We continue our series on the next four years of New York City transportation and planning policy with today’s essay by Ron Shiffman. Co-founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development and a professor at the Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning, Shiffman served on the City Planning Commission from 1990 to 1996. Read previous installments in this series here, here, and here.
When Michael Bloomberg was first elected eight years ago, I and many others thought such a wealthy mayor might assert his independence from developers who choose to serve their own self-interest at the expense of the city’s long term needs. Six years later, the release of PlaNYC 2030 finally gave hope to that desire. The mayor put forth a vision that, despite some shortcomings, promised a framework for sustainable, equitable growth. For all the city’s progress toward advancing those goals, however, it has taken several steps backward by continuing to build real estate projects that erode the walkable city. Mayor Bloomberg’s re-election provides an opportunity to correct these oversights and refine his administration’s legacy on building an equitable and environmentally sustainable city.
When it comes to sustainable development, the mayor’s record is mixed at best. Many of his agencies — such as the Department of Design and Construction with David Burney at its helm, the Parks Department under the able direction of Adrian Benepe, and the Department of Transportation under the energetic and farsighted leadership of Janette Sadik-Khan — have done a fabulous job promoting and implementing the goals of PlaNYC. With some fine-tuning of the process used to plan our public places, calm traffic, and reclaim our streets, the city can engage more communities in the introduction of these much needed innovations and prevent a harmful backlash.
Unfortunately, creativity, innovation and commitment to the principles of sustainability stop with these few agencies. Other public servants charged with planning for the future of the city have abdicated that responsibility. The Department of City Planning, despite some exemplary work on open space design and enhancing opportunities for world-class architecture, has ignored planning for the New York City of 2030. Instead, it has focused on rezoning the city as if we still lived in the 1960s, using the language and planning concepts of that discredited era rather than preparing to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.
Together with private developers, the city’s Economic Development Corporation and other quasi-government entities, the planning department has embraced outmoded redevelopment plans for Willets Point in Queens, Hudson Yards on the far West Side, Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, and Columbia University’s expansion into Manhattanville without any substantive regard to the principles and goals of PlaNYC.
These large-scale development plans fundamentally ignore the issue of sustainability. And they cast the form of the city in concrete for a century or more.
In these developments, the street is nothing more than square footage added to permit greater building heights and densities. Streets in these developments divide rather than integrate neighborhoods. Traffic lights are recalibrated, for instance, to facilitate the flow of traffic and hinder pedestrian movement by reducing crossing times. Perversely, these measures are dubbed “mitigation” in the environmental review process. Without them, the development would not be allowed to proceed. This is because the developments include more space for car parking than needed — far above the norm in New York City — creating more traffic and necessitating such "mitigations."
This runs against the principles of good urbanism and drains the life out of the city. The street is the common denominator of every neighborhood in New York. Streets, more than buildings, make up the city’s patrimony — its "genius loci." When I grew up in New York in the 1950s, streets were our parks, our gardens, and our athletic fields. They facilitated activity, exercise, and civic discussion. They were places that fostered social interaction and social cohesion. They met needs that transcend any particular era. As we move deeper into the 21st century, we need to reintroduce these functions into our neighborhood fabric.
What does this mean in practice? At the Atlantic Yards site in Brooklyn, for example, development that enhances streetlife and improves the public realm — development consistent with the principles of PlaNYC — would not close streets, as developer Forest City Ratner intends to do. Instead, as proposed in the UNITY Plan, the street grid of Fort Greene would extend through the Yards, weaving into the Prospect Heights grid to the south.
This street pattern would create new pedestrian connections and smaller development sites. Instead of private courtyards, a network of public spaces would extend through the site and connect to surrounding streets. A robust, well-connected network of streets and open spaces would truly stitch the neighborhoods together.
To build a sustainable city, we need to think and plan on a small scale, not just the mega-project scale. We need to engage more New Yorkers in the process of building neighborhoods, not just the politically connected or wealthy. The place where everything comes together, where we all meet and interact, and where sustainable planning must begin, is the street. The mayor has the intellect and the openness to understand this. He now has four years to reinforce what his administration has done well so far. Four years to change direction from past mistakes. Four years to focus on what has been ignored until now.