Streetbeat, Vol. XXV
The history of the tristate region, turbocharging infrastructure, and Eurocentrism in planning.
And welcome to this newsletter.
It's where I (John Surico) share thoughts & writing each month on cities & their contents: streets, people, energy, cultures, food, form, etc. Thanks for being here, and hope you enjoy your time!
Along with a motley crew of friends hailing from London, Madrid, Dallas, Washington D.C., and New York, I visited Berlin for the first time this month. This was a strictly leisure trip: when it’s Angela’s birthday—especially one as monumental as her 30th—she evolves into a next-gen party producer Pokémon. (It’s truly something.) And so, a whole bunch of us arrived in Das Kapital.
I have many thoughts on Berlin as a city (also a major shout-out here to hometown pal Tim Lazaroff for serving as spirit guide), but what struck me was how, undoubtedly, it’s the most visceral urban embodiment of recent human horror that I’ve experienced in my lifetime. We stood atop the bunker where Adolph Hitler and Ava Braun committed suicide as Allied forces entered the city, which now, rightfully, lies unmarked in a playground behind a housing development, next to a bike shop. We visited Mythos Germania, an exhibit of the Nazis’ architectural fascism: using the city of Berlin itself—its structure, layout, appearance—to project unchecked power, through plans that never came to fruition. We saw how the Wall divided the city not only by population, but also, by design. (An aside: west Berlin is way more road-centric than the east, a leftover American export.) And as people frolicked in the fields at Templehof—the public park pieced together from a decommissioned airfield—we confronted refugee camps, the latest wave of escape in a city characterized by it.
Cities are living reminders of the past; the good parts, but also, the bad. Sometimes it’s in your face, like the Wall or the endless pools where the Twin Towers once stood in downtown Manhattan. But often, it’s more subtle: neighborhoods that look the way they do because of redlining or rising rents; public parks that were once potter’s fields or slave burial grounds. The present cityscape we see is this culmination of chaos. Washington D.C., for example, is a city built by slaves, burnt down, rebuilt (again by slaves), and then savaged again, on 9/11, too, and then 1/6. The cities in Latin America, Asia and Africa are souvenirs of colonial oppression, retrofitting infrastructure originally designed to exploit. And then you have places like Baghdad and Damascus—once thriving hallmarks of civilization, now defined by what feels like its endless destruction.
Today, I think of Kyiv, and the city it’ll become once this war of Russian aggression comes to an end. (Berlin, unsurprisingly, has been the site of some of the largest demonstrations against the conflict.) It’s hard not to think of what’s being lost: a favorite corner café; the theater where a parent saw their child’s first play; the restaurant where someone had their first date, or heartbreak. These places that create our lives in cities, gone now for so many Ukrainians—and, for some, likely forever. One day, Kyiv will return, with new cafés, new theaters, and new restaurants, but with new memories for new people. What happened before will, eventually, fade into the ether. And the city, as it always does, will live on.
Phew. Okay, now onto the news…
A century of planning
For many journalists in the tristate region—that is, the ‘metroplex’ covering New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut—Regional Plan Association, or RPA for short, is what I’d call a ‘go-to’. For so many stories on transit, housing, economic development, the environment… you look to RPA for a quote. I cannot count the number of times I’ve included one of their voices in a story. (Exhibit A, B, and C.)
That is because over the last 100 years, there hasn’t been a group quite like RPA. They’ve established themselves as the planning experts for a region that is home to 25 million people and a tenth of America’s GDP; a region that (warning: coastal elite bias alert) steers the country economically, socially and culturally in ways few others can match. And they’ve done that through their intensely covered Regional Plans, which act as roadmaps of growth for New York City and its surrounding environs. Their clairvoyance on projects—i.e. the Second Avenue Subway, Hudson Yards, and now, the Interborough Express—is uncanny.
Late last year, RPA reached out to me about its centennial celebration, which arrives this May. They gave me access to their headquarters and its treasure trove of urbanist paraphernalia, as well as staff, both present and former. And admitted to me that, frankly, planners don’t always get things right. The result is this extensive feature (there was a lot to tell!) for Bloomberg CityLab.
American cities are flush with cash right now. Not only are tax bases revving back up as the Omicron wave recedes, but also, coffers are filling up with funds from Washington through the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, and, soon, the infrastructure bill. (The CARES Act under the Trump administration also deployed resources, but they focused on short-term solvency.) This massive influx of dollars is allowing cities to innovate: Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston is piloting free buses; former Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York created the City Cleanup Corps; and Mayor Ed Gainey of Pittsburgh, along with a few other cities, is testing out guaranteed basic income. Following ARPA is a policy nerd thrill.
But as this newsletter has said before, cities can’t deliver projects using the mechanisms of old. The challenges are too immense, and the consequences of inaction, and repeating past errors (i.e. what we built; what we prioritized, or didn’t), are too damn high. As infrastructure dollars arrive, these are the concerns keeping advocates in the transit and climate worlds up at night.
So I was pleased to see New Yorkers for Parks and Center for an Urban Future team up to launch the ‘Build Back Faster’ campaign this month, based on my research into New York’s capital construction process from last year. (A brief of those findings can be found here.) It is a clarion call during budget talks to make sure that, say, a park bathroom doesn’t cost $3 million to build, or a library has to wait 10 years to get their HVAC fixed. And as cities chart out spending strategies with all this newfound cash, it’s needed now more than ever.
Solutions Corner: Reengaging Older Adults
As mentioned in recent editions, the Economic Opportunity Lab is my final project with Center for an Urban Future (CUF) for some time. Essentially, it’s a rollout of five policy ideas from other cities and states for the new Adams administration and City Council to consider in order to help revive the city’s economy in the COVID recovery. (New York City’s unemployment rate is currently double the national average, with even higher figures for POC.) I penned two of the five—the first was New Jersey’s career impact bond, which I summarized in this space last month. The second finds us in Tennessee.
Problem: New York City is home to about 670,000 residents between the age of 25 and 64 who have some college but no degree. The share is disproportionately occupied by Black and Brown communities: for example, 35 percent of working-age women with some college but no degree are Black and Hispanic, although they make up 25 percent of the general population. And as we know, the jobs hit hardest by the pandemic (and still recovering) were in industries that rely less on a degree; not coincidentally, the fastest-growing industries for well-paying jobs rely more.
So helping close to a million New Yorkers finish college is a matter of equity. But right now, there are three major hurdles blocking older adults from graduation:
College financial aid isn’t set up for part-time students. Financial aid is systematically stacked against adult learners. In most situations, you have to be enrolled full-time with a certain amount of credits—which is nearly impossible for adult learners with responsibilities outside of school. That is why making community college free—a hallmark of President Biden’s Build Back Better Act, whose fate is now uncertain—is such a big deal.
Lack of pre-enrollment counseling leads to stop-outs later on. When adult learners drop out of college, it’s often not for personal, not academic, reasons: their work responsibilities might be too demanding, maybe, or they cannot afford childcare. (This is what’s called a stop-out.) Currently, the postsecondary system is set up to help people after they’re enrolled, but not much attention is given to finding out a student’s situation before they even walk into the classroom. So once they take on an unsustainable class load, it quickly becomes too late to help them.
Adult learners need flexible scheduling—and often struggle to get it. Most college classes are designed around the 9-5 workday, when, as it turns out, most adult learners are busy. So if higher education systems are going to attract adult learners, they need to get much better at offering online or evening courses. (One subject said that her adult students loved Zoom, as it allowed them to learn while feeding their kids dinner—something to remember when we discuss where remote work goes from here.)
Solution: A state with 900,00 residents who started but haven’t finished college, Tennessee was one of the first to make community college tuition-free (yes, a red state), and New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, which does the same for the state- (SUNY) and city-run schools (CUNY) up to a certain income threshold, was actually inspired by it. But Tennessee Reconnect, the state’s all-hands-on-deck approach for getting older adults to finish school, goes even further.
First, it provides a “last dollar” scholarship to those returning, meaning the state will cover the difference after financial aid is factored in. Second, it places a huge emphasis on pre-enrollment counseling, where counselors can lay out a precise path to prospective students to complete their degree in the shortest time possible. And finally, each student is paired with a ‘navigator,’ who acts as their mentor for figuring out finances or booking classes throughout their studies.
New York has made progress—the renowned CUNY ASAP system basically fast tracks the college experience for those with non-academic responsibilities, and the CUNY Comeback Program wiped $95 million of debt for 52,000 students who suffered financially during the pandemic. Last month, New York’s governor announced that the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) will be extended to part-time students in her next budget. But a wholesale strategy to not only locate the residents who stopped out, but also, to then get them across the finish line would be a game-changer. And Tennessee shows us how to get it done.
Read the full brief here.
City in Spotlight: Afuá
In 2022, cities worldwide are talking a lot about their ‘modal share.’ The term has appeared in this newsletter before, but think of it as a pie for transportation, with slices (shares) given to walking, cycling, driving, mass transit, or some other mode. So a city with 30% modal share for its metro means that 30 percent of its residents use the metro as their primary mode for a trip. Easy enough.
Now, in 2022, most cities are pushing for sustainable modal shares. London, for example, wants an 80-20 sustainable modal share by 2040, meaning that by then, 80 percent of all trips in the city would be done ‘sustainably’ (i.e. walking, cycling, public transit). This is what we would consider an ideal ‘modal shift.’
The thing is, there are actually cities in the world that are already there. And no, it’s not the Dutch. What I found while researching Rio de Janeiro for a paper once is that Rio is actually pretty damn close to an 80-20 mode share. And so are a bunch of other cities in the ‘Global South.’ But unlike cities like London or Paris, it’s because these cities are historically poorer than their North American or European counterparts, and so public transit, walking and cycling isn’t always a matter of preference, but, instead, a necessity.
Still, the fact that we know so much more about, say, Amsterdam or Copenhagen and herald these cities for being forward-thinking on their streetscapes gets at the Eurocentrism baked into planning. There was a running joke in planning school: the class called International Case Studies in Transport should really be renamed Case Studies in Scandinavia, because it had so few mentions that were not just white people on bikes. When cities in Latin America or Asia were included, they were deemed ‘equity’ examples, even though many had achieved modal shares long ago that other cities up north are still struggling to meet.
That is my preamble for this video on Afuá, a Brazilian city near the Amazon River that likely few have heard of, but in many ways, is light years ahead of us.
(Shout-outs to UCL friends Camilo and Renata for sharing—can’t wait to see you both next month at graduation!)
Parklet of the Month: February 2022 Edition
Name: Don Antonio (Manhattan, NYC)
What: A more affordable structure design, with customizable seating.
FKA: Not Neapolitan tiles.
I had the honor this month of sitting on the jury for AIA’s Open Restaurants Innovation initiative. We spent hours sifting through some stunning submissions while discussing the future of this program, as it slugs through the rule-making phase. (The New York City Council just overwhelmingly passed the zoning change needed for it to function, but the program envisioned certainly looks different than what exists now, with ‘flexibility’ as the name of the game.)
We landed on a few, but one that stood out was EXD Architecture’s design for Don Antonio, a popular Italian restaurant in Manhattan. It was done on a relatively small budget—which is important if this program is going to work in more low-income communities—and can be arranged to meet new needs: accessible seating around the edge, as shown; partitions to divide seating; or removable panels to close the structure at night. For us, it won for demonstrating how to totally maximize a slice of street space for other usages.
Want to shout out a parklet where you live? Submit yours here.
Bright Side: AR for Planning
We hear so much about the metaverse these days—and, like crypto, I feel like none of us really get it. But it is neat to see what it’s capable of. I thought Pokémon Go really pushed the envelope of augmented reality (AR) for the mainstream, but what can we do with this technology if it’s used for public policy, or even community planning? That’s where the Kalye Toolkit comes in.
Essentially, the toolkit gives neighbors a set of tiles, which then serve as different ‘pieces’ of a street. Using AR, the tiles could become a two-way bike lane or a parklet, for example, so you’d be able to actually see (and play with) potential street redesigns rather than simply read about them.
(*Thanks to Streetbeat regular Jackson Chabot for shouting out the initiative to me!)
Streetbeat Gig Board
StreetLab, a nonprofit that creates nifty pop-up events for public spaces, is looking for a program manager, comms manager, and program staff.
New City Critics is putting together a cohort of five fellows who do not see themselves represented in the world of urban design and planning.
In anticipation of their permanent Open Streets and Open Restaurants programs, NYCDOT is hiring like mad.
Have a job to post? Submit it here.