Design Forecast New York: Designing a Better World: Equitable and Actionable Solutions
By Lauren Adams and Amanda Ramos
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?