This New York Times article in the Week in Review section today poses an interesting question but then fumbles the football. Jim Morrison of the Doors once sang that the "future is uncertain and the end is always near". Joyce Purnick seems to take delight in the fact that ex-post certain ex-ante predictions look silly. Yes, New York City today does not resemble what urban planners predicted it would look like in 1960 or 1970 but how does this deep insight influence choices today?
If I were the Mayor of New York City and cared about how New York looks in 30 years, I would focus on improving the public schools to raise the human capital of all of the immigrant kids going to these schools. I would focus on transforming the zoning code so that all of the dumpy commercial auto shop zones of Queens and Brooklyn could be converted into housing for people poorer than Don Trump. I would try to figure out why crime has fallen in New York City and to take steps to make sure that this trend doesn't reverse. I would continue to encourage the de-industrialization of New York City and the "greening" of blighted industrial sites.
If a Mayor could follow these 4 steps, then there will continue to be high demand to live in New York. Employers will continue to want to be located in New York and the fiscal health of the city will remain high. Note that this article does not discuss the property tax base for the city but this is the key factor determining how much of a flow of annual money the City can spend for the huge variety of things that local government is expected to supply.
December 31, 2006
New York, Where the Dreamers Are Asleep
By JOYCE PURNICK
NEW YORK, get ready. You are thriving and growing, but aging. Adjust, modernize, it’s later than you think.
So advised Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently, predicting that by 2030, the city will be home to another million people — 9.2 million New Yorkers clogging already congested streets, overtaxing energy supplies, burdening services. Plan for the future now, said the mayor, promising details later.
The mayor’s warnings drew a ho-hum reaction from a tough public focused on daily survival rather than problems a quarter-century away. But the suspicion here is that even if Mr. Bloomberg tried to plan ambitiously for 2010, New Yorkers would cast a skeptical eye.
The city that once lived to dazzle seems no longer able to think big or much past tomorrow. That was for its optimistic youth, when dreamers built Central Park, the marvel of a subway system, the wonder that is the Brooklyn Bridge and an advanced network of reservoirs and water tunnels. A younger New York dared to stage a World’s Fair in the shadow of the Depression.
But the bills came due, bankruptcy loomed, President Gerald R. Ford threatened to leave the city in the lurch and the place turned practical. Today’s New Yorkers want to know what something costs and who will pay. Turning landfill into a park, or building a new basketball arena and apartment-retail complex in Brooklyn if private dollars foot a healthy part of the bill — fine. Risking citywide gridlock to impress the world by playing host to the Olympics? Not so fine.
It’s not as if the mayor’s goal of moving traffic and keeping the lights on are utopian concepts. But the public has learned that New York does not follow a script.
The first plan for reviving a blighted Times Square goes back to the late 1970s. But one plan gave way to another for more than 20 years, until the market took over and created today’s tourist and entertainment magnet.
Westway was a bold government plan in the 1970s to build an underground interstate highway along the Hudson, with housing, commercial development and parks built above. After a decade of legal battles, the government abandoned Westway, and today, to get to waterfront parks later built downtown, pedestrians must navigate dense traffic.
In “Our Changing City,” a series of articles in this newspaper in 1955, officials envisioned a civic plaza in downtown Brooklyn that Robert Moses promised would rival the Piazza San Marco in Venice; a grandiose development over the Sunnyside rail yards in Queens; and a Palace of Progress devoted to world trade atop a new Pennsylvania Station. All that and a Second Avenue subway.
Didn’t happen. Other things that few anticipated did: the recovery of the South Bronx, the gentrification of Harlem, the drop in crime, sturdy growth in the immigrant population, now approaching record levels. Where is the expert who knew that Internet businesses would replace garment factories, that newspapers would fall on hard times, that the meatpacking district would develop cachet, that coffee houses would dominate every corner?
And then there is the starkest example of the unexpected — Sept. 11 and the city’s arc from devastation to renewal.
Projections can go awry, based as they are on assumptions sometimes trumped by the unforeseen. Population predictions are especially tricky, because they can be affected by factors like national and foreign policies, economic swings and politics.
In 1929, the Regional Plan Association predicted that the city would grow to 11.3 million people by 1965 (the figure turned out to be 7.7 million) and that the population in the metropolitan region would double to 20 million over 1,000 square miles. The region grew to 17 million over 2,000 square miles; the association attributed this to a failure to improve the railways.
The city’s population has had a way of taking on a life of its own. Zoning consultants in the 1960s advised city officials that New York’s population would grow to 8.5 million in 1975 — it may well have if not for the fiscal crisis that was at its worst in 1975. Instead, the numbers dropped so sharply — to 7.2 million in 1980 from 8 million in 1970 — that some social scientists advocated “planned shrinkage” in city services.
Then, as if overnight, the city began growing again, to 7.6 million people by 1990, and to more than 8 million in another 10 years — an increase that was also unanticipated. The public schools in some neighborhoods, instead of needing cuts, had to create annexes in prefabricated trailers.
What happened? Washington passed the liberalized Immigration Act of 1965, which encouraged greater immigration. At the same time, baby boomers began having children, and the city was recovering, so more people who might have left for the suburbs stayed.
Now Mr. Bloomberg anticipates more growth, based on city projections of factors like current birth and mortality rates, and aging, migration and disease patterns.
The analysis anticipates, for instance, that Staten Island and Queens will continue to outpace the other boroughs, as they have for years, attracting New Yorkers who might otherwise head to the suburbs. The city’s demographers also expect immigration to continue at a healthy clip, and that people will continue to live long lives.
They could be wrong about any of their assumptions. Maybe Congress will quell immigration and build more walls. Maybe an economic downturn will stall housing development and people will leave for the suburbs instead of moving to Rego Park. Maybe mortality rates will change.
All possible, said Joseph J. Salvo, director of the City Planning Department’s population division. “Are our projections reasonable?” he said. “Absolutely. Accurate? We’ll have to wait until events unfold. It doesn’t mean you don’t go ahead and plan for the future.”
Especially since the future is now. Traffic is already congested, blackouts are increasingly common, the parks too crowded, the air too dirty. It could be that the mayor didn’t generate any excitement with his 2030 announcement because New Yorkers, a practical lot, as noted, don’t see the big deal about their city retooling — as long as Mr. Bloomberg keeps his promise to tell them what it will cost and who pays.