The City of New York that John Lindsay governed in 1966 was a very different one from the one we live in today. It was still reeling from the loss of its middle class to government subsidized suburbs, its infrastructure was crumbling, and there seemed to be few new ideas about how to deal with these issues and move forward. But the Lindsay administration, as Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in 1974, “occupied the historic moment when the [planning] profession was beginning to make itself felt,” when the city was “lavishing care, quality, and sophistication on the design of new buildings and urban landscapes.” He founded The Urban Design Group, one of the first design-led organizations that attempted to come up with public policy for urban space inside a government agency. The Group, for example, organized and catalogued the city’s complicated and overlapping infrastructure for the first time in a series of beautifully designed books. It made public service compelling for the first time for professional designers. It is hard to imagine any of the design-led non-profits that proliferate in this city without the early efforts of the Group.
Before the Lindsay administration, the last urban agencies in the United States to attempt to plan or design urban space was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the multiple agencies under the direction of Robert Moses. Moses’s idea about transportation in the city, for example, was to make its city streets as accommodating as possible for the automobile. The thinking was that everything should be done to allow the car to move through the city as quickly as possible. This model has had a vice grip over New York transportation planning since the 1920s, but Lindsay’s administration began carving into it with bicycle lanes taking over the streets for the first time. It was an obvious example of designers thinking about how to make a city with cleaner air and one that is fitter and more livable. There are many photos of the glamorous mayor biking around town in his suit and tie. But when Lindsay left office in 1973, the following administration, as critics like Yonah Freemark pointed out, slowly strangled many of his and the Urban Design Group’s ideas. The first bicycle lanes were removed during the Beame, Koch, and Giuliani administrations. These mayors, who knew that businesses did not like them blocking their curbside pick up and drop off lanes, went back to the Moses model of thinking and acting only for the automobile. Even city parks, on which Lindsay had published a white paper in 1965 in which he promoted them as sites for happenings and anti-war speeches (some of which he delivered), were slowly disregarded and left to flounder. Who can ever forget the ham fisted redesign and closure of Tompkins Square Park under Mayor David Dinkins that led to days of rioting in the East Village?
Its is fair to say that this lack of thinking about public space and infrastructure that marked the post-Lindsay administrations of New York came to a dead stop under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Not only did he hire public officials who made the connection between policy and actual physical design, but he allowed them the freedom to make changes based on a newer model of urban living that tried to tame the automobile and think about the act of living in the city. The streets, for example, were rethought, and where there were triangles of leftover, barely used carriageways, they became hard-surfaced parklets. Bicycle lanes were laid down all over the city and, of course, the bike share program took off like a rocket. Streets were no longer only for the automobile, but became shared spaces for pedestrians and bicycles, and sometimes places for tables and chairs. But what about Bloomberg’s urban design legacy of improved parks, streets, and infrastructure? Will it go the way of Lindsay’s?
It seems clear that Mayor Bill de Blasio sees many of the Bloomberg initiatives as having only benefited the wealthy, and especially Manhattanites. But we have reported on the urban design issues surrounding de Blasio’s quick agreement over the Domino Sugar plan and Henry Melcher has written about de Blasio knocking Bloomberg’s parks legacy—a legacy that is widely respected in the city and beyond. De Blasio said, “I think [fighting inequality] is front and center in the philosophy of this administration and it applies to everything we’re doing—doesn’t matter if you’re talking about schools or job creation, or parks—it’s the way we see the world,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say the previous administration didn’t see the world that way.”
We have been critical in past editorials on the funding mechanism for spaces like the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park, but now they are there and should at least be maintained and improved. And as former New York City parks commissioner Adrian Benepe wrote, the Bloomberg administration put money into parks all over the city—not just Manhattan. It may be that de Blasio needs to stay focused on equity and affordable housing and to meet his laudable goals for this city, but lets just hope that he also thinks about the impact that construction and these improvements will have on the future livability of the city.