MAS Summit 2014: four visits to New York’s big survey of ideas

This year's theme was 'equity, place, and opportunity,' and the conference comprised a brisk review of new ideas and commentary on how to make the city work for all its citizens.

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MAS Summit 2014 at the TimesCenter, 41st Street and 8th Avenue (Photo: Chiara Zaccheo)
MAS Summit 2014 at the TimesCenter: more than 140 speakers joined over 1000 attendees in a two day forum on the future of NYC. Photo: Chiara Zaccheo

On October 23 and 24, the Municipal Art Society (MAS) held their fifth annual Summit for New York City. This year’s theme was ‘equity, place, and opportunity,’ and the conference comprised a brisk review of new ideas and commentary on how to make the city work for all its inhabitants. Four City Atlas writers attended; their comments and curated choice of the talks follow here:

Mallorie Thomas: can parking spaces transform into affordable housing?

Day One of the two day MAS summit featured panelists on a variety of topics; one of the things that makes New York City such a special place is the opportunity for professionals, public officials, cultural groups and individuals alike to collaborate on ideas for the future of our city.

As a case in point, the evening session of Day One at the Summit concluded with the Jane Jacobs Forum, Projects That Ignite. Jane Jacobs, a celebrated, self-taught urban expert, believed cities thrive when people can interact to produce a positive impact on their surroundings. The forum named for her showcased three unique urban interventions, all of which have the potential to positively transform the city.

One of the teams presenting, 9×18, showed a plan to transform NYCHA housing parking lots to mixed-income housing units. Current NYCHA parking — precious open space — would be efficiently replaced by multilevel garages elsewhere, and the lots would be converted to new housing.

Given Mayor de Blasio’s goal of installing 200,000 affordable housing units over the next decade, the project is a poignant and inventive approach to the housing crisis that plagues New York City. 9×18 describes their concept as a way to “rethink the role of parking as an agent of change in the current affordable housing discourse. [They] believe focusing on the citywide issue of parking could help shift affordable housing debates away from project-specific nimby-ism and toward a conversation about neighborhoods, lifestyle choices, mobility and social justice.” You can watch the team’s presentation below:

The 9×18 proposal was particularly interesting to me, because New York City’s urban planners, architects, politicians, communities, and urban activists are in broad agreement on making the city a resilient, equitable, and prosperous place for all residents. Yet to make that actually happen, everything needs to be on the table, and thinking needs to be flexible.

On Day Two, Carl Weisbrod’s talk, Building a City for New Yorkers: Affordable Housing and Economic Development described how a city still growing in population can work on developing neighborhoods with equity, place and opportunity; Weisbrod is director of the Department of City Planning, and he sketched how planners, in open dialogue with stakeholders, may be able to add density in order to provide housing, while increasing the efficiency of infrastructure in the process. The very next panel, 200,000 Units: Realizing the City’s Affordable Housing Plan continued the focus on the 25% increase in affordable housing units that are part of the de Blasio Administration’s plan. Clearly, the urgency of providing new housing is driving the conversation both among young designers and the Mayor’s Office.

William Wepsala: why do cities matter?

Cities across the world are growing so rapidly that vulnerable populations are marginalized before services and infrastructure have time to expand to accommodate their needs. Equity, part of this year’s theme at the Summit, is a particularly crucial subject, as panels investigate challenges relevant not only in New York, but to cities everywhere.

Cities can be equipped to meet the challenge of growth, even for the members of the community with the least. In a Day Two discussion titled, ‘Why do Cities Matter to the World?’ a group of experts and practitioners gave their views on the outlook. Benjamin Barber, author of “If Mayors Ruled the World”, highlighted how cities are able to act and solve issues in a way that regional and national governments can not.

Barber’s premise: as dense urban centers become home to a majority of people on Earth, they can change to meet the needs of their inhabitants, improving life for all. Barber thinks city government is inherently more responsive to citizens than government at the national level. To capitalize on that strength, he proposes a Global Parliament of Mayors, and cites the existing international organization United Cities and Local Governments as an inspiration for this idea.

Joining Dr. Barber on the panel was Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr., mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, and one of the longest serving mayors in the world. Mayor Riley talked about how he was able to address issues faced by his constituents on a level unknown to practitioners at the national level. He then talked about the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, which he co-founded to provide a forum for mayors to share best practices. Mayor Riley’s initiative shows how mayors working together and sharing knowledge can overcome national boundaries that can inhibit cooperation.

See the talk here:

While the challenges facing cities may be large, the MAS Summit reminded us that cities have the capacity to meet them. In a world where transnational cooperation often goes only as far as the interests of the parties involved, cities, with collective creative resources and many common interests, must now be key players in building global community.

Chiara Zaccheo: building on the waterfront of the city

Waterfront development in NYC is a hot issue. Traditionally, the East River waterfront in NYC has been viewed as the city’s edge rather than a central hub, but with parks and housing initiatives sprouting up, commercial development has found a new home. At the MAS Summit, one panel — Vishaan Chakrabarti, Helena Rose Durst, Dan Levy, Keith O’Connor, Michael Stern, and Andrew Winters — put the changes into perspective by coining the term “Central River,” showing the impact of new building in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens.

Development sites along the East River, aka "Central River", presented by Vishaan Chakrabarti, SHoP Architects (MAS Summit 2014)
The East River is central to much new development, which includes Cornell campus on Roosevelt Island. Image: V. Chakrabarti, SHoP Architects (MAS Summit 2014)

With more and more people populating this area of our city, architecture and urban design must commit itself to the knowns and unknowns of the post-Hurricane Sandy and climate change reality. In alliance with this resiliency effort, panelist Helena Rose Durst, President of The New York Water Taxi, stressed the importance of building and expanding a reliable ferry network. One concern that was brought up was that currently ferries drop New Yorkers at the edge of the city — the FDR. But with waterfront development, one panelist remarked, “you will now be at your destination when you get to the edge.”

Another issue that surfaced during this panel discussion was neighborhood density, and Mayor Bill De Blasio’s affordable housing plan, “Housing New York, A Five Borough, Ten-Year Plan.” This plan includes more than 100,000 housing units along the East River. With the increased gentrification in the area, the panelists agreed that diversity, quality of life, open air opportunities, and transportation were all issues that must be carefully considered and addressed throughout the planning process. More and more hubs are transforming New York City’s natural, political, and social landscape. Just as Brooklyn and Queens have shown us that Manhattan is not the only city hub, new neighborhoods are making taking their spot on the city’s center stage. How will this change affect our city? What advantages and disadvantages for the existing communities will transpire? Stay tuned.

Lydia Miller: sustainability and equity

MAS Summit 2014 was my first experience with this annual conference on pressing urban issues, and I was intrigued by the pace and organization of the talks. MAS was able to cover a broad range of pressing urban issues and keep viewers engaged by keeping panels brief and to the point.

I was particularly looking forward to Friday’s discussion about “Closing the Sustainability and Equity Gap: What Does it Mean to be Both a Green and a Just City?” with Toni L. Griffin and David Maddox. Griffin is the Director, J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City and a professor of architecture while Maddox is the Founder and Editor of The Nature of Cities, an essay and discussion site on cities as ecological spaces; and Principal and Chief Scientist of Sound Science LLC.

In their ten minute discussion about Sustainability and Equity, the speakers spoke to their their professional endeavors on the issues of green and just cities. This gave interesting anecdotes into what is being done on the topic right now. Maddox and Griffin pondered the justice of public access to green space, particularly the right to have access to open park land near your home. This issue is a difficult one and not necessarily at the forefront of the justice discussion in conversations marked by the visible challenges of housing shortages and building a climate resilient city. Land for new green space is inherently expensive and thus there is an inequality in access. This panel really sparked my interest; is it expected that a healthy and sustainable lifestyle is more available to the wealthy in our city?

The MAS Summit did a great job of showcasing experts on urban issues and their current projects, and I wish there had been more time for questions and dialogue amongst the speakers. There is much to dig into to on these vital topics; the talks framed new questions for us all to ponder.