The 2011 Municipal Arts Society (MAS) Summit gathered developers, academics, architects, financiers and urbanophiles of all types in the Time Warner Center this past Thursday and Friday to wax poetic on the economic, social and environmental future of NYC. Though MAS opened the program with the release of findings from their survey on the livability of NYC (done in partnership with the Marist Institute for Public Opinion and the Rockefeller Foundation) and advertised the event as “two days of great ideas for a more livable city–from sidewalk to skyline,” the proceedings shifted the Summit’s central theme from livability to the necessity of reestablishing New York’s competitive economic advantage.
Each speaker seemed to conceptualize our current era as one where global cities are locked in a space race of sorts, competing to establish their sustainable development model as the global best practice. Seth Pinksy, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, articulated this palpable collective conception of uncertainty and the urgent need for action best during his presentation on NYC employment in saying “the future of the world is up for grabs, and New York City is a contender to be the victor.” Pinksy then divulged that NYCEDC plans to secure this victory for New York by looking for our next “Erie Canal” moment, using Governor De Witt Clinton’s tireless efforts to construct the Erie Canal against unanimous opposition in 1825 as a historical example of New York’s legacy of foresight and innovative thinking.
Presentations from other like-minded experts followed Pinsky’s ideology, touting public incentives for technological innovation, promotion of entrepreneurship across sectors, high-density development, and the creation of new sustainable financing models as tools for New York’s resurgence on the global stage. The Summit’s theme of uncertainty wasn’t restricted to concerns about the future, but also wondering which of the inherent qualities within the NYC milieu can best be leveraged to establish the city as a global leader once again.
Presentations also asserted that NYC must acquire characteristics from other cities to achieve this ambiguously defined victory. During the Preservation and Sustainability in the Global City panel, Fred Iseman of CI Capital Partners questioned if the future of New York was to become the new Portland. Daniel Massey from Crain’s Business discussed the potential for NYC to become the next San Francisco.
Expressing criticism of the current bike lane focus in NYC urban planning and design, Vishaan Chakrabarti of Columbia University’s Real Estate Development program projected pictures of Copenhagen and NYC side by side to inform the audience that adopting a model from a uniform Scandinavian city doesn’t necessarily work for our diverse and polyglot landscape. He then questioned why Delhi was able to retrofit their entire bus fleet and NYC, with its substantially higher capital base, had yet to undertake this effort. As such, a key takeaway from the Summit was that New York is gripped in an identity crisis of sorts. Yet, the majority of speakers equated this crisis as a time of unique opportunity for New York to redefine itself.
Andrew Kimball, President and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yards Development Corporation, spoke on the recent redevelopment of the Navy Yards into one of the nation’s leading sustainable industrial parks. In addition to housing green technology and production jobs, the Yards also hold artist studios. Though the sustainability discourse defines this relationship as the diversity essential to long-term successful use of a space, according to Kimball, this is a logical step as both groups actually manufacture objects. Kimball’s presentation on the Yards was inspiring; the whole-system approach taken by the BNYDC to redevelop the historic yards effectively manages the nuanced relationship between sustainability, preservation and economic development.
Kimball spoke with Untapped Cities regarding the institutional barriers to the work of BNYDC, highlighting that NYC has been incredibly helpful in subsidizing subsurface infrastructure, yet securing financing for building access has been the most difficult as industrial land use has the lowest rate of return for any real estate investment. This insight from the field complicates the assertion of the various experts at the Summit that New York’s future is to move away from financial services into the innovative tech sector.
Though technological innovation as the silver bullet solution to our complex urban problems is a meme in the sustainable development discourse, this year’s Summit romanticized the promotion of the tech sector as the panacea for all facets of our uncertain urban future to a new extreme. For example, Aaron Shapiro, founder of HUGE media company, went so far as to call technology “the great meritocracy.” Interestingly, Lynne Browne from NYU–his partner in the panel discussion on employment and economic development in the city–had previously stated that “higher education was the great equalizer.” She cited the example of the NYCEDC’s new Urban Technology Innovation Center, a catalytic project bridging public, academic and private sectors currently in the RFP phase, as the best type of development to push NYC into this “victorious” position.
Drawing from the not too long ago experience of modernism, policy and planning academics warn that hyperbolic statements on the benefits of technology obscure the complexity of the urban realities in which they are realized. As such, parts of the summit raised some red flags as being slightly Pollyanna in the sweeping promotion of technological innovation on both the micro and macro scale. Likewise, the concept that New York has a victory to grab in the first place should probably be revisited as well- doesn’t this understanding place us in conflict with other cities rather than in a position conducive for knowledge sharing? John Livingston from Tishman Construction pointed out that “nobody goes for (LEED) certification anymore, Gold is the new standard” in order to remain competitive. Likewise, fostering local technological innovation is necessary for the future of livability in the city in this era of adaptation to new constrictions. Hopefully those who determine this uncertain future are as inspiring and whole-systems thinking as those at MAS Summit 2011.