Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Who shapes the city?

Robert Caro's 1974 masterpiece The Power Broker offered a cautionary tale about the power of unelected urban planners shaping cities. Caro's story of Robert Moses, the master builder who for forty-plus years misshaped NYC (destroying neighborhoods with highways and ill-conceived urban renewal housing projects, not building badly needed public transportation, cutting the city off from its waterfront) is searing since, in many ways, our city is still grappling with Moses' legacy today.

For many years after the Moses-era, urban planners went into retreat. NYC and other American cities were grappling with high crime, fiscal crises, and white flight. No one had grand ambitions to build in, and redesign, cities that were struggling for mere survival. But in the last two decades, NYC and other American cities have undergone a renaissance as crime has fallen, finances have been gotten under control, and people have been flooding in. So now urban planners are back, big time, with grand visions of new buildings, parks, and other public works.

But these are not your grandparents' urban planners.

Take this article from the The New Republic. It's about a man named Edmund Bacon who was, in his day and in many ways, the Robert Moses of Philadelphia. There is a new book about Bacon that seeks to re-introduce him to another generation as a great urban visionary who built Philadelphia into the great American city it is today. This is going hand-in-hand with some people who are trying to restore Moses' reputation and reconsider his legacy that The Power Broker so powerfully damned. (FYI Ed Bacon was the father of actor Kevin Bacon. Cut loose!)

But the new urban planners aren't people trying to be another Robert Moses or Ed Bacon. Instead, they are largely private organizations and companies trying to put a unique stamp on cities. Here in NYC, the most popular recent example is the Highline -- the old abandoned railway tracked turned into a park in the sky. It was mostly private funds that went into this project raised by Friends of the Highline.

Now comes Citi -- Citi Bank, that is -- with its new bike share program. If you've been walking around NYC in the last few weeks, you've probably seen these clunky blue bikes stuffed in docking stations at various points around the city. They have the words "citiBike" pasted on them, and you pay an annual fee to use these bikes -- but not to the City but to Citi.

These are the new urban planners -- companies like Citi Bank, organizations like Friends of the Highline -- literally changing the face of NYC. They are making their own imprint on our town. This isn't the government providing services, it's private enterprise making a mark, and sometimes we have to pay an additional fee (some might call it tax) for the privilege. For example, the 9/11 memorial museum is not public institution like you might think -- it's private, and you have to pay an entrance fee.

So, instead of a grand visionary like Robert Moses using government funds or bonds for big public works, it's companies and various private organizations finding incremental ways to shape the city.

In some ways, this has been going on for a long time. The big New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square was originally created by The New York Times about 100 years ago ... to promote The New York Times (before it was used by Dick Clark to promote Ryan Seacrest). The July 4th fireworks and the Thanksgiving Day Parade were (and are) sponsored by Macy's to promote ... Macy's. This was then known as good corporate citizenship -- and also good corporate PR.

Of course, private developers have been building residential and commercial real estate for centuries -- but they weren't shaping the life and identityy of the city in quite the same way.

Personally, I think the new urban planners are a mixed bag. Things like the Highline and New Year's Eve and the parade and fireworks are great; things like the bike share program are good if you really want to bike in NYC and have the money; things like paying money to go to the 9/11 museum ... eh, not so much.

Yet one thing is clear: no longer is the government of NYC truly shaping the city. Big money is shaping the city -- shaping its identity, its soul, and its future.

Let's hope they do a better job than the urban planners of yore.

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