Innovation and Urban Transformation in NYC

Manhattan Land Values 1923, via Urban Omnibus

Urban Omnibus ran an excellent piece last week on innovation and the development of New York City.  They interviewed key players from the Regional Plan Association (RPA) in order to explore how three long-term plans have shaped the face and composition of the city up through the 20th century.  What strikes me most about this history (with its admittedly drowsy language) is just how central the agency (with its unavoidably modest and unassuming name) has been to shaping the way forward in periods of crisis and stagnation.  From the interview:

In the 1920s, about 25 years after the creation of greater New York City, a group of civic leaders got together to create a single comprehensive metropolitan plan. Today, RPA is still dedicated to pushing those regional ideas that transcend political boundaries and might be too controversial for elected leaders to take on. RPA produces one of these plans each generation and then goes about advocating for its implementation.

The 1929 plan projected that the size of the metropolitan region would double by the 1960s, and it recommended that we build the systems to support that growth: highways, mass-transit, airports, housing, and community development. By the early 1960s, the plan was largely implemented with one glaring exception: the transit connections. The failure to invest in recommended transit projects hastened the region’s suburbanization. By the late 1950s, the RPA was already worried about our land use patterns and was publishing reports with names like “The Race for Open Space.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a series of reports came out that are collectively considered the Second Regional Plan. These reports argued for re-centering the region in a constellation of centers, such as New Brunswick, White Plains, the Nassau hub, Bridgeport and Stamford, based on transit networks.

Like the 1929 and 1968 plans, the Third Regional Plan in 1996 advocated creating infrastructure and building big systems to protect landscapes and water supplies, to provide more mass-transit, to plan for the region’s growth. But the Fourth Regional Plan might end up being less about creating new systems and more about getting more efficiency and productivity out of the energy supply, the water supply, community development networks. The bad news is that we’re doing a poor job of managing and operating these 19th and early 20th century systems; the good news is there’s a lot more capacity in them if we start to manage the systems better.

This kind of thinking around innovation connects extremely well to things like IBM’s Smarter Cities program. And it fits well with previous proposals we have made, such as on congestion pricing. The next time we advocate for congestion pricing we will come up with a much “smarter” proposal. It will not just look at tolling East River bridges but will think about how to develop an innovative policy that actually manages traffic and uses, for example, the GPS systems currently in thousands of Manhattan taxis in order to determine how to get the most capacity out of the system.

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