Thoughts on the Fourth Regional Plan of Metropolitan New York

By Hassan Arif

Hassan Arif is a lawyer and academic, he teaches in the Department of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick and has a PhD in urban sociology from that same university. You can follow him on twitter: @HassanNB.

Feb 7, 2018 | Governance, Society | 0 comments

Metropolitan New York is a region that has experienced significant economic growth. In 1996, when the third regional plan was drafted, the concern was decline; the concern in 2018 is sustaining growth and ensuring it is equitable. Growth should not only benefit a limited group of people to the exclusion (or detriment) of others.

I had the opportunity to listen to the webinar presentation hosted by Meeting of the Minds, focused on the Fourth Regional Plan of Metropolitan New York. Overall, this Fourth Regional Plan is a historic initiative; a forward-thinking plan which considers no challenge insurmountable. The Fourth Regional Plan includes coping with climate change (the problem of increased flooding), and gentrification (to promote equitable economic development and ensure people are not priced out). The Fourth Regional Plan highlights the need to give a voice to those who have been overlooked: the poor, African Americans, and Hispanics.

Going forward, there is a need to think big and to think small. What does this mean? In thinking big, the challenges facing Metropolitan New York highlight the need for federal government action, the need for a national urban plan that includes investments in transit (within and between city-regions) and climate change adaptation. It is also worthwhile to consider the mega-city over and above the metropolitan region, namely the Bos-Wash urban corridor.

In thinking small, healthy and vital neighbourhoods are important. These are neighbourhoods that are architecturally interesting, and blend into the urban fabric of New York City and surrounding municipalities. In all this it is important to promote community participation, including from historically disenfranchised groups.

 

Thinking Big: The Need For a National Urban Plan

The OECD notes that the United States does not have a national urban plan. The United States needs a national urban plan; it will be good for the competitiveness of America, given the role of cities as economic engines; for national security, in coping with climate change; and in promoting social equity. With urbanizing countries like China investing heavily in cities, and cities like Dubai rising to world-class status, a national cities plan is all the more important for America’s global competitiveness.

The Regional Plan identifies several infrastructure needs: public transit for people to travel to jobs and schools (essential for economic development), and climate change adaptation (dealing with greater flooding). These are issues that include Metropolitan New York, but extend beyond it. These are issues where federal government money and policy would be needed, hence the need for a national urban plan that identifies nation-wide priorities facing the country’s cities, while also having the flexibility to accommodate differing local and regional situations.

On transportation, the Fourth Regional Plan identifies the need to modernize the subway system in New York City and to “create a unified, integrated regional rail system and expand regional rail” for the Metropolitan region. The Regional Plan notes that funding for regional transit systems has lagged increased ridership, with funding cuts in many cases.

All this would call for a role for the federal government in providing funding and support for New York and other metropolitan regions in the country. Public transit is essential to sustainability, in that it provides an alternative to cars, and economic growth, in connecting people to jobs and education. These are issues with national implications.

On climate change adaptation, the Regional Plan cites preservation and expansion of wetlands in New Jersey, the Meadowlands, as crucial for rainwater absorption to deal with the greater threats of flooding from climate change. The Plan proposes National Park status for the New Jersey Meadowlands. Regional planning and conservation are essential; Houston’s flooding problems have been exacerbated by unchecked sprawl, which has produced fewer wetlands and more pavement.

In one report associated with the Regional Plan, “Coastal Adaptation: A Framework for Governance and Funding to Address Climate Change”, it is noted that climate change planning has been fragmented and uncoordinated – local and reactive – rather than regional and proactive. The importance of climate change adaptation planning for Metropolitan New York is noted in the report: “Over the next 30 years, 59% of the region’s energy capacity will be in areas prone to flooding, as will all of our shipping ports, four of our major airports, 21% of our public housing units and 12% of our hospital beds.”

There is a need for the federal government to be involved in a coordinated and proactive plan for coastal flooding in Metropolitan New York and in other coastal city regions. Coastal flooding is a threat to the security and economic health of the country.

 

Thinking Big in terms of The Bos-Wash Urban Corridor

Richard Florida, in an article for the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, describes the Bos-Wash mega-city region as follows:

The Bos-Wash mega stretches some 500 miles down the East Coast, from Boston through New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, to Washington, DC. It is home to 56.5 million people, more than 18 percent of all Americans, and generates $3.75 trillion in economic output, more than Germany. If Bos-Wash were a separate country, it would be the fourth largest nation in the world, behind only the U.S., China, and Japan.

This mega-city is a massive economic and demographic entity, one that includes a plethora of local and state governments. In terms of economic development, transit, and climate change adaptation, this unit is a significant policy space. There are numerous questions that arise: about a coordinated transit strategy, about economic development, about a potential region-wide Greenbelt to contain sprawl and preserve forests and wetlands.

On the last point, the Greater Toronto Area and western Lake Ontario region in Canada has a region-wide Ontario Greenbelt, established by the provincial government of Ontario. The aim of this greenbelt is to contain sprawl and preserve forests, farmland, and wetlands. Of course, this involves only one provincial government, Ontario, and is in Canada where there is a tradition of provincial governments intervening directly on local government issues.

The fact that Bos-Wash crosses many state lines and includes many local units, makes any kind of planning and coordination a challenge. Could this be where the federal government could play a role?

Despite the challenges, in addition to planning for Metropolitan New York, it is worth keeping in mind this wider, and inter-connected mega-city region that Metropolitan New York is located within. There are, no doubt, common economic, transit, and climate change issues affecting the Bos-Wash region which could be productively affected by a region-wide policy.

 

Thinking Small: Maintaining Vital and Interesting Neighbourhoods

Several of the Regional Plan’s recommendations touch on promoting civic participation, especially among historically marginalized groups, and these issues of participation include affordable housing, and walkable, bike-able streets. Some pertinent recommendations from the plan are as follows:

  • “Increase civil engagement at the local level and make planning and development more inclusive, predictable, and efficient.”
  • “Design streets for people and create more public space.”
  • “Preserve and create affordable housing in all communities.”

These recommendations are meant to address concerns about gentrification by facilitating the construction of affordable housing and by including African-Americans, Hispanics, and low-income people in the consultation process. These are groups who have too often been ignored. The Report notes that it has been older, wealthier, and mostly white residents who have been more effective in making their voices heard. This can lead to decisions that are unrepresentative of the population. In this context, one can consider how the Cross Bronx Expressway was built – and the South Bronx neighbourhoods it split – while the Lower Manhattan Expressway was stopped.

On gentrification and the need for affordable housing, an associated report of the Regional Plan, Pushed Out: Housing Displacement in an Unaffordable Region, sets out how rising housing costs and the growing popularity of walkable neighbourhoods in New York City and surrounding municipalities, has put pressure on low-income residents (these are also neighbourhoods where there is greater access to transit and to jobs). The Report states that this toll is especially severe on African-Americans and Hispanics who represent two-thirds of the 990,000 people in Metropolitan New York who are vulnerable to displacement.

Thus, this report argues that new housing construction, which includes affordable housing, is needed.

It is encouraging that involvement of local residents is key to the Regional Plan. It is important to involve local residents, especially those who have been marginalized, in building new housing units. In all this, architecture and urban design are important, to plan for new units that are architecturally interesting and that blend into the fabric of their neighbourhoods, especially  in New York City, which has many architecturally and historically significant neighbourhoods. There needs to be new housing units and greater density, but this should blend into the fabric of their respective neighbourhoods.

Historically, many housing units, especially low income housing, have taken the form of monotonous tower blocks that did little to foster civic pride or a sense of community.

Jane Jacobs, a notable urbanist who lived in New York City, in her essays contained in the anthology, Vital Little Plans – edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring, discusses the importance of community participation in creating vibrant neighbourhoods with rich street life.

In particular, while not discounting the importance of long-term planning, Jacobs states that such plans should not be arbitrary and not come at the expense of local participation or distinctiveness. Jacobs highlighted the need to accommodate and encourage organic development of neighbourhoods, the kind of organic development that does not happen all at once, and that encourages architecture and streets that are interesting and spontaneous. It is important to build on existing urban frameworks and not destroy them.

If big plans lack “flexibility and adaptability”, Jacobs writes in her essay “Can Big Plans Solve the Problem of Renewal?” Then, “big plans make mistakes, and when the plans are very big the mistakes can be very big also.”

This is good in building new housing units and promoting density in Metropolitan New York in the current social climate. While overarching vision and goals are important, local adaptability and flexibility within different neighbourhoods, and promoting community participation, is needed for architecturally interesting neighbourhoods and for building community pride.

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