5 Big Lessons from New York in Building a More Competitive and Sustainable World City Region

Robert D. Yaro, President, Regional Plan Association (RPA)


Gordon Feller

We’re really going to continue with this theme because probably the premier metropolitan planning organization in the world is based in New York. And the Regional Plan Association’s work I think is known to some of you but should be known to more. Now RPA has become essentially the magnet for learners from around the world who come to understand how the New York metropolitan region has managed to successfully make itself not just a world-class city and a world-class economy, but a world-class learning center about city development. And to speak to that we have Bob Yaro here who is going to give us really the five big lessons that have been learned in New York and the lessons that are now being transmitted from New York to the rest of the world. In his role as President of the Regional Plan Association, he really helps to guide the organization’s work and does all of the heavy lifting with his staff, some of whom are here. Bob Yaro, thanks so much for joining us.

Robert D. Yaro

Well thanks, Gordon, for that very kind introduction. I hope I can live up to that buildup. I was told by Gordon that Pecha Kucha means that – basically a short story. And I’m here to try to cook about forty years’ worth of experience, and in the case of RPA almost a century worth of experience down into about fifteen minutes. But I’m supposed to tell a story, which I’ll do, I’ll make it personal.

I’m a native New Yorker and I’m just dedicated. I live in Connecticut which is part of the New York metropolitan area and I’m just passionately committed to the success and well-being of this place.

Oh, okay. You don’t trust me with it? Where – is that it or is it – oh, he’s going to advance these things? Well let’s see how this works. This is an experiment, because my – Jeff is going to advance these things.

But the basic story is that, it’s a success story for the most part. Thirty years ago New York nearly collapsed fiscally and in terms of quality of life this wonderful headline, The Daily News headline kind of told the whole story. City was facing financial collapse, the federal government more or less walked away from the city. This is Jimmy Carter in the South Bronx in 1977 which looked like Berlin in 1945. And large areas of our city and of our region have just been transformed over this period. Go quickly through, got these stadiums – not sure this is the best picture of the South Bronx – but basically all the places that had abandoned housing and burned out housing have been restored and have become some of the safest and most attractive and most economically viable places in our city and our region. Next slide please.

And another image of the South Bronx today. Great anecdote, when Tom Wolfe came to speak at our assembly or annual event in the mid – nineties I guess it was – I’m just drawing a blank on the book – yeah, “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Well he went for the book of course which is about the collapse of the Bronx and the unraveling of New York and then the movie was made several years later, and they brought in the movie crew to the South Bronx and they were going to hire the extras off the streets, the derelicts and the youths and the perps as they’re known in New York and so forth, and the film crew arrives from Hollywood and they discover that a lot of those people aren’t there anymore and this is these vibrant new immigrant communities that have moved in and fundamentally transformed the place less than a decade after the book was written.

So there’s been this remarkable transformation and it comes down to a lot of hard work and maybe – I’m supposed to go down the five lessons here and the first one is thinking long – range and across borders. At RPA we’re a civic group, we’re an NGO, but we’ve for almost a century now been doing these long range strategic plans for the metropolitan area and then running very intensive cross-sector and cross-border advocacy campaigns to get them implemented, which is hard work, and it means working through large coalitions of seemingly unrelated partners to get things to happen. We’ve put nearly $100 billion into our transit system since the system nearly collapsed in the 1970s. We’ve put comparable amounts of money in the big environmental infrastructure systems and in our cities and in our neighborhoods. This is the high-line in Chelsea in Manhattan, an abandoned rail right of way that’s turned into one of the great new urban spaces in our city and a model for other places around the world.

So thinking long-range, thinking across borders; I like to think that the planning and the rethinking of regions, it has to be built around three big structures. First an eco-structure, the large natural systems that make up public water supply, public watershed, estuaries and so forth that make things possible. Infrastructure systems, in this case New York City subway but a larger regional rail system, the infrastructure of broadband, of water supply systems and so forth that are part of the permanent structure for a place like the New York metropolitan region, and then finally the urban structure, the network of cities and towns. The human settlements that shape the region.

We’ve been thinking regionally for almost a century. City of New York, we tried to create a strategic plan for the city as far back as the 1930s. Created a planning commission. Robert Moses, the great master builder, opposed the creation of a city plan, a long range city plan, because it would interfere with his ability to do whatever he wanted.

And so it wasn’t until Mike Bloomberg came along, and Mike Bloomberg was thinking long-range and thought well, New York, we had these forecasts that said we were going to add a million residents over the next twenty years in a City that everyone thought was built out., and so working with the mayor’s office we convinced the city to create PlaNYC, a 25 year sustainability strategy but it really encompasses almost every aspect of the life of the city. And I like to think that PlaNYC is the beginning of a new wave of thinking in our region and I think around the world.

The Economist had a wonderful cover story a few months ago about the beginning of what they call the anthropocene era. We’ve left the pleistocene era, we’re now in an era in which humanity – and we can have our debate about evolution as the republicans are having in the Congress and whether it happened or not, but the question for the people in this room is not how we got here, it’s now what we’re going to do to manage this place that we live in. So one of the things – and this is getting a little random here Jeff but that’s okay. This is a bright shiny new subway car – it’s part of the evolution, that’s right.

So in New York, it’s funny, I’m on the mayor’s advisory committee on this thing and I went in and I’m kind of a free thinker and so forth and I’m a big Winston Churchill fan and I went into one of the first meeting and I said “we’re an island race. We live in an archipelago.” And everybody looked at me kind of funny that most New Yorkers live on islands surrounded by this big estuary that we just ignored. It was a convenient place to dump the trash and put all the things that we didn’t want for more than a century and so New York is rethinking both its access to the harbor but also is reclaiming the harbor and the estuary and the waterways that surround most of the city so that former wastelands are being turned back into accessible and attractive natural settings like this one. This one actually is on a landfill so we virtually created this one, this is Battery Park City.

And so thinking beyond the estuary we’re recreating the forest canopy, the eastern deciduous forest canopy over the city to deal with both the heat island effect and also to improve the quality of life. As part of PlaNYC there’s a campaign to plant a million trees and neighbors and communities across the city are doing this. Most people think of New York as the most paved over place in the world but in fact it’s becoming one of the greenest places in the world. One of the great, I think, inspirational findings at the beginning of the PlaNYC process was this, when we did a carbon audit, looked at our carbon footprint, we found that the average New Yorker produced less than a third as much carbon as the average American. So rather than apologizing for density, we’re now proud of density and promoting density and promoting the activities like transit use and so forth that it makes possible. This is one of the new parks in the harbor that RPA has been promoting on Governor’s Island, a 300 year old military base that’s now turning into a great new green space in the center of our city. And I describe this as it’s kind of like Central Park but with a larger water feature. And the Bloomberg administration and the wonderful people that the mayor’s assembled for his cabinet have really embraced these ideas and New York is turning itself back onto the waterways that made the city happen in the first place.

I wanted to talk about another big thing that’s changed in New York and it’s probably the most fundamental change and that is a real focus on sustaining and then improving the city’s quality of life and the region’s quality of life really has begun, and this I think gets back to another thing I’ll get to in a moment: how did all this happen?

It comes back to a period of excellent leadership from four mayors starting with Mayor Koch in the 1970s just after the financial collapse and extending through Mayor Bloomberg, but beginning in the late 70s Mayor Dinkins began a campaign to transform New York City from what was then probably the least safe big city in the world into what is today probably the safest big city in the world, and this didn’t happen easily. It’s taken a generation to put into place, but starting with a 1% surcharge on the city’s income tax that was supported broadly by the population of the city and that has been continued for twenty years, we expanded the police force, we instituted the CompStat system which is a GIS based public safety information system that allowed the city to deploy an expanded police force and a police force working through community policing practices, a very different approach to working with communities to manage and reduce crime. A quality of life campaign that focused on quality of life crimes and that has been very important in reducing criminal activity that has continued for twenty years. And this has just fundamentally changed, I think, the quality of life for citizens across our region. The poorest communities in the city are now among the safest places and it’s made it possible for those folks to really play the – to fully be a part of the life of the city and the region and the economy and so forth.

We’ve created a set of institutions to promote quality of life and public safety and a network of business improvement districts across – that cover virtually every business district in the city and that complement the activities of the police and also focus on amenity and streetscape improvements and so forth.

There’s been a major focus on the public spaces and the public realm. Our wonderful transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has just transformed placed like Times Square by returning streets that had been devoted entirely to traffic, returning them to pedestrians and bicycles, and to the people of the City of New York. Some of it has been controversial but I think it is broadly supported by the population of the city, and we’re getting a balance now for the first time in a century between automobiles – this discussion that started yesterday morning about how to housebreak the automobile so that we can live with the automobile, but to do that fully you have to take the public realm and turn it back into a place that’s accessible to people. We’ve had Jan Gehl and others from Copenhagen working with us on this strategy and it really has been one of the great success stories. The parks have been rebuilt and restored. Places like Bryant Park that was known a generation ago as “Needle Park” is now one of the most attractive and well-used and well-loved public spaces in the City of New York. This is part of their annual film festival where they run – where HBO puts on movies, open-air movies a few nights a week.

I give the credit not just to Mayor Dinkins but to the whole string of mayors, and we’ve had our differences of opinion with each of them about details of things, but we’ve had consistently good leadership. And I think this gets down to if I wanted to talk about the success factors; how has this transformation occurred? I think it’s strong leadership, and it starts with the mayors. We’ve had good support from governors of New York and the governors of the other states as well. The collaboration among and across sectors. Advocacy campaigns in support of public safety and quality of life campaigns and so forth that mean that as people leave office and new mayors come in that in fact these efforts are sustained. Collaboration across borders. We have this little problem in our region that Charles the Second in the seventeenth century decided that the Hudson River would be a real convenient place to put the border between New York and New Jersey, so it’s made life difficult. And fifty kilometers from Times Square you enter Connecticut, so we have three states that don’t really like each other but they need to work together to sustain and improve the well-being of this place. So there’s been good cooperation across borders on things like transportation and environmental protection: water quality, air quality and so forth. And I think, finally, willingness to invest. The people of the region have invested hundreds of billions of dollars of their own tax dollars in these improvements and that’s a fundamental part of the success is that ultimately leadership is important and the vision is important but it’s going to require the people reaching into their pockets. And I think a willingness to innovate and to break the rules. We’ve said we need to – if things aren’t working we need to collaborate on new ways of making things happen.

So what happens going forward? The work of people in our line of work is never done. These challenges, the big challenges that RPA faced in the 1920s when it started working on its first regional plan, how to manage congestion, how to bring a million additional immigrants into the life of the region, how to sustain and expand and make more competitive the economy – those are the things that we’re dealing with now. And then a whole new set of issues: how to deal with climate adaptation, for example, that cities around the world are dealing with, how to create a public finance system for a set of public authorities which clearly don’t have the resources that are needed to sustain this success, how to deal with a set of recurring challenges around congestion, education, housing production and so forth, housing affordability.

So to deal with these were beginning a fourth regional plan that is going to address these and other challenges. Our goal is to make New York City and the region a test bed for the technologies and innovations that are being discussed in this conference and then to work with other world cities, to invite other world cities to help us as we learn from them as we deploy the very best techniques to address these challenges. And then give other world cities, both the kind of leading cities in the worlds, the Londons and Tokyos and so forth, but also the emerging world cities, typically in global south but around the world, help them learn from our experiences, replicate our successes, avoid the missteps, learn from our mistakes as well as our successes.

So we look forward to engaging all of you in these innovations and in the success we hope as we move forward and to continue to stay in touch in future Meeting of the Mind discussions. Thanks very much, Gordon.

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