The ever-active big city as antidote to Donald Trump

One New Yorker writes about how the city itself is a salve against the election of an undesirable candidate:

Urbanism isn’t perfect, certainly not as we’ve ever managed to live it in New York. It’s brought us income inequality and political complacency and an ugly disdain for the forsaken voters on whose rage our boy-king just boogie-boarded into office. But the city is not one that will respond to that comeuppance with humility. And as the days wore on after the election, and we settled back into our know-it-all selves, we began to feel a little less ignorant or even ill-informed. We know plenty. We know tolerance and science and that cosmopolitanism does not mean unanimity but that it does mean vitality, and that you shouldn’t intervene when two drug addicts are yelling at each other outside a Chinatown subway station but that you should when it’s one of them yelling at a Mexican woman to clear out of town. We know that, whatever he thinks of Hamilton, there are safe spaces for the president-elect in this city — Staten Island, for starters, and Hasidic Williamsburg and the ‘21’ Club and Jean-Georges, apparently. Thankfully, we know there are unsafe spaces, too, including right outside his front door, where many continue to rally every day despite the armored trucks and sandbags and police with blacked-out name tags. We know that “inner cities” aren’t “war zones” and that ending discriminatory policing doesn’t lead to a rise in gun deaths — we actually know that because the city is an urban laboratory for city-first governance, and it has yielded real results. We know that putting America First means welcoming the world, and we know our immigrants have enriched us, not raped us. We know that city life can be ugly, but also that we are all strong enough to live among some ugliness. We know that, stranded in a country that may soon privatize public schools, we have just established universal pre-K, and we know — or think we know — that it works. We know that we have pretty gender-­accommodating public bathrooms because we know people who still fuck and do drugs in them. We know that La Guardia is a dump — but so what? We know this city is, ultimately, ungovernable — that it’s too unruly, that it’s at its best when it’s unruly, and that its unruliness is what gave rise to what people like Trump used to call the American Dream. We know that people like him are the cost of that unruliness, and that you can learn to live with them by mocking them. We thought we knew the country would listen to our warnings, but we’re not going to stop making them. We know, whatever one might think of Bill de Blasio, our giant in Gracie Mansion is up to the task of grandstanding, suggesting he’d erase the city’s ID-card data rather than endanger immigrants. We know the city will be independent, and we know the city will also continue to be itself — a theater of freaks and refugees and the restless who were never elsewhere able to feel at home. We know that an open and tolerant and ­progress-minded future still lies before us, even if we have to go it alone, and even if that future now looks a few feet smaller at the shoreline.

And we also know that we are not in fact alone — that New York is not an island but an archipelago. Our mayor has resister-cousins in Chicago and Los Angeles and Providence, San Francisco and Seattle and Minneapolis — and those are just a few of the cities mobilizing themselves as immigrant sanctuaries. We know that the number of Democratic counties has shrunk over the last decade or two, as entrepreneurs and other hustlers flooded into cities, and we know that the counties that went blue in this election account for nearly two-thirds of the American economy. We also know that Peter Thiel was basically the only Trumper in Silicon Valley. If you have to live in a bubble, really, you could do worse.

This could be relatively easy to dismiss as an example of urban dwellers or coastal residents leaning Democratic versus those in more rural areas or in the middle of the country voting Republican. But, the underlying idea is more interesting: is the city, particularly the #1 global city in the world New York City, bigger than presidential elections? Regardless of who is president, this city moves on with its own concerns and attitudes. It is affected by national politics but it is also a world onto itself. More broadly, the economic heart of the city – giving rise to all the traffic (vehicular and pedestrian), Wall Street, dynamic urbanism described by Jane Jacobs – continues.

Could bad traffic in Manhattan lead to fewer cars on the road?

One way to reduce traffic might be to make it so unpleasant that people stop driving so much:

City officials have intentionally ground Midtown to a halt with the hidden purpose of making drivers so miserable that they leave their cars at home and turn to mass transit or bicycles, high-level sources told The Post.

Today’s gridlock is the result of an effort by the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations over more than a decade of redesigning streets and ramping up police efforts, the sources said…

The goal of the jammed traffic is to shift as many drivers as possible to public transit or bicycles.

An added benefit was supposed to be safer streets, but city officials have said that while 45,000 fewer cars and trucks now come into Midtown daily than in 2010, pedestrian deaths are on the uptick this year.

The city denies such efforts with the mayor’s spokesperson saying, “The notion that we want or are somehow ‘engineering’ traffic congestion is absurd.” But, there is little argument that the city has tried now for over a decade to introduce additional transit options beyond people driving cars.

The real question we should ask is whether such efforts can reduce congestion. Even though the public may not like it or believe it, there is some evidence from road diets and closing highways (in places like San Francisco or Seoul) that traffic is not static: limiting roads can affect the choices people make regarding how to get around. In other words, build more highway lanes and more people will drive.

Perhaps Manhattan itself is simply too crowded for the transportation options Americans currently have. Even the sidewalks are supposedly overrun. Could this be remedied with a new, innovative regional transit plan that would work on ways to get people in and out of Manhattan more efficiently? Would affordable housing help so fewer people have to make long commutes to Manhattan?

Trying to replicate Times Square in places like Atlanta

Large cities often borrow ideas from each other. But, is it possible to design places like Times Square into being by adding lights?

Some smaller American cities have recently been attempting to mimic this aesthetic, albeit on a lesser scale, in the hope of spurring economic development and a more pedestrian-friendly downtown. Denver’s theater district, for instance, now features an enormous video screen and lighted advertisements peddling the latest in products and entertainment, and Atlanta is in the process of planning such a district for a section of its downtown.

The organization Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) is spearheading the effort to relax signage restrictions so that property owners can go bigger and brighter. “At this point, downtown Atlanta’s zoning doesn’t allow signs that are over 200 square feet, and our billboards are stuck in time,” says Jennifer Ball, CAP’s Vice President for Planning and Economic Development. “We’re anticipating an increase in size as well as the ability to do large-screen video and LED boards.” Atlanta’s City Council will likely vote on the measure in January…

But the larger aim is to bring more people downtown—and for them to experience the area on foot rather than in their cars. Atlanta is known for its incredible sprawl, with its more walkable neighborhoods scattered throughout the city and thus only easily accessed via automobile. The city is aiming to make itself denser and more pedestrian-friendly, and the district is, according to Ball, “a piece of the puzzle.” To further that goal, the bright lights district would also include more housing and ground-level retail outlets and restaurants. “Atlanta wants to have a strong core that is walkable and bikeable and has the level of density to support a lifestyle where you don’t have to be in your car all the time,” Ball says.

Such a multi-pronged strategy is important, as urban lighting scholars caution that illumination on its own doesn’t guarantee an increase in business or foot traffic. Margaret Petty, Head of the School of Design at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology and a historian of electric lighting, says that there’s no evidence to suggest that lighting alone attracts people to an area, unless that area, such as Times Square, is “iconic.” Josiane Meier, lecturer at the Technical University of Berlin and co-editor of Urban Lighting, Light Pollution, and Society, adds that the “if you build it, they will come” model doesn’t really work in terms of lighting and density. “The interdependency runs the other way,” she says. “Density is a prerequisite for the existence of bright lights districts.”

It sounds like the Atlanta plan isn’t just about lights; it is about creating denser, vibrant places with a variety of uses and lights (which both can attract people and highlight existing activity). New Urbanism and Jane Jacobs come together to possibly reshape Atlanta.

Will it actually work? This reminds me of the number of cities that tried to replicate the High Line after it proved very successful in New York City. It isn’t hard to build things to look like someplace else – look at Las Vegas – but it is difficult to create legitimate neighborhoods that aren’t just tourist destinations. Times Square is interesting not just because of the tourists but also because it is at the center of the number one global city (New York City) and and is located in one of the most densely settled places in the United States (Manhattan). A bar/entertainment district with some housing above and nearby may be nice but it can’t exactly replicate the conditions of a New York City or London or Tokyo.

What could a city like Atlanta create that would be more authentic to itself while also increasing density and vibrancy? What is unique to Atlanta that can’t be found elsewhere (besides the sprawl)?

Street views of NYC going back to the 1800s

Google Street View is impressive enough but how about linking old photographs to current maps? See the results for New York City here.

Having spent some time in suburban archives, there are plenty of old photographs ready to be matched to current maps. However, I imagine there are at least two major hurdles: (1) finding the hours to collect the photos and do the work (the photos exist in in numerous locations) and (2) how the work could pay off (New York City is a place of interest but what about every Main Street in America)

“Forty Percent of the Buildings in Manhattan Could Not Be Built Today”

Manhattan’s zoning code is complicated and there are a number of buildings – many built prior to 1930 – that would not meet current standards:

New York City’s zoning code turns 100 this year. That may not sound like cause for celebration — except maybe for land-use lawyers and Robert Moses aficionados. Yet for almost every New Yorker, the zoning code plays an outsize role in daily life, shaping virtually every inch of the city…

New York’s zoning code was the first in the country, meant to promote a healthier city, which was then filling with filthy tenements and office towers. Since it was approved in 1916, the ever-evolving, byzantine code has changed many times to suit the needs of a swollen metropolis. Just in March, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio won approval for a vast citywide plan that would encourage sleeker, more affordable developments…

Mr. Smith and Mr. Trivedi evaluated public records on more than 43,000 buildings and discovered that about 17,000 of them, or 40 percent, do not conform to at least one part of the current zoning code. The reasons are varied. Some of the buildings have too much residential area, too much commercial space, too many dwelling units or too few parking spaces; some are simply too tall. These are buildings that could not be built today…

Nearly three-quarters of the existing square footage in Manhattan was built between the 1900s and 1930s, according to an analysis done by KPF, an architecture firm based in New York. In a way, the zoning code helps to preserve such architectural diversity. The laws have gotten more restrictive over time, giving an edge to properties built in earlier eras.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. I particularly like the two examples of buildings cited in the story where it is clearly shown what would have to change should the buildings be subject to current standards.
  2. It is not entirely clear but it looks like this article credits zoning for protecting a lot of these older buildings. If you wanted to purchase an older building, tear it down, and build a new one, the new structure would not be quite the same. This means that zoning acts as a kind of historic preservation. Of course, we could ask how many older buildings are too many?
  3. There are calls to overhaul the zoning code to make it simpler. One of the problems is that different areas of Manhattan want different standards. Even though New York City the global city, many of the building decisions are local and residents want some control. Think of Jane Jacobs’ efforts to save Greenwich Village and certain structures during the 1960s. A more vanilla zoning code would make things simpler but could hinder local character.

Just how much historical preservation is too much?

The source of this information is on one side of the issue but it is an interesting question to consider: just how much historic preservation of buildings is too much?

New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Act was intended to protect about three or four “historic districts”—Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, etc.—preservationist James Van Derpool told the New York City Council in 1964. That’s all “anyone had seriously considered.”

The Landmarks Act  was passed the following year thanks in part to Van Derpool’s testimony. A half-century later the city has protected 138 historic districts. Nearly a third of the structures in Manhattan have been landmarked. As I argued in a Reason TV video published last year, entire swaths of New York City may as well be encased in a life-sized historical diorama. Out-of-control landmarking is undermining the process of creative destruction that made New York, well, New York…

What justifies these two designations? Landmarks Commission Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan was left straining. She lauded the Pepsi sign for “its prominent siting” and “frequent appearances in pop culture.” The Park Slope blocks are part of an area, Srinivasan explained, that “owes its cohesiveness to its tree-lined streets, predominant residential character, and its high level of architectural integrity.”

If “prominent siting,” “tree-lined streets,” “residential character,” and “architectural integrity” are grounds for landmarking, what’s to stop the Commission from declaring every square inch of the Big Apple too precious to ever change?

Here are the two sides of the issue:

  1. The preservationists will argue that buildings and streetscapes need protecting because (1) capitalism and free markets tend to bulldoze meaningful structures for current residents and future generations in pursuit of progress and (2) residents of particular places should expect that features of the location that helped draw them there should remain there.
  2. Reason and others would argue that such restrictions limit the free market, stopping progress and natural processes of neighborhood change. Such regulations constrict the market for property which can drive up prices as well as freeze areas in time even as the world has moved on to better things.

Perhaps there is some middle point or range where both parties can get what they want? This opinion piece suggests nearly a third of Manhattan is simply too much but where is the empirical evidence to support this? Is Manhattan development suffering because of this? As is common in social life, neither side will likely get all that they want – no such designations vs. always having to get approval from the neighbors when building a new structure – so some compromise should be reached.

It would also be interesting to look at the level of historic preservation in wealthier vs. poorer areas. Can more of Manhattan be saved because there are resources to do so versus an inability to save many noteworthy structures in poorer American neighborhoods because there are few organizations who could handle the burden? In other words, perhaps historic preservation is an issue largely faced by wealthier communities who can afford to protect some of their gloried past.

When money is tight in NYC, cut spending on critical water infrastructure

All big cities need water but when budget priorities were determined, New York City chose to delay building some key water infrastructure:

Mayor Bill de Blasio has postponed work to finish New York’s third water tunnel, a project that for more than half a century has been regarded as essential to the survival of the city if either of the two existing, and now aged, tunnels should fail…

But last year, Mr. de Blasio’s administration, eager to keep a lid on water and sewer rates that had grown by an average of 8 percent annually under Mr. Bloomberg, moved financing for the third tunnel to other projects, Amy Spitalnick, a de Blasio spokeswoman, said.

The city intends to finish the remaining portions of the tunnel sometime in the 2020s, but it has not set a date for completion nor allocated money in the budget to carry out the work. For the foreseeable future, the $6 billion tunnel will remain dry in the two largest boroughs, where well over half the city’s population lives.

“You look back over the last 50 years, whenever there were fiscal pressures, the unseen world of the municipal water system is where weak city leaders turned to cut spending,” said Kevin Bone, a professor of architecture at Cooper Union and an editor of “Water-Works: The Architecture and Engineering of the New York City Water Supply.” “I’m disappointed to hear that they’ve deferred it. It is symptomatic about planning for the future in America.”

Let’s hope that this doesn’t lead to disaster: imagine Queens and Brooklyn without water for three months (which would happen if aging Tunnel 2 fails). This is one of the issues with infrastructure and why the public would be furious if something happened: people don’t pay attention to this stuff until it fails but the issues are largely preventable as long as communities keep up with the necessary maintenance and new construction.

Imagine New York City, the top global city, being incapacitated by not having enough water because city leaders didn’t have enough foresight…