NYC Welcomes Tech, But Only If It Helps New Yorkers

New York City is a leading hub for technology and innovation — but you wouldn’t guess it by its most-hyped headlines. Ironically, some of the most eye-catching recent news in the tech sector centers around how the city prevented one of the most influential tech titans from setting the foundation for a Big Tech colony in Long Island City. 

For the short span of a few months, it seemed as though New York was teetering on the verge of supplanting Silicon Valley as a home base for major tech companies. The city had a plan — and a provisional agreement — to host Amazon’s much-courted HQ2 within its borders that many in the tech industry heralded as the start of a new era of innovation and prosperity. During a press conference shortly after the announcement of the agreement, Governor Andrew Cuomo celebrated, saying: “This is the largest economic development initiative that has ever been done by the city or the state or the city and the state, together.”

The agreement certainly had some startling numbers to back it; analysts projects that the deal would generate no less than $27.5 billion in state and city revenue over 25 years with a 9:1 ratio of revenue to subsidies. HQ2 was expected to create roughly 25,000 jobs in its first decade, in addition to the 1,300 construction jobs and 107,000 direct and indirect jobs the building initiative would require. Amazon further promised to launch a tech startup incubator and a new school on its campus, as well as allocate as much as $5 million to workforce development efforts. 

On the surface, the partnership between New York and Amazon was a tech proponent’s dream come true; however, the proposed HQ2 deal faced vehement opposition almost immediately after its announcement. Several protests against the initiative were held in Long Island City in the fall of 2018. By February of 2019, the deal was off. 

Now, New York’s highly-publicized divorce from Amazon’s HQ2 plans could be interpreted as a sign that the city wasn’t interested in supplanting Silicon Valley as a home for Big Tech. However, I would argue that the issue the city had with Amazon isn’t based in bias against Big Tech or tech as a whole, but in concern that Amazon’s presence would come at too high a cost to the people of New York. The city courted the tech giant, perhaps to the point of overreach; all told, the public funds and kickbacks given to Amazon would have totaled close to $3 billion, with the city and state paying the e-retailer as much as $48,000 per job. With that cost, opponents argued, were the “benefits” Amazon offered even worth their price?  

Rejecting Amazon doesn’t mean that New York City is hostile to the tech sector — quite the opposite. The city wants a tech sector, but it wants it on terms that suit the people who call it home, rather than those who run Big Tech’s boardrooms. It seems to be relatively successful in its pursuit of that goal, too: Startup Genome reports that NYC ranks first globally in funding availability and quality in NYC, and the metro region alone received $13 billion in funding in 2018. In 2018, New York’s tech sector represented 333,000 jobs in 2018 and encompassed a full 10% of the nation’s developers

Moreover, it seems probable that the city will continue to serve as fertile ground for tech-center development, given that it currently supports over 120 universities and is ranked first globally for the number of STEM-field graduates produced annually. Those students are likely to stay and contribute, too; tech firms in New York City have the fastest average hiring time for engineers across all U.S. tech ecosystems and offer wages that are, on average, 49% higher than private-sector rates elsewhere. 

Amazon’s failed HQ2 deal notwithstanding, even Big Tech is expanding its presence in the city. This past spring, Netflix put down $100 million for a production hub in Williamsburg and promised to create over 100 new jobs in Manhattan. In late 2018 — around the same time that Amazon was fielding controversy over HQ2 — Google committed $1 billion to create a new Lower Manhattan campus and double its local workforce. Facebook wants to open up shop in Hudson Yard; Apple is reportedly looking for more office space in the city. 

The signs are clear that, despite what the failed HQ2 deal might indicate, New York City wants tech, big and small alike. The city will continue to keep pace, if not ultimately overtake, the Silicon Valley tech scene. Provided, of course, that the tech investment it facilitates supports — and is in turn supported by — its people. 

By |2019-09-23T16:55:59+00:00September 23rd, 2019|Current Events, Technology|

How AR and VR Could Change Tourism in New York

Tourist itineraries in New York City are predictable enough to be b-roll cliche. Tourists are easy enough to spot: they move in flocks through Central Park, take selfies at the Statue of Liberty, stare in awe from their slow-moving tour buses at the Empire State Building, and — of course — purchase “I Heart NYC” t-shirts from overpriced carts. The New York that visitors enjoy is predictable, yes, but also vivid, exciting, and well-packed with familiar landmarks; each new day offers wide-eyed tourists the chance to experience famous sights firsthand.

But what if the tourism experience could span more than a well-walked map of landmarks? What if visitors could peel back the cliches of New York’s touristy exterior and delve into its rich history? Augmented and virtual reality technologies may provide a means to do just that, revolutionizing the way visitors experience both the city and its history.

VR and AR’s entry into the tourism sector isn’t all that surprising, given its growing popularity. Analysts for Goldman Sachs estimate that the market for both will overtake $1.6 billion by 2025. Figures from Statista further indicate that as of 2018, 117 million people worldwide were active VR users — a notable leap from four years before, when only 200,000 actively used the technology. Both AR and VR are well-known for their ability to create immersive digital experiences; they empower consumers to delve into their favorite fantasy gaming worlds, experience movies in near-overwhelming sensory experiences, and even virtually “trial” products before buying them in a brick-and-mortar store. With tourism, virtual- and augmented reality technologies promise to add another layer of immersion to an industry that already centers on creating memorable experiences.

VR Expands Tourism Possibilities

Every pre-planned walk or guided bus tour has its limits. Tourists can’t duck under the metaphorical velvet rope to explore their favorite attractions; they have to stay within set, guide-approved bounds. With VR, those limitations are less constricting, offering virtual access to the tourist without compromising the security of the site itself.

As Dr. Nigel Jones, a senior lecturer in information systems at Cardiff Metropolitan University noted for a recent article for the BBC, VR provides “something that’s more tangible to the [tourist]. They can see where they’re going to go, see what’s happening in that location […] The other advantage is to give people an experience that they can’t do. You could take them to a place that’s off limits — like a dungeon in a castle.”

New York City might be running low on castles, but it certainly has no shortage of historic attractions and digitally-explorable landscapes. Consider Governor’s Island, a popular tourist hotspot that sits just East of the Statue of Liberty. Today, the island encompasses several historical sites and a national park — but centuries ago, it was a seasonal fishing spot for Native Americans and an outpost for English and Dutch settlers. The island’s history is rich — and relatively inaccessible for most tourists. However, recent AR innovations have begun to allow tourists to walk through history as they traverse the island.

Inventing America is one such tourist-centered tool. Made publicly available in 2018, Inventing America uses an AR-powered app to transport visitors into a 17th-century, post-colonial version of Governor’s Island. The app provides users with the opportunity to delve into storylines, characters, and history even as they explore the real-life Governor’s Island on foot. Experiences in the app are inextricably tied to physical exploration, ensuring that the AR game complements and supports, rather than replaces, a tourist’s real-world experience on the island.

Of course, not all VR- and AR innovations are quite so based in game and narrative. Others, like the New York City-based tour provider The RIDE, use VR and AR experiences to provide tourists with more information as they drive past popular city hotspots. The RIDE melds traditional tour bus routes with augmented reality technology; each of its buses sport 40 LCD TVs, surround sound, and LED lights. This structure, the company notes, allows facilitators to provide “deeply researched audio/visual support conveying the history and growth of Manhattan” during their tours, thereby superimposing a tech-powered view of a past New York onto the view tourists see beyond the bus’s windows.

Emerging virtual tools promise to add all-new layers to New York’s tourism experience, sweeping away the tired tropes of tourist cliches — and we will be all the better for it.

By |2019-07-15T20:51:17+00:00May 30th, 2019|Culture, Technology|

How Well Do Sci-Fi Movies Predict New York City’s Future?

“Truth is stranger than fiction.” One would think Mark Twain’s famous rule would apply to New York City as much, if not more than, any place else in the world. But when it comes to science fiction, oddly it doesn’t.

The internet is full of articles about sci-fi movies that accurately predict the future, technologically and otherwise. Often, the future happens on the west coast—Los Angeles is particularly popular, according to multiple listicles devoted to the topic of movies that predict technology accurately. Although, oft-cited in the top 10 of the list, Minority Report, released in 2002, is actually set in Washington, D.C., in 2054 A.D.

But, even if some of the technology—like virtual reality, voice-interactive computers, and frighteningly personalized advertising—does exist today, when it comes to predicting New York City’s actual future status, the movies, for the most part, fail spectacularly. This science fiction is definitely stranger than any true thing about New York.

The original 1968 Planet of the Apes is set on a planet approximately 2,300 years in the future where man is pre-lingual and apes are the dominant, advanced, species. Four astronauts crash land on the planet (one is dead already) and are captured by the apes. After more than their fair share of anguish, torture and surreal moments, one astronaut, Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) escapes, follows the shoreline and sees the remains of the Statue of Liberty. So the “planet” is really New York City, more than two thousand years after a nuclear holocaust.

While it’s only 2017, and not 3978 A.D., at this point there’s no sign of an all-out nuclear holocaust and if we look at the painful and horrific example of Hiroshima, cities can recover from a nuclear bomb without humankind reverting to cave days. So, no, planet Planet of the Apes is not future New York City.

In 2022 (yes, that’s in five years) 40 million people will live in NYC, in dilapidated housing or on the streets, according to the 1973 sci-fi classic, Soylent Green. The premise is that the 20th century’s industrialization would lead to overcrowding, pollution, and global warming due to the greenhouse effect. Most of the population would survive on rations produced by the Soylent Corporation, the latest being Soylent Green, a green wafer advertised to contain “high-energy plankton” from the World Ocean.

Now, there is a homeless population in New York City, and New Yorkers do love their green foods and supplements (there is even a company called Soylent which creates powdered and liquid food substitutes.) At the same time, global warming is widely accepted as actual, scientific, fact. But in five years, will all New Yorkers rely on wafers that are actually made out of human corpses? Doubtful, exceptionally doubtful.

Movies from the 80s didn’t show a New York that fared much better. In 1981, Escape From New York predicted that Manhattan, in 1997, would be one giant maximum security prison following a war with the Soviet Union. By actual-1997 the Soviet Union had collapsed, and New York had not morphed into a prison. Also, thus far, no Presidents have been kidnapped and left in the hands of criminals in Manhattan.

The Fifth Element, released in 1997, certainly depicts New York City traffic, and taxicabs, in a relatively authentic way. In 2263 will we have cabs that fly? It’s more than possible, according to this New York Times article from April 2017.

The ability for a New York City lab to reconstruct a humanoid woman from the severed hand of an alien race? Even knowing that it’s mandatory to do so in order to save the universe, it still seems unlikely that our biotech (or casual hobnobbing with aliens) will have progressed that far in 146 years. Then again, 150 years ago who would have predicted that it would be possible, today, to bioprint human tissue?

The 2004 film, The Day After Tomorrow, does an admirable job flooding and then freezing New York City. But, it’s set in 2004 and while we did have the coldest January since 1977 that year, and summer brought hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne, the city survived both admirably. Also, the main branch of the New York City Public Library is an excellent place to weather any storm.

One more scenario that didn’t happen: I Am Legend. Great movie, but Will Smith has not actually turned out to be the only fully human survivor of a viral plague that swept the city in 2009. Between the anti-vaxers and the prevalence of viruses, it could, still, happen — maybe. But it hasn’t.

Which sci-fi movie, then, does get it right about New York City? In my opinion, that honor goes to The Adjustment Bureau.

The movie, starring Matt Damon as ambitious politician David Norris and Emily Blunt as beautiful contemporary ballet dancer Elise Sellas, hit theaters in 2011. It was set in present-day New York but in an alternate reality (discovered by Norris) in which the men of The Adjustment Bureau have a “plan” for each person.

The central question posed by the film is do we control our fate, or does fate control us?

It’s New York City, and no New Yorker—Norris included—is going to put up with predestination. The two characters fall in love and, despite the odds (presented by the agents of Fate itself) at the end of the movie they are together. Love conquers all. (Except, of course, subway delays.)

By |2019-05-30T19:17:51+00:00March 20th, 2018|Technology|

Dancers, Rejoice: NYC’s Antiquated Cabaret Law is Dead

New York City’s bizarre Cabaret Law was finally laid to rest on Halloween, at the ripe old age of 91.

Cause of death? Common sense.

The law, enacted in 1926 (i.e., at the height of Prohibition, as well as the Harlem Renaissance), infamously prohibited dancing in bars and clubs that had not obtained a cabaret license. It was unevenly enforced and often amended over the years, but nonetheless remained on the books until city council repealed it by a resounding 44-1 vote at its Oct. 31 meeting.

At different points during its long (and in many eyes, troubling) history, the law effectively muzzled jazz luminaries like Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Thelonius Monk, and turned Frank Sinatra into an activist. Rudy Giuliani weaponized the statute. Others have bristled over it, but until this year it survived many repeal attempts.

Finally Rafael Espinal, a councilman from Brooklyn, introduced a bill quashing it, pending the approval of mayor Bill de Blasio.

“It’s great to see how excited the city is,” the 33-year-old Espinal told the New York Times. “We have shown that there’s an appetite for expanding dancing around the city.”

The law applies only to clubs located in areas zoned for commercial manufacturing; as the Times reported, zoning laws will have to be altered for dancing to be permitted in other parts of the city.

The repeal is in some ways academic. Because of the Byzantine (and costly) application process, few establishments even bothered to obtain a cabaret license. The Times reported that only 97 of some 25,000 spots had one, while a 2016 anti-Cabaret Law petition put that number at 118.

And as mentioned, enforcement has been spotty, though as recently as 2013 club owner Andrew Muchmore was assessed a Cabaret violation when some of his patrons engaged in what was described as “unlawful swaying” during a rock show at his night spot. He responded by filing suit against the city, dropping it only when the law was repealed.

The law was originally enacted to regulate the speakeasies that cropped up during Prohibition, though it is widely suspected that the real purpose was to crack down on jazz clubs, where mixed-race crowds often congregated.

A 1940 amendment also required musicians to obtain cabaret cards, a process that called for fingerprinting, interrogation, and renewal every two years. Parker, Monk, and Holiday were denied cards for one reason or another, and thus barred from performing. Sinatra, citing the demeaning nature of the application process, declined to appear as well, in a show of solidarity; that led to the repeal of the cabaret-card system, albeit after it had been in place for 27 years.

Other permutations of the law prohibited wind, percussion and brass instruments (i.e., the type of instruments used by jazz bands) or barred musical groups numbering more than three from appearing on stage. Those restrictions were eased in 1986 and 1988, respectively.

During Giuliani’s term as mayor (1994-2001), he used the Cabaret Law to crack down on so-called nuisance clubs. One club owner went so far as to say Giuliani’s tactics were reminiscent of a “Gestapo state,” but Giuliani, amid his “quality of life” initiative, argued that he was dealing as best he could with establishments that dealt in illegal activities (particularly drug-dealing), as well as those that had become a nuisance to their neighborhoods because of noise, unruly behavior, littering, etc.

The law has also been used in recent years to ensure that clubs were up to snuff in regards to fire safety and security, though its critics have argued that other regulations (and regulatory boards) were in place to deal with those issues.

So the law died a peaceful death. And everyone was only too happy to dance on its grave.

By |2020-02-11T16:51:35+00:00November 16th, 2017|Culture, Current Events|

Can Urban Design Create Smarter, Kinder Cities?

There is no one way to think about a city. But one thing, until recently, has been certain: cities aren’t thinking about you.

The idea of conscious cities challenges the assumption that cities are thoughtless spaces, or stationary backgrounds for busy urbanites to make their mark on. Cities make their mark on us in ways we don’t realize, and often unintentionally so. By adding intelligence to city design, urban planners have the opportunity to create smarter, kinder cities.

Like any sentient being, a conscious city affects how you feel and what you do. It is an active participant that can improve or worsen your health, your comfort, and your wellbeing. The concept was coined in a 2015 manifesto by Itai Palti and Moshe Bar.

“The foundation of consciousness lies in the city’s awareness of the motives, personalities and moods of its inhabitants,” the authors write. Though architects have long designed to elicit emotion, from Pyramids to monasteries, we now have the data to base these decisions— from small details to large-scale urban plans—on actual science instead of instincts.

This isn’t to say today’s cities weren’t purposefully designed. Most city streets are planned for efficiency; the same goes for buildings, which are designed for convenience, if not luxury or bravado. Concern for public health and comfort, though, has not always been high-priority, let alone backed by science. True, there was a brief moment in the 70s when psychologists teamed up with architects in an effort to encourage “environmental psychology.” Unfortunately, the idea fizzled quickly.

As urban populations surge, the first instinct of builders and planners may be to save and make space. This alone is not enough, especially considering the well-documented psychological effects of overcrowding. Planners need only utilize science and research to plan for happy, healthy cities. Otherwise, they may worsen the existing condition.

How Our Cities Change Us

Before planning for the future, it’s useful to understand what elements of urban design are impacting us today. We know, for example, that repetitive patterns like stripes and tiles can induce migraines or seizures, while more natural and visually interesting shapes and spaces can ease stress.

Then there’s the paradoxical phenomenon of loneliness in crowds. Ample evidence through MRI scans suggests that people who grow up in cities are more prone to mental health issues, and it’s likely that crowding is one of these reasons, as our brains are not conditioned for such environments.

Technology helps us understand the way our surroundings affect us in ways we may not understand on the surface. Social psychologist Colin Ellard conducted a study to examine the physical reaction participants had to building facades using EEG headsets and wristbands. He found that facades, in fact, played a large role in the comfort levels of the participants.

According to the BBC, “when he walked a group of subjects past the long, smoked-glass frontage of a Whole Foods store in Lower Manhattan, their arousal and mood states took a dive, according to the wristband readings and on-the-spot emotion surveys.” They sped up as if to escape a dead zone, then returned to a state of liveliness when passing storefronts.

Triangulation and public spaces foster community and reduce car accidents by implying that roads aren’t just for cars. Green spaces consistently correlate with higher levels of well-being in cities, even when taking other considerations into effect.

There are even worse ill-effects, planned or otherwise. The placement of highway systems and public transportation have led to segregation and poverty. Design features including spikes and high-pitched beeping discourage loitering at the expense of pedestrian comfort. Flashing lights and advertisements, especially at night, may induce anxiety and interrupt natural sleep cycles too.

Planning for the Future

Conscious cities, in theory, would use science and technology to optimize cities for the wellbeing of their inhabitants. This could—and should—go beyond just mental health by taking things like public health, ROI, and efficiency into consideration, too.

Take trees as an example. As a key component of “green space,” trees carry with them a number of psychological and physical benefits. A recent article by Vox outlined the findings of a recent Nature Conservancy report, concluding that “planting more urban trees, if done right, could save tens of thousands of lives around the world each year—by soaking up pollution and cooling down deadly heat waves.”

Besides these tangible, measurable effect, studies have found that simply viewing green space caused people to become happier and also changed their physiology, as their autonomic nervous systems showed strong signs of relaxation responses. Further research has shown that even simulated green space can have similar effects.

According to the Guardian, this type of research could be “the basis of a new and powerful discipline of experimental urban design based on sound principles of psychology and neuroscience,” perhaps utilizing virtual reality and other technology to simulate these types of responses. Neuroscience-based architecture and design could reinvent cities as we know them, or at the very least make little updates that pack a big punch.

After all, it follows that happier, more relaxed urban dwellers will be more productive, contributing to a happier and healthier economy. It’s a whole new way to think about cities, and ultimately a return on investment that can’t be ignored.

By |2018-10-31T19:15:11+00:00October 2nd, 2017|Culture, Urban Planning|

For Seniors and Disabled People, Adaptive Technology Helps at Home

Seniors and disabled people have specific living space challenges. Luckily, technology makes things easier.

When it comes to safety and accessibility, not all homes are created equal. In fact, a recent New York Times article highlights the difficulties of “aging in place.” The article states that less than 4 percent of the U.S. housing market has the three most important accessibility features. In order for older or disabled people to move, safely, around their living spaces they need entrances without steps, single-floor living, and wide hallways and doorways that can accommodate wheelchairs.

How many New Yorkers need to adapt their homes in order actually live there? Data shows that there are more than a million people, over the age of 65, living in New York City. According to a report by the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, “In New York City, there are 889,219 individuals with disabilities; that is, 11.0 percent of the population.”

Together, that means there are nearly 2 million New Yorkers that may need to adapt their homes in order to engage in standard activities of daily living. Both populations experience barriers, physical and communications-related, that the young and able-bodied don’t face, but that’s where New York grit and determination, combined with technology, come into play.

Because, whether the challenge is a senior’s desire to stay in their home, or a physical disability, adaptive technology is making things just a bit more user-friendly for people at all ages and stages of physicality.

The first place to consider adaptive technology is literally at the front door. Entering and leaving a home, or apartment, is a daily activity for most. Ideally, a door entry system with a keypad or hands free access should be installed at a height that’s convenient, usually about three-feet. Caretakers and family members can also have fobs, or access codes.

Senior safety devices are a growing field. Given that, according to the CDC, about 33 percent of accidents and falls involving people aged 65 and over occur at home, a Personal Emergency Response System, Medical Alert, or Medical Emergency Response System is a very good idea. All systems work easily; the push of a button summons emergency help (police, ambulance, etc.) immediately. The technology has been around for a while and today’s systems have three components. A small radio transmitter in the form of a “help” button carried or worn by the user sends a signal to the console, or base station, connected to the user’s telephone. The console automatically dials the Central Monitoring Station and an emergency response center monitors those calls.

On the other end of the technology spectrum are electronic personal assistants, like the Amazon Echo. “Alexa,” the electronic voice that takes requests from the user, can do everything from reciting the daily news, to setting a timer or alarm (think, medication reminder!) That’s without even considering the 15 thousand (and growing) list of “Skills” that can be added to Alexa’s “to do” list. For instance, Smart Skills allows the user to control lights and thermostats via the voice controlled system Uber and Lyft both have skills that can be enabled, making it easier on people who don’t drive.

(Of course, in New York, there are also cabs and excellent public transportation.)

For anyone who doesn’t want a Medical Alert system, but might need help quickly, The Ask My Buddy skill will send a notification (text, SMS or phone call) to a preselected contact. It’s perfect for emergencies when the phone is out of reach.

The ultimate in technology-that-helps is, of course, robotics. Toyota announced, in July, that it had completed its first in-home trial of the Human Support Robot (HSR.) The meter-high robot successfully helped a 100 percent disabled veteran with basic household tasks like opening doors and picking up a bottle of water.

The video makes it clear that this sort of technological assistance is life-changing.

Technology “gadgets” have the reputation of being novelties, but when those devices are used to help people live better, safer, more independent lives then it’s clear that they are valuable tools and not just toys.

By |2020-05-07T19:15:54+00:00September 19th, 2017|Technology|

Urban Diaries: Documenting Cities as they Evolve

All cities have a life of their own. Buildings are the bones, streets and rivers and sidewalks the veins and arteries, weather changes, wind blows, papers fly–the breath.

But the soul is the people who live in the city, and perhaps nowhere more so than in New York City.

New Yorkers love their city to an almost unhealthy degree, which means that New York is an ideal place for urban diaries — photographic documentation of the city as it evolves, changes, and keeps on living.

The concept of an urban diary, which can certainly include notes, and written observations, traces back to artist Eugène Atget. Atget was a photographer who lived in Paris and who began documenting the city, through photographs, in the 1880s. He is considered, also, to be a flâneur, or stroller, which he certainly was given his apparent desire to document all of the architecture and street scenes in Paris, to capture a living culture and history.

It takes true love of a city to dedicate oneself to keeping an urban diary. With camera, and perhaps notebook (or a tablet that is both!), in hand the diarist must, as Atget did, walk the streets and sidewalks, noticing change, recording the unique, the quirky and the mundane in turn.

Atget did exactly that until his death in 1927, and the images that endure tell a story of a city-always-changing, evolving, alive with shopkeepers and schoolchildren.

New York is exactly that sort of city, and worthy of the efforts of the urban diarists. Not because New York is in any danger of disappearing, but because of the constant cycle of growth, renewal, decay and revitalization that part and parcel of the city.

Noted writer, and native New Yorker, Pete Hamill, says this about his city:

“We New Yorkers know that we live in a dynamic city, always changing, evolving, building. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The city’s enduring slogan could be: Get on with it, my friend.”

Artists and writers seem to know this instinctively, that New York is, at any and every moment, worthy of noticing, describing, depicting.

For instance, Camilo José Vergara, a Chilean-born, New York City transplant and street photographer spent the seventies photographing the grit and joy of the South Bronx and Lower East Side.

But what about other New Yorkers? The recent transplants and the third generationers? This is where keeping an urban diary is more than whimsy, and not an artistic endeavor. There are actual individual and practical implications.

Author Chuck Wolfe argues in his book “Urbanism Without Effort” that urban diaries can translate into practical use and cause city dwellers to engage with their space in a more deliberate, interactive way. In the Crosscut article (linked above) he says, “Documenting and contemplating the journey from place to space — crossing and intersecting and embracing the edges of the public and private realms — may be the best way to understand where we live, the choices we make and the choices that are made for us.

Wolfe also says that urban diaries can take many forms, from scrapbook to notebook to journal to photography. With the technology available today, combining the written and the visual is simpler than it’s been at any other time in history. If New Yorkers take advantage of their electronic devices, what an amazing body of work could result.

On the practical side, Wolfe notes that documenting city space allows the diarist to track:

  • The intersection of constructed and natural environments;
  • The evolution of transportation
  • The application of associated and applicable land use plans and regulations; and
  • The continuation and/or evolution of surrounding land uses.

Whether for artistic, whimsical, or practical purpose, the act of deliberately keeping an urban diary is a worthy way for any New Yorker to engage with the living city they love.

By |2019-05-30T19:22:11+00:00September 6th, 2017|Culture, Current Events|

4 Urban Planning Influencers and Innovators Worth Knowing

When the City Museum of New York held an exhibition on Manhattan’s layout, they named it the “Greatest Grid” because of the importance of planning in Manhattan’s success. Urban planning as a profession only developed in the 1800s, around the time the Manhattan grid was being set. While now we think of planners as a modern activity, the people who initially shaped cities had different problems and priorities.

In ancient times, cities were located on areas of strategic military importance, commercial interests such as ports, or spiritual centers. Planning the layout wasn’t particularly important, especially for each new leader who wanted to leave their mark. People resisted organization, too. When Rome burned in AD64, a proposal to make streets uniform and planned was turned down by the public.

Urban planning became a respected practice much later. At the first international urban planning conference in 1898, social workers and doctors stressed about overpopulation causing disease to spread, but the focus was mainly on an even more alarming challenge: horse manure from the many carriages in the streets. We’ve come a long way since then.

Here are four major influencers and innovators in the world of urban planning, both past and present.

James Corner and Field Operations

Having achieved fame through the New York City High Line, James Corner has also changed the way people interact with city streets and skylines. Being lifted into the air on the High Line changes our perspective, lets us see in windows, and lets us take a break from the world below. He is a landscape architect and academic, balancing structured human creations with wild nature. Some of this work involves undoing what city planners, and the natural course of a city’s changes, have done before him. In Cleveland, Corner adjusted the town square from a busy traffic center to return it to the original 1796 idea of a public meeting area.

Jane Jacobs

As an activist, Jacobs protested, rioted, was arrested, wrote at Harvard, and moved to Canada. She lived a full life, and wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book which looks at how a city is made up of neighborhoods and people, not just streets and buildings. Jacobs argued for diversity as a key to safety and success. She pointed out that everyone in a neighborhood lives and acts the same, the streets would be empty at certain hours. If everyone shopped and thought the same, small businesses would never find customers. Her theories about mixed housing are visible in New York’s streets today, where 24hr corner store bodegas are the backbone of some neighborhoods.

Sharon Zukin

As a professor at Brooklyn College, Zukin thinks and writes about New York City. In her book The Cultures of Cities, she looks at urban spaces and whether public space is really open to the public. She examines what culture influences a public space, and considers the role of the private-sector. Zukin also advocates for small businesses in New York versus chain stores, and considers how New York has changed over time and influenced the world by popularizing lofts that were once occupied by artists.

Donald Shoup

On the other coast, Shoup is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA. He also has a lively url for his personal website. His focus is on parking and the major social and economic toll that parking spaces can take on a city. He argues that everyone pays for parking, via increased costs in businesses, housing, and taxes. More importantly, money spent on parking removes funds from public transport, as well as bike and walking infrastructure. His attention to cars has shifted entire city plans from ‘minimum parking requirement’ to ‘maximum parking allowance’ for some developments.

Whether you agree or disagree with these influential planners, they each bring an important perspective on how we exist together in cities.

By |2018-10-31T19:01:53+00:00August 17th, 2017|Culture, Technology, Urban Planning|

Don’t Fear the Fearless Girl

Whether you consider it “a powerful beacon” or “incredibly stupid,” “corporate feminism” or “revolutionary art,” Kirsten Visbal’s “Fearless Girl” statue has been impossible to ignore since it popped up overnight this past March. Placed in a defiant stance before the furious charge of the iconic “Charging Bull” near Wall St. in Lower Manhattan, in a short amount of time the girl has come to represent a spectrum of opinions on feminism, capitalism, art and commerce. Especially since the events of last fall, these issues have been at the forefront of public conversation, and the Girl is the latest iteration of such.

One opinion that’s garnered a great deal of attention (for obvious reasons) is that of Arturo Di Modica, sculptor of “Charging Bull.” Modica considers the girl an “attack” on his piece, and has even retained a lawyer in order to have her removed from the public square. His counsel has said “‘Charging Bull’ no longer carries a positive, optimistic message,” declaring that the original statue “has been transformed into a negative force and a threat.”

To discuss in such concrete terms, through a lawyer or on his own, the meaning of this piece of art is certainly Mr. Di Modica’s right as it’s creator. One can consider the opinion of the maker of a public artwork to be the essential stance. After all, who would know better what a piece of art is supposed to mean?

Unfortunately, that’s not quite how it ends up working. Art, especially visual art, doesn’t carry a proscribed meaning. It’s not a textbook or instruction manual. Every viewer brings to it their own unique set of experiences and ways to understand the world. That’s the beauty of it. A painting as plain as the Mona Lisa, or as busy as a Jackson Pollock, becomes an endlessly fascinating set of questions when one considers all the ways to look at it.

The 20th Century French literary critic Roland Barthes wrote a great deal on this subject in his essay Death of the Author, published in 1967. Barthes found popular reception of art to be too frequently “tyrannically centered” on the opinions and experiences (whether inferred or stated outright) of the creator. He felt that meaning of art is created in the mind of the person experiencing it, not by the person who brought it into being.

Consider the great statues of Greek and Roman antiquity that populate the world’s most prestigious museums. Few would question their value in the context of art and global history. Originally created as exultations of the glory of gods and other mythical figures, so many of them now stand headless and limbless, stunning visual representations of the ravages of time. Should a modern viewer take away from these statues a new found appreciation of the greatness of Athena or Zeus, as they were possibly intended? Even if that’s what this hypothetical viewer does, are they “incorrect?”

Mr. Di Modica, while naturally defensive about the perception of his creation, needs to come to terms with the fact that people’s reaction to the Bull was never up to him. For years before the Fearless Girl arrived, his work was in the public sphere, standing for whatever each individual viewing it believed it stood for.

The origin story of Mr. Di Modica’s “Bull” is an illuminating one. Much like the Fearless Girl, it was placed overnight without notice, smack dab in the middle of the nation’s financial capital. It lasted only a day in its original spot before calls to the police led to it being trucked to an impound lot in Queens. Eventually, public outcry led the New York City Parks Department to find it a permanent home a few blocks south of Wall St. on Bowling Green. Those in charge of keeping order on Wall St. were aghast at the Bull, despite Di Modica’s intentions that it be a tribute to them. Although they were to be exalted by it, they were in fact repulsed. Surely this wasn’t part of his idea of it, either.

Consider the “Charging Bull” on its own face. It’s a fierce, massive creature in the midst of a potentially deadly strike. The statue weighs over 7000 lbs and looks it. It’s rippling muscles and kinetic pose imbue the chunk of bronze with the fearsome quality of the real thing. Considering the damage done in 2008 (not to mention 1929) by the denizens of the area, does this symbol of Wall Street really carry such a “positive, optimistic message?” Maybe you think so. Maybe you don’t. One group of you, according to Mr. Di Modica, is correct.

Which is a ludicrous premise. Especially for a piece of art that sits on public land, which by definition belongs to the citizenry. But even if the Bull were in a museum, it would be served well by being confronted by the Fearless Girl. Any viewer is well served by the interaction between the two pieces. Perhaps Mr. Di Modica himself could see the benefit of it, if he let go of his own fears.

By |2018-10-31T18:56:52+00:00July 18th, 2017|Culture, Current Events, Urban Planning|

What The New ‘Tactical Urbanism’ Design Guide Means for Cities

You may not know the term tactical urbanism, but you have probably seen evidence of this recent movement if you live in or near a city. Tactical urbanism can look like a parking space converted into a mini park; handmade pedestrian signs; manmade public spaces, reclaimed from the road; sidewalk gardens; and pop-up markets, to name a few examples. Tactical urbanism is essentially citizens taking city planning into their own hands through small-scale, transient projects meant to enhance their lives and their neighbors’ lives by improving their urban environment.

The movement fits into a pattern of citizen activism and limited civic funds, thanks to the recent economic downturn, while addressing the reality of aging infrastructure. City dwellers have responded by taking matters into their own hands, with the aim of improving matters short term, demonstrating proof of concept, and solidifying changes in the long term through official channels.

Tactical urbanism is iterative, like the agile development processes of many startups and tech companies. Projects are thrown up overnight (in some cases literally), and citizens see what sticks. The tactical urbanism handbook, published by the Street Plans Collaborative, is similarly adaptable. The first edition of the handbook Short-term Action for Long-term Change is credited with helping to popularize the movement by collecting and publishing tried-and-true techniques for other municipalities to replicate. The strategies outlined in the guide have been vetted on the ground, and this may be likelier to succeed long term. The tactics are also assessed through case studies focusing on different cities. While these reforms are scaleable in the sense that they can be replicated, they are by nature community-instigated, they don’t lose their grassroots.

The most recent edition of the DIY urban intervention manual focuses on materials. “The Tactical Urbanist’s Guide to Materials and Design dives into the details of pop-up urbanism: when to use tape or paint or chalk, how to choose the right materials for temporary barriers, and more.” Temporary materials are usually cheaper, and also often the better choice for the job. Tactical urbanism sometimes runs up existing regulations, like traffic lanes, for example. The project might be reversed immediately, so wasting money and effort on expensive permanent materials serves no purpose. Often these projects illustrate a desired improvement to city planners and government officials, who would be responsible for making it permanent.

Although tactical urbanism cannot solve larger issues like infrastructure, it can make cities more livable and comfortable in the immediate future. It also creates an open channel of communication between citizens and government officials, encouraging dialogue with residents about neighborhoods improvements. Some have expressed concern that tactical urbanism can exacerbate inequality: that only the privileged can dedicate time to such projects, and that engaging in activities that skirt the law is riskier for some. In the spirit of tactical urbanism, projects intended to benefit the community must be conceived as inclusive and accessible to all.

New York City is a hotbed of engaged citizens with good ideas, useful skill sets, and activist tendencies, all living in a sprawling urban jungle, where pedestrians constantly wage war against cars. Unsurprisingly, tactical urbanism has already been deployed here to good effect, and sometimes initiated by the city itself. The oasis in Time Square that reclaims street space for pedestrians is an example of a temporary measure becoming permanent after it was well received. Sidewalk gardens, pop-up markets, and other creative city hacks are already a commonplace sight around the five boroughs. Tactical urbanism will undoubtedly continue and thrive here, deepening the dialogue between an engaged citizenry and their local government.

By |2018-10-31T18:10:45+00:00April 5th, 2017|Culture, Urban Planning|