I have just contracted with Rutgers University Press for the publication of What Works: Placemaking in Bryant Park. Revitalizing Cities, Towns and Public Spaces in the Spring of 2019. I am so fortunate to be working with the experienced publishing professionals Peter Mikulas and Micah Kleit on this project.
It is hugely satisfying for me that Professor Patrick Sharkey’s important new book, “Uneasy Peace” concludes something that I have long suspected: in big cities across the country, violence has fallen as a result of the revitalization of public spaces by non-governmental organizations. Professor Sharkey, the Chair of the Sociology Department at NYU, argues that it has not been aggressive policing alone that produced the urban revolution of 1990’s, but rather the reestablishment of order in public spaces made a major contribution to the perception of public safety downtown.
My sense has long been that our work in the revitalization of Bryant Park (with its sister BIDs, Grand Central Partnership and 34th Street Partnership), along with that of the Central Park Conservancy in Central Park, was at the forefront of changing perceptions about urban public space. What the implementation of the “Broken Windows” philosophy as articulated by George Kelling and William Bratton is really about is high quality maintenance and programming in public space (fixing the broken windows) along with the presence of private, unarmed security personnel, rather than the kind of aggressive policing that produced the deeply intrusive and out of proportion “stop and frisk” policy that came to an end with the return of Bratton as police commissioner under Mayor Bill De Blasio. In my view, that kind of aggressive police engagement with the community is both dysfunctional and a distortion of what “broken windows” is really about. Continue reading →
Perhaps no writer has had a greater impact on the thinking and practice of downtown revitalization than Richard Florida. With “The Rise of the Creative Class” in 2002, Florida created a paradigm shift in how we talk about the changing nature of the urban core. At the time, a professor in Pittsburgh, Florida identified a movement of young artists and knowledge workers back to center cities and noted that those cities that were attracting creative people were experiencing an increased uptick in economic activity. As a result, there was a rush by cities of all sizes across the country to adopt strategies to attract highly educated young professionals to their downtowns – like the adaptive reuse of abandoned formerly industrial buildings as working and living spaces. Florida’s ideas became the common currency of real estate developers and mayors.
Now writing from his post at the University of Toronto, Florida’s new book argues that the rebirth of cities around the country and across the world has actually created a crisis of affordability and inequality. Cities have become theme parks for the rich and have failed to create upward mobility for the poor. Florida has a sophisticated view of “gentrification.” He looks at the data and does not see much displacement of lower-income families actually happening, but he reviews mountains of data and describes what he calls “winner-take-all” urbanism which benefits an elite group of the highly educated and makes life increasingly difficult for the less well off who face long commutes, a lack of essential services and a lower quality of life. Outside of the North America and Europe, Florida sees a massive movement of the poor to cities without even basic infrastructure. He describes the construction of massive favelas made up of poorly constructed, minimal housing where residents live in grinding poverty. Continue reading →
Georgia O’Keeffe, Radiator Building, Night, New York 1927
The Magnetic City, By: Justin Davidson, Spiegel and Grau, 2017
Justin Davidson’s, “The Magnetic City,” purports to be a walking guide – like the wonderful “Paris Walks” book of the 80’s that got you poking around inside gates and down narrow alleys to discover fabulous hidden architectural and historical treasures. But it is much more than that. It is a beautifully written elegy to one citizen’s city and culture (perhaps the mirror image of J.D. Vance’s hillbilly one), a sophisticated series of essays of architectural criticism and an overview of contemporary ideas about city planning and development. It’s most important quality is its quiet, serious thoughtfulness about many issues where partisans can be highly polarized, the rhetoric is often hot and hyperbolic and there is mostly heat generated without much light. Davidson holds these questions up in his scrupulously careful hand, turning them slowly and examining them from a range of angles – all informed by a deep, deep knowledge of New York City history, literature, buildings and neighborhoods.
Davidson has done an astonishing amount of both walking and reading in and around New York City. The book is full of wonderful nuggets of information. It makes a grand walking companion in some of the city’s most economically and architecturally interesting neighborhoods – with a particular focus on downtown Manhattan. But it is also a fine companion for the armchair tourist. Davidson colorfully conjures up the places about which he writes – and his deeper goal is to talk about preservation, development, architectural quality, gentrification and the changing city. Continue reading →
Jamaica Transit Center Master Plan Rendering: Fox & Fowle — what’s not going to happen
In the last week, I’ve had a couple of occasions to visit Jamaica and was delighted to see progress on a number of fronts. What was most interesting to me was while there is not much happening on the sites we at Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC) assembled over fifteen years and sold in 2015, there is significant activity on other projects. The conclusion that I draw from this is that what we did to improve the perception of the Downtown through placemaking had more of an impact on its revitalization than our site development projects.
Also, I recently became aware of twenty-minute film about the changes in Jamaica over the last fifty years which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJP0BzmG90I&feature=youtu.be. The film is a nostalgic look at the businesses that were lost from the Downtown from the 60’s through the ‘80’s and the deteriorated conditions Downtown. A good deal of effort was put into this video and I enjoyed watching it. It contains lots of material that was new to me. The film was apparently made by a community member. In the end it raises concerns about possible gentrification brought on by the more recent changes in Jamaica. Continue reading →
The view from harborside in Vancouver. Stanley Park is on the left.
The Placemaking Leadership Forum of Project for Public Spaces held last week in Vancouver, British Columbia brought together hundreds of people who are involved in one aspect or another of placemaking. Having never been to Vancouver before, I found it a beautiful setting with a well managed downtown. The attendees were not only attentive and social, but in my interactions with dozens of people with whom I was not previously acquainted, they proved to be dedicated, intelligent, caring and humble about their work. It was a thoroughly pleasant experience – and a tribute to the folks at PPS who conceived of and organized it.
What was most interesting to me about the substance of the programs was the evidence of a number of diverse streams of thought among those present. Most obvious was the contrast between the outcome-oriented, utilitarian placemakers (which included a number of us who have been around for a while) and process-oriented practitioners, to whom community-building and giving voice to citizens about the future of urban places is paramount. Many of the latter group appeared to me to be newer to placemaking – although by no means was this exclusively the case. Attendees also expressed deep concern about issues of inclusion and social/economic equity. Continue reading →
The claim that successful urban revitalization results in “gentrification” and is therefore a bad thing is one of those hypothetical objections to placemaking strategies that isn’t based on hard data, a phenomenon about which I wrote as an obstacle to the implementation of placemaking strategies. For the most part, the objection to gentrification by “advocates” for lower-income people is an objection to hypothetical “displacement” of existing residents by new, higher income folks. To put it as plainly as I can, while those advocates (and journalists) often point to anecdotal evidence of low-income people being forced from their homes by avaricious landlords, I have seen no reliable aggregate data in support of that theory.
I’m a student of the strategies for social change that are about bringing people together – not driving them apart. To Dr. King, integration was not only about bringing economic benefit and political power to dispossessed people, but also creating a society where everyone, regardless of background, is treated with equal concern and respect. Social integration is a good in and of itself, creating communities that honor difference. In addition, it seems likely to me, based on observation and experience, that housing and educating low-income people in the same communities as higher income people may well provide those lower-income people with the tools for economic advancement. Segregating and concentrating low-income people seems to lead to higher levels of social dysfunction.
The Furman Center’s most recent “State of New York Housing and Neighborhoods in 2015” (http://furmancenter.org/files/sotc/NYUFurmanCenter_SOCin2015_9JUNE2016.pdf) demonstrates that in New York City displacement through gentrification is not a significant effect, but also tells us some interesting things about the dynamics of improving neighborhoods. I find the Furman Center to be an indispensable, and non-ideological, source of measurable information about real estate trends. They are also quite careful about drawing conclusions from the data – and not confusing causes and effects.