On July 20th and 21st, I had the privilege of attending, with about 500 other people, the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored Cities for Tomorrow conference held at the Times Center in Midtown Manhattan.
The conference took off Monday evening with a talk by New York Times Chief Architecture Critic Michael Kimmelman, who coordinated the entire event with the assistance of Charles Duhigg, Senior Editor for Conferences and Live Content at the Times. It is amazing to see how the venerable NYT has morphed into an interactive giant and their new headquarter building is simply breath-taking (I had seen Edie Falco at the Times Center a few months back so I knew how beautiful the meeting space was already).
Bjarke Ingels of BIG Architects was interviewed by Kimmelman and described his fascinating projects including 2 World Trade Center (Fox will be the anchor tenant), the tetrahedron VIA building on West 57th Street and the Hudson River for the Durst Organization and of course, my own personal favorite, the Dryline. Ingels seemed uncomfortable with the labelling as a “starchitect” and rather likes to combine elements of Robert Moses (utilitarian design) with Jane Jacobs (community based architecture). He calls the Dryline the “love child” of Moses and Jacobs. The result is very interesting architecture and accounts for his status as one of the planet’s most desired architects today.
The overriding theme of the conference is that disruptive forces like weather events and the growing pains that cities face can actually be opportunities if handled correctly. Judith Rodin of Rockefeller Foundation calls it “The Resilience Dividend.” With 70% of the world projected to live in cities by 2050 (and most of those cities are located on a coast) issues like sea level rise, storm surges and global warming are all paramount issues for city planners and the newly minted chief resiliency officers (CROs).
We are all finding out that resilience means a lot more than just protection against future weather events. There are deep rooted social/psychological components to true resilience along with the economic and built environment issues.
Tuesday was the main day and started with Julian Castro, the head of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the U.S. federal government. The next topic was big data and how it affects police activity and food/health (William Bratton, police commissioner of the City of New York and Dr. Margaret Hamburg former commissioner of the FDA were the panelists). Bratton pointed out that there is a direct correlation between police activity and food/health and they are monitored in tandem by the police department.
Steve Ross, the chairman of Related Companies and the developer of Hudson Yards, was grilled by New York Times real estate writer Charles Bagli about Moynihan Station and why it is taking so long to improve Penn Station. Ross also mentioned that when Hudson Yards formerly opens its residential sales office in 2018, a new sculpture will be unveiled in the main park at Hudson Yards that is, incidentally, the size of London’s Trafalgar Square, This sculpture, he says, will rival the Eiffel Tower. When prompted more about it, Ross said he promised Charlie Bagli the exclusive so we will have to wait. The new 7 subway line at 34th and 11th avenue is scheduled to open September 13, 2015 but may open earlier. This will anchor and finally create Hudson Yards transit accessibility and cost $2.2 billion. It appears the future hub of commercial activity will be centered at Hudson Yards because that will be where young people want to live, I think.
There were a bunch of 3 minute presentations of excellent ideas that people have had that have gone viral and spread throughout the world. The Atlanta Beltline by Ryan Gravel was the first and it is a 22 mile transit green way that generates economic growth and protects the quality of 45 neighborhoods.
Fred Wilson and Andrew Ross Sorkin (NYT Dealbook founder) spoke about the Tech industry and NYC, as well as elsewhere. Wilson feels that Silicon Valley has a 20-30 year jump on NYC’s Silicon Alley so there will never be a threat to Silicon Valley’s tech preeminence. That said, Silicon ____s are sprouting up in Nigeria, Mumbai and other areas all over the world.
After the networking break, “Remaking the American City through Transportation Innovation” featured a distinguished panel of Anthony Foxx (Secretary of U.S. Dept of Transportation), David Plouffe, chief adviser, member of the board of directors, UBER (Uber was very much in the headlines of NYC that day as the NYC administration is examining the traffic congestion issues surrounding their operation), Thierry Deau, CEO of Meridiam, a global investor in transit infrastructure and Janette Sadik-Khan, principal of Bloomberg Associates (she is the woman responsible for most of the innovative bike lanes and walking plazas throughout NYC as the former head of NYC Department of Transportation from 2007-20013). Michael Kimmelman moderated.
This transportation discussion spoke a lot about the intractability on the part of New York, New Jersey and the Port Authority of NY/NJ to begin work on the AMTRAK Tunnel from New York to NJ to free up other Tunnels that need to be maintained. These are train tunnels that are crucial to moving literally many hundreds of thousands of people per week from NJ to NY. Here, Anthony Foxx was reaching out for our leaders to get on the ball and start this initiative immediately. Although I don’t favor constructing new Tunnels moving forward, I can see why this particular Tunnel is needed and needed now!
The existing Penn Station tunnels are 100 years old and aging badly.
A 3 minute presentation by San Francisco’s Lava Mae (Spanish for “wash me”) uses re-purposed city buses outfitted with shower and toilet modules to “deliver dignity, one shower at a time.”
Judith Rodin, the President of Rockefeller Foundation, gave an excellent talk about the Resilience Dividend I mentioned above. The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Network will be selecting the final 33 Cities from August to November 25, 2015 and the winning cities will be announced early next year. Michael Berkowitz runs the 100 Resilient Cities Network for Rockefeller.
The Networking Lunch, sponsored by Citi, had an interesting panel including the Mayor of Washington, DC (Muriel Bower), Cisco DeVries (the inventor of PACE financing and CEO of Renew Financial), Odis Jones, the CEO of the Public Lighting Authority of Detroit, who installed LED lighting in a bankrupt city that had 40% of its street lights inoperable) and Paul Romer, an economist and university professor at NYU, who discussed the continuing need for greater square footage by urban dwellers. The panel was moderated by Ben Hecht, CEO of Living Cities.
The next panel spoke about social mobility and income inequality and was composed of Toni Griffin, Professor of Architecture at CUNY, Brad Lander, council member, City of New York and Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at Columbia University. The panel was moderated by Gina Bellafonte, Big city columnist at the NYT. Here in New York, the socially immobile are relying on the android system because most do not have home computers but most have cell phones. There are apps that can help with child care sharing and the creation of community within low income areas. I still feel that to broaden the middle class base which has become so battered due to the outsourcing of jobs, primarily auto related jobs, we need to significantly raise the minimum wage for jobs like Department Stores, Fast Food restaurants, and other low paying employment situations.
A 3 minute presentation by John Bela called Parking Day, that has become an annual, worldwide open-source event were citizens, artists and activists collaborate to transform parking spaces into temporary public parks. By utilizing municipal lots during weekends, whole communities can be transformed through the ingenuity of local citizens. Very exciting stuff and shows that you do not need a lot of money to create a sense of community.
A case study about New Orleans — Hurricane Katrina: 10 years later was a little disheartening and showed the limitations of rescue efforts to date. The $40 billion spent on New Orleans still leaves people without homes and makes me think that we should be re-thinking some of the ways we allocate money for distressed situations like Super Storm Sandy and Katrina. Unfortunately, FEMA only builds back to what existed before and that is ludicrous.
A case study about Chicago — A smart City Lab aims to break down barriers between the private and public sectors to solve a city’s most pressing problems. Through the efforts of Mayor Emanuel and Deputy mayor Steven Koch, Chicago has created a collaborative; bringing universities,industry and political leaders together to provide “smart” ideas for an innovative new urban infrastructure. Dan’l Lewin, corporate vice president, technology and civic engagement for Microsoft and Caralynn Nowinski, CEO UI Labs joined Steven Koch in a panel moderated by Andrew Revkin. It seemed like the concept is sound, but in its infancy, with Lewin saying that Microsoft has been laying the groundwork for the structure of this interface between the participants.
A 3 minute presentation by Adam Paley (President of Los Angeles based, Community and Arts Resources) called Ciclavia developed the largest car-free, open streets event in the U.S., temporarily turning city streets into places for Angelenos to walk, bike, socialize and celebrate their city. Based upon a south american model that does this every Sunday in cities like Bogota, Ciclavia has been rolled out into numerous cities around the world.
Felicia Marcus, Chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board and Allison Arieff, editorial director, SPUR discussed California’s drought situation, that is forcing people to come up with new ideas and approaches for creating a sustainable water supply. It seems like Governor Jerry Brown has a 30 year horizon about how to deal with the problem and that is great. The issue of whether to continue agriculture in the state is very complicated and serious given that 90% of the almonds we consume come from California and about half of our produce so we should probably not throw the baby out with the bath water. Can we use recycled bath water to grow fruit and vegetables? Hope so.
A 3 minute presentation by Jason Roberts, co-founder of the Better Block project, brings together music, food, art, street life and chess for oldsters and fountains for kids. I especially liked this presentation as it shows a way to breath new life into decaying urban landscapes by community engagement rather than public sector tinkering. We have seen evidence of this in areas like the east village section of New York.
The panel discussion with Dan Doctoroff. CEO of a co-venture with Google called Sidewalk Labs (Dan was deputy mayor for economic development during the Bloomberg administration for NYC) and Alicia Glen, current deputy mayor for economic development and moderator Michael Barbaro, politics and government reporter for the NYT was quite spirited.
Perhaps the most interesting discussion was their respective perspectives about the Sunnyside Yards proposal to construct a large platform in this under utilized section of Queens to provide affordable housing in a big way. In fact, there is discussion about a light rail system to run from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn all the way up to Astoria, Queens to service all the new growth on the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront. Once again, we see how transportation and economic development go hand in hand and like the song goes, “you can’t have one without the other…”.
Doctoroff would like to move the NYC Convention Center to Sunnyside Yards and release the increased value in that land due to the Hudson Yards development being in full swing. Alicia Glen is more cautious and would like a detailed feasibility study before proceeding ahead with such a bold plan. At the very least, I think having a placeholder for a possible convention center move to Sunnyside Yards makes sense to me.
The final presentation was entitled — Utopia/Dystopia: The planet’s newest cities. Some of the fastest growing “cities” are large, sprawling areas that become cities overnight, such as Za’atari, created by the Syrian conflict that morphed into a City from its original concept as a refugee camp. Once again, the human spirit, and the need for individuality seemed in direct conflict to a UN assistance package that treated human beings as commodities rather than people. For instance, the UN provided a 2000 calorie daily diet with an allocation of 18 liters of water per person. The refugees revolted and actually created a community with businesses and markets that ran counter to the traditional aid package.
Kilian Kleinschmidt, global networker and founder, Innovation and Planning Agency; former “mayor” of Za’atari refugee camp supported this transition and understood the need for individuality rather than uniform assistance. Tara Nathan, executive director for international development, Mastercard showed that it is basically a financial management organization and loves to assist situations like Za’atari. Don Weinrich, partner at Ennead Architects had the most interesting idea to let immigrants from these areas come to the U.S. and help stabilize our cities that have lost population. This was an idea I also had a while back but in the current environment probably does not have much traction. It was interesting that Tara Nathan switched gears after this immigration idea by Weinrich to have more of a compromise situation about the immigration problem.
The panel was moderated by Michael Kimmelman and he concluded the conference after this panel. Overall, this conference was quite stimulating and showed me that there is a fair amount of “out of the box” thinking that is often tempered by more conservative outlooks to solutions of problematic. situations. Like most situations, the art of compromise is the answer.
The main objective we must not lose sight of is there is a time to debate and a time to act. We should not lose sight of that when dealing with situations like: 1) the AMTRAK tunnel, 2) affordable housing and social inequality, 3) the dryline, and 4) the looming refugee problem throughout the world.
This was an amazing and very thought provoking conference that I hope I will be able to attend next year…