A group of people sitting in a room.

Design Forecast New York: Designing a Better World: Equitable and Actionable Solutions

Editor’s note: This post is part of Gensler’s Design Forecast Local, a series of hyper local conversations with our clients about the topics that matter most in our cities. For more on Gensler New York's event, watch the video here.

Global population shifts present an incredible opportunity to design for tomorrow’s cities, including our own — New York City. On Dec. 11, 2019, Gensler’s New York office hosted a panel event, "Designing a Better World: Equitable and Actionable Solutions," at the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice. Ford Foundation President Darren Walker kicked off the event, which featured a panel of diverse voices representing academic, civic, and not-for-profit institutions for a robust dialogue on how we can build a better, more equitable city for future generations.

The panelists shared insights on affordable housing, climate change, workforce diversity, infrastructure, inclusion, and accessibility — all vital topics to consider when thinking about how to design for the future of New York City.

If we want to disrupt the pernicious drivers of inequality and build a better world, it’s essential that we design our cities with equity and justice and sustainability in mind.
— Darren Walker, president, Ford Foundation
Ford Foundation President Darren Walker delivers welcome remarks
Darren Walker, president, Ford Foundation, delivers opening remarks.

We need to address the issues of housing affordability holistically.

When talking about the future of New York City, affordability is a central issue. While the city is experiencing explosive growth and urbanism, these benefits are not being distributed equally, and the city is seeing a rise in income inequality, school segregation, and financial displacement. In New York, housing supply has not kept pace with demand, and continued job growth without corresponding housing production is exasperating the issue.

New York City faces two enormous infrastructure challenges: fixing rapidly deteriorating public housing and modernizing our subway system. Both affect a majority of the city’s population directly, while also producing ripple effects across the economy. Four hundred thousand New Yorkers live in public housing — that’s one in 14 New Yorkers. And these residents are known to participate in the workforce at an even higher rate than the general population, so housing preservation is workforce preservation. Yet, our public housing continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate while developers continue to invest in profitable housing, often in the same neighborhood. Investments similar in magnitude to the ones required to rehabilitate the subway system are also necessary to make our public housing stock livable for today’s and tomorrow’s residents.

There’s a real debate about affordable housing, and where it should go, and how we should do it. From my perspective, it’s about increasing choices and supply and making sure that we do it in ways that create more diverse and integrated communities.
— Tom Wright, president and CEO, Regional Plan Association
Panelists at Gensler New York's Design Forecast Local event
Left to right: Gensler moderators Lauren Adams and Amanda Ramos join panelists Tom Wright, Regional Plan Association; Claudia Herasme, NYC Department of City Planning; Laura Kurgan, Center for Spatial Research; Jamie Bennett, ARTPLACE America; Nora Super, Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging; and Eric Johnson, Columbia University.
The future workplace should accommodate a multi-generational workforce.

Across the globe, countries are witnessing major demographic shifts that will impact the workforce. Nora Super, senior director, Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, emphasized the importance of designing workplaces, residences, civic spaces, and cities that can accommodate multiple generations and different abilities, while keeping up with the rapid pace of technological change. Universal design principles can support workers of all ages, and create a more inclusive, equitable, and integrated workplace. “If we design things for everyone, it really becomes something that is accessible and helpful for all ages and populations,” Super said.

“New York offers a perfect microcosm of a study of the differences between the haves and have-nots in a certain age cohort. In terms of very wealthy older people who generate a lot of consumption in the city, JP Morgan Chase Institute ranks New York City as one of the highest places for the over 65 population to be buying products and services in the cities,” noted Super. “On the other hand, a recent study looked at the homelessness populations that are over 65. And New York City is one of the top three cities that is tripling the number of people who are over 65 that are homeless. So this is a huge dichotomy.”

Multi-generational workforces are just so important. And what we advocate for is having age diversity as well as gender diversity and racial diversity — all the ways that companies really are stepping up and starting to think about how much diversity really improves their bottom line.
— Nora Super, senior director, Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging

We must reframe issues facing our communities by focusing on under-investment.

Laura Kurgan, professor of Architecture at GSAPP and director of the Center for Spatial Research (CSR) and Visual Studies Curriculum at Columbia University, talked about her work on the Million Dollar Blocks project mapping the costs of incarceration within Brooklyn neighborhoods, and how in many cities taxpayers frequently spend more than a million dollars to imprison residents of a single city block.

More solutions to our city’s issues of crime, housing, affordability, infrastructure, and over population may be found when we reframe the conversation around the idea of under-investment. Jamie Bennett, executive director, ARTPLACE America, talked about how under-investment in neighborhoods can systemically disconnect people from services and transit that might otherwise connect them to employment and other opportunities. Designers need to listen to the audiences we design for in order to improve the human experience.

As designers, we have a really important role in the future of the city, and who gets included in it, and who gets left out, in particular.
— Laura Kurgan, professor of Architecture at GSAPP and director of the Center for Spatial Research and Visual Studies Curriculum, Columbia University
A guest facilitator moderates the discussion
Maria Torres-Springer, Vice President, U.S. Programs, Ford Foundation
Climate resilience must take into account vulnerable populations.

A lack of a coordinated response to climate change from the public and private sectors is creating conflicting urban design actions, such as in the Meadowlands, where development is worsening environmental issues, while Teterboro Airport is simultaneously being expanded.

Claudia Herasme, chief urban designer/director of Urban Design, Urban Design Office and NYC Department of City Planning, asked participants how we can create a building stock that can be more responsive to how we work and how we live. Wright talked about the enormous opportunity we have to make buildings more efficient and repurpose existing materials and buildings we already have.

Super pointed to the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging’s “Age-Forward Cities for 2030 report,” which cites that older populations are often most at risk for some of the natural disasters that are happening all over the world. Wright said that the communities in the New York metropolitan region who are likely to be most severely impacted by sea level rise are those in Southeast Queens and the Barrier Islands, who often live below the poverty line or in public housing.

To the point about climate change, what we all look at is government as a source of all input. And we make so many consumer decisions, whether it be green energy or where we live. And it turns out, with a fairly small set of five or six changes, we could meet our Paris goals without any government intervention. Now, why don’t people do that? Because they’re not aware of the consequences.
— Eric Johnson, director, Center for the Decision Sciences, Columbia University

Johnson is also working on a version of LEED focused on engineering and infrastructure that leverages our knowledge of human decision making to change behaviors and encourage more sustainable practices.

Panelists for Gensler New York's Design Forecast Local event.
Left to right: Tom Wright, Regional Plan Association; Claudia Herasme, NYC Department of City Planning; Laura Kurgan, Center for Spatial Research; and Jamie Bennett, ARTPLACE America.
Our public spaces should be inclusive for everyone.

Placemaking, and the design of public spaces, can inspire civic engagement and connection. New York City’s greatest public spaces, spaces like Prospect Park, Central Park, and Van Cortlandt Park, were all designed as amenities for the masses, but in a way, they are a microcosm of the great inequality of our city. When thinking about gentrification, we should look at cultural displacement. When the city builds a new park, but charges $7 for a bottle of water there, whom is the park really for?

Thinking about those cultural elements of the public spaces that we’re building and what are both the explicit and implicit invitations that we’re extending with the design of those spaces is the question we have to ask, so that we can build spaces that actually invite all the members of a community in and allow us to begin building trust together.
— Jamie Bennett, executive director, ARTPLACE America

In New York City, there is undeniable progress, but at the same time, there are constant inequities. The questions that the panelists tackled and that continue to be front-of-mind for planners, designers, urbanists, policy makers, and the philanthropy community should not just be about how to design and build better cities, but, more pointedly, what does it mean to build, to design, and to create a city where the focus is really one of justice?

Lauren Adams
Lauren is the Creative Director for Gensler’s Northeast region who oversees the creative output across the region’s four offices, enhancing the impactful ideas, innovative strategies, and human-centric experience design that defines Gensler’s work. She focuses on understanding consumers as a means to create meaningful brand engagements through experience design, service design, programming, and the built environment. Lauren is based in New York. Contact her at .