Planning the Decent City

"Planning the Decent City” presumes that the qualities that imbue a city with decency are ones that city planning and its corollary profession of urban design are capable of creating. It is not entirely clear that this is so, though the opposite condition—the absence of city planning—almost certainly assures that social justice, tolerance and economic equality will be seriously compromised. If it is far from certain that the planned city can be the decent city, in other words, we can be confident that the laissez-faire city is not going to be the decent city.

I raise this not to suggest a general debate about the limits of city planning, but rather as a starting point for a discussion prompted by a paradox of the last decade or so in New York and several other cities, which have experienced significant improvement in their public realms concurrent with a greater degree of income inequality. The city has become, we might say, simultaneously more decent and less decent. Highly activist planning has yielded notable improvements in public space in New York at the same time that the city has become unquestionably less socially mobile and more expensive; the gap between the rich and the rest of the city, never small, has in recent years expanded to grotesque proportions.

What we have seen is quite different from the problem of “private affluence and public squalor,” to use Galbraith’s celebrated phrase. Though squalor may indeed still be a relevant term for some parts of the public realm, such as public education and caring for the homeless, it is hardly an accurate description for places like the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hudson River Park, the expansive public park now under construction on Governor’s Island, and the series of waterfront promenades along the East River; or, for that matter, for the network of bicycle paths and the growing program of rentable public bicycles. All but the last of these are free. They are available to everyone, and they are widely used. Several of these new public spaces, like the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park and the park on Governor’s Island, are lavish in the best sense of the word. They were designed by internationally distinguished landscape architects, and collectively they represent the most ambitious attempt to evolve meaningful new models for urban public space since Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux first began to design parks in the mid-nineteenth century.

It is worth saying that they differ from Olmsted and Vaux not in the powerful democratic underpinnings of these older park designs, which these new public spaces reflect, but in the degree of deep urban engagement that they represent. The parks of this new generation are, for the most part, not designed to offer a sense of escape from the city. They are places intended to inspire in their users a deeper sense of connection to the city, and new ways of perceiving urbanity, which they portray as fundamentally benign. The urban experience was anything but benign to Olmsted and Vaux, who sought to offer users of their parks a feeling of remove from the city; the High Line holds forth for its users the opposite promise of being embedded in the urban fabric in a new way, and of engaging with it unreservedly.

That, in summary, is the positive reading of the new public realm. It can be viewed very differently. The city’s most ambitious and extensive new public spaces are all either in Manhattan or in other parts of the city, like Brooklyn Heights, whose residents are mostly prosperous; the fact that they are open to all does not mean that it is easy or convenient for residents of other parts of the city to use them, and it does nothing to ameliorate the affront they are likely to feel at the absence of significant investment in the public space in their own neighborhoods. The new parks are generally administered by private, nonprofit organizations under contract with the city; in the case of the High Line, a private group, Friends of the High Line, which had argued for the preservation of the old elevated freight line called the High Line and proposed its conversion into a park, also oversaw its design and construction. The model of private administration of public property is not new; it has been used for more than a generation in Central Park, where the private Central Park Conservancy both directed the park’s restoration and oversees its day-to-day maintenance, and in numerous smaller parks, such as Bryant Park, which the Bryant Park Corporation renovated in 1991 and has managed ever since.

Is either the High Line or Bryant Park truly public? Indeed, is Central Park any longer fully a public place, given the city’s decision to allow a private organization, funded mainly by the well-to-do who live and work around its eastern, western and southern edges, to have effective control of it? Have these public places become, in effect, not altogether different from the numerous privately owned public spaces (“POPS”) that dot the urban landscape, mainly at the bases of towers that their builders were permitted to make larger than otherwise allowed because they were making a gift of public space to the city? Many of these spaces are awkwardly designed and unfriendly to use, and they make clear that the city planning transaction that brought them into being, known as “incentive zoning,” was quite often a deal that benefitted private builders far more than the public.

The challenges that privately owned public space can present came into sharp focus in the fall of 2011, when the Occupy Wall Street movement began its encampment in Zuccotti Park, a privately owned public space at the base of a large skyscraper on lower Broadway. The police could not forcibly evacuate the park without the cooperation of Brookfield Office Properties, the private owner, which was reluctant to appear callous and waited nearly two months before agreeing to the request of the police and the city administration that demonstrators be ejected. It was a curious inversion of the more common concern about privately owned public spaces, which is that their owners might remove members of the public who they felt would detract from the image of the space.

Privately owned public spaces are not the same as privately managed public spaces that remain in public ownership. But the two types, if technically and legally different, nevertheless collectively create a sense that the public realm is not wholly in the public control, and that public space is, instead, controlled by forces with priorities other than the public welfare. In the case of the private real estate operator this may be preserving and enhancing the value of the building beside which the public space has been constructed; in the case of the donor who underwrites the work of the Central Park Conservancy or the High Line it may be the aura of virtue, not to say noblesse oblige, that often motivates philanthropy.

All of that said, how much does it actually matter? In the case of the new generation of well designed, well- managed public spaces, relatively little, in part because the city has enforced open public access as well as high standards of design and maintenance. To the average user, it makes little difference whether the city is actually in charge of day-to-day management or not. The High Line, Bryant Park or Brooklyn Bridge Park are usually perceived and experienced as public places. But that does not obviate the inequality of uneven distribution of investment in new or upgraded public space across the city, or the sense that some users of new public space may have that their public realm is the product of the extraordinary wealth accumulated by a handful of their neighbors, not of their city’s concern for their well being.
It is important to note that this is not the first time we have experienced what I have called the paradox of an improved public realm at a time of great income inequality. That was surely the case in the late nineteenth century, when vast numbers of immigrants lived in extreme poverty, and some of the city’s most important civic and cultural institutions were created, such as the Metropolitan Museum, the Metropolitan Opera, the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Public Library, not to mention the free City College of New York, as distinguished and as physically imposing as many private universities. These museums and the library were public-private hybrids, not unlike the new generation of public spaces: privately funded, privately managed public places in which the city maintained an ownership interest in the physical structure, though not in the collections housed within it. If these and other cultural institutions were established in large part as a result of the philanthropy of a class of the exceptionally wealthy, that age also produced a number of entirely private enrichments of the public realm, most notably Grand Central Terminal and Pennsylvania Station.

The result of all of this was the transformation of New York by 1913, the year Grand Central Terminal was completed, into a city with a generous, and at times even noble, public realm. If there were modest improvements to the level of housing in those years, they were driven largely by laws requiring minimum standards for tenements, and only rarely by interest on the part of philanthropists in improving the quality of housing. A handful of model tenement projects and experiments in new forms of housing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were worthy but marginal in their impact, and did little to ameliorate the sense of disparity between the quality of the public and private realms experienced by the average citizen— a disparity that seemed only to increase as investments in the public realm continued.
For many citizens, then, New York was a city of public affluence and private squalor. The wealthy, interested in their philanthropic legacy, made improvements in the public realm that were genuine and lasting, but many of the citizens who used these public institutions and public places came to them from cramped, dark, even squalid living spaces. The image of a poor immigrant living in a tenement and coming to The New York Public Library to read and study, however clichéd, was a real one. Is a city that offers its citizens an uplifting public realm but cannot house them adequately a decent city, or is it not? Can a city that offers generous public parks, public education and the experience of inspiring public architecture but cannot feed all its residents, give them jobs or keep them healthy be called a decent city? These questions, relevant to the New York of a century ago, are just as urgent today.

About the Author
Paul Goldberger is the Joseph Urban Professor of Design at Parsons the New School for Design.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.