of what makes our society work. And that it’s not a luxury product. It’s not a “would be nice” thing. It is an essential, integrated part of what it means for people to be on Earth.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.