A freewheeling and animated panel of experts discussed the role of streets, squares, parks, buildings, and other public spaces in the life of New York City on Oct. 10.

“Public Spaces, Public Good: Building the Livable City,” took place at the Museum of Arts and Design, and featured Hugh Hardy, founding partner, H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, and Michael Sorkin, Ph.D., professor of architecture and director of the graduate program in urban design at City College, CUNY.

The discussion, which was the third in Fordham’s Urban Dialogues Lecture Series, was moderated by Kenneth T. Jackson, Ph.D., director of the Herbert H. Lehman Center for American History and the Jacques Barzun Professor of History and Social Sciences at Columbia University.

Kenneth T. Jackson, Michael Sorkin, Janette Sadik-Khan and Hugh Hardy Photo by Chris Taggart

The panel was presented by the Fordham Urban Studies Program made possible by a generous gift from Frank Sciame, CEO & Chairman, The Sciame Organization.

Jackson prefaced the evening’s topic by noting that New York’s current rebirth has been a long time coming, as the city arguably began declining in the 1950’s, and at one point in the 1970’s, it lost more residents than lived at the time in all of Boston.

Decreased crime, an influx of some 3 million immigrants, and a renewed focus on public space have all contributed to New York City’s rebound.

“We have about 450 neighborhoods in New York City, and it’s hard to think of a single one that’s not in many ways better off now than it was 25 or 30 years ago,” he said.
“Maybe in a capitalist system, the best way we can tell the city’s turned around is it’s so bloody expensive.”

The streets are where the real energy of the city lies, said Harvey. It’s where the stock market first started, it’s where agents used to find the talent for Broadway.

“The streets are the glory of this place. Everything comes together on the streets. Whenever you’ve been away, and you come back here, you walk for a block or two, and it’s such a joy,” he said.

Parks, on the other hand, seem to be in danger of being ceded to private interests, and he wondered aloud whether the public-private partnerships such as the Bryant Park Corporation would prove to be the ideal long-term arrangement.

Sadik-Khan, whose office has in Jackson’s words, “put tables and chairs where there used to be rubber tires,” said that she considered elements that make New York’s 6,000 miles of streets more appealing to pedestrians and bicyclists to be a long overdue upgrade. Two thirds of New Yorkers walk or use public transportation instead of cars to get around, but up until recently, streets were only designed for the latter.

“The last big change to New York City Streets was really in the 1950’s and the 1960’s, when the two-way major avenues were turned into one-way avenues. That was 50 years ago. So think about our streets, which are 80 percent of the city, and if you didn’t change your investment strategy or approach over 50 years. If you were a business, you would be out of business,” she said.

“So it is incumbent on us to update our streets so they reflect the demands that we have on them today.”

Sorkin disagreed with the notion that public space is improving in New York City, citing the Occupy Wall Street’s eviction from Zucotti Park as an example of the highly contested nature of public space in Manhattan in particular. The city’s proposal to upzone the area around Grand Central Terminal without clearly stating what public amenities will accompany the new construction is also distressing, and he is skeptical of promised upgrades to transportation systems.

“Every time I go to the 59th Street station, I am gobsmacked by the disproportionate amount of money that was spent on the Time Warner Center, on the glittering Trump Tower, and this building, in comparison to the years long renovation of that subway station, which is still crappy in comparison to Washington, D.C., San Francisco or a dozen European cities,” he said.

Although not responsible in the planning decisions for areas such as Hudson Yards or the Grand Central upzoning, Sadik-Khan pointed out that the city is actually laying out plans for how it might look in 2030, and is mindful that it is competition with cities all around the world. Changes are not just being made in the wealthy parts of town either.

“I don’t know how many of you have been to New Lots Avenue, at the end of the 3 line in East New York, but it didn’t take a lot to transform what had been people just dumped out into traffic, there was nothing there, and to create these kinds of places where people are actually asking for and getting delivered,” she said.

“New York is actually taken the lead in lining up distressed areas of the city where we can create that kind of public space and an investment strategy that will continue to yield big dividends down the line.”