Then he and some neighbouring merchants asked the city, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to fix it. “We heard Mayor Bloomberg was very big on plazas and open space,” he says. Across the city, the transportation department was installing pedestrian plazas, making the streets more inviting. “There was a cry for improvement – we heard the cry and we just followed.”
Someone heard them, too: The buses took a different route. The city installed a temporary plaza, with seating and umbrellas, for the warmer months. People now linger. Crime is down.
“I asked, and we got what we wanted,” Mr. Di Benedetto says. “Even in East New York, my friend. I hear bad things about Mayor Bloomberg, but what we got is an extension of his idealism, right?”
This is not how most people think of Mr. Bloomberg, who recently stepped down after 12 years as mayor and who is the city’s richest resident. Under his leadership, New York became a land of wealth and plenty, at least for some – in Midtown Manhattan, glassy new high-rises contain the third homes of Russian billionaires; downtown, tourists order $38 steak frites at Balthazar and walk the High Line, an innovative park built with donations from the rich.
Yet the plaza at New Lots Avenue reflects the scope of Mr. Bloomberg’s impact. His administration – freed by his wealth and his lack of political debts – turned New York into a laboratory for urban innovation of all kinds, from small neighbourhood improvements to rezoning vast swaths of land, shaking up its demographics and its economy. The city cut carbon emissions, and got rid of smoking in public. (Tobacco, that is.)
Mr. Bloomberg’s administration shared some of its lessons with other civic leaders; Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, has consulted publicly with Mr. Bloomberg. And now the Bloombergians are preparing to share their lessons with the world. Several top lieutenants have moved on to work for Bloomberg Associates, a consultancy that will advise cities free of charge on how to “improve the quality of life of their citizens.” He also sponsors a Mayor’s Challenge, which asks cities (this year in Europe) to innovate in pursuit of €9-million in prizes.
Mr. Bloomberg provides an important example for mayors everywhere, at a time when mayors matter: More than half the world’s population lives in cities, and that number is projected to reach 70 per cent by 2050. (According to Statistics Canada, more than 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities and suburbs.) This demands new infrastructure, changes to the physical form of cities and new ways of doing things.
What happened in New York may not be the singular recipe for 21st-century urbanism – the city became greener, cleaner and more hospitable to the world, but also more expensive and less hospitable to the poor. But the change in New York from 2001 to 2013, driven by faith in hard data, as well as the magic of place, is still the single example that can’t be avoided.
Mr. Bloomberg became mayor of New York in 2001 with just 50.7 per cent of the vote, after spending nearly $74-million (U.S.) to get himself elected. Well-known as the force behind his data and media company, he was a political novice, and his challenges were tremendous: New York was reeling from the 9/11 attacks, in fiscal trouble, uncertain about the future. The financial sector seemed ready to disperse to office parks in Connecticut and New Jersey, threatening the city’s economy. The idea of the skyscraper, New York’s central building block, was under threat.
“Had things worked a little differently, we would have been looking back on the decline of New York from that moment,” says Justin Davidson, architecture critic for New York magazine. “I don’t think he gets all the credit, but he did a lot of things right.”
The city has added hundreds of thousands of new residents, seen real-estate prices skyrocket (and recover, after being hit hard by the recession in 2009), and become much safer and cleaner than it was.
How did it happen? Mr. Bloomberg – an entrepreneur who made his $33-billion (U.S.) fortune serving the needs of Wall Street – worked hard to keep Big Finance in the city through tax breaks and personal lobbying; and he made the city’s police department into a globally active anti-terror organization, while overseeing a drop in crime.
He also reformed the city’s thorny public education system, with modest improvements in test scores; pushed for an expansion of higher education, including a new grad-school campus of Cornell University; and encouraged a knowledge-economy by courting investments in Manhattan’s “Silicon Alley” and bio-tech.
Mr. Bloomberg has a passionate interest in public health, too. Beginning in his first term he pushed a smoking ban in restaurants and bars, making New York the largest American city to do so, and then in parks. The bans were unpopular with restaurateurs and many vocal New Yorkers (“We’re moving towards a totalitarian society,” one city councillor argued when the parks regulation was passed).
The scientific evidence was clear, though – and Mr. Bloomberg was committed to making policy through information. One of his favourite aphorisms is “In God we trust. All others bring data.” This attitude came to govern much of the city’s management. He established an Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, whose task was to use public data to improve services – from garbage collection to cutting air pollution.
Mr. Bloomberg also aimed for big targets in sustainability, a goal with long-term consequence and very little political payoff. A vision set out in 2007, PlaNYC established a wide range of goals: from new playgrounds, to congestion pricing to deter cars (which never passed), to curbing carbon emissions from buildings (which did).
The latter was policy with a real impact – the Empire State Building got a refit that cut its energy use by 38 per cent – but very little reward. “He deserves credit ... this is the unsexy stuff that makes a huge difference,” says Rosalie Genevro, the executive director of the Architectural League of New York, a local non-profit.
The city’s real estate landscape saw dramatic shifts as well. A wave of new development transformed swaths of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, creating new homes for some of the 300,000 people who moved to New York in the Bloomberg era.
At the same time, rents rose significantly across the city; many New Yorkers now fear being left behind by the city’s economic growth. They see Mr. Bloomberg's agenda as having reshaped the city as a playground for the wealthy and visitors from overseas. Mr. Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, ran for office on the slogan “A Tale of Two Cities.”
New York in 2001 was among the most expensive cities in North America, and it’s grown more so. The social cost of gentrification has been real. The city now has 50,000 people, a record, in its homeless shelters. Yet the situation is complex: its rental market is highly regulated, and its affordable and public housing programs are by far the largest on the continent. Mr. Bloomberg added 165,000 affordable units, largely in new private-sector market-rate buildings – which often made the surrounding areas more expensive.
There is no question that Mr. Bloomberg successfully encouraged economic growth for the city as whole, and partly through some soft tactics: his team was sensitive to urban design and the intangible qualities that make a city great.
In 2009, New York got a new park like no other. The High Line recast an old elevated rail line as a promenade between the industrial buildings in the West Chelsea area of Manhattan. It was initially opposed by the city but won the support of many neighbours, architects and urbanists – including the planner Amanda Burden, whom Mr. Bloomberg appointed as his planning director. Built with help from donors such as Edward Norton, the High Line became an enormous success, overrun by tourists. It also radically gentrified the area: The city rezoned the district for luxury development, and soon star architects like Frank Gehry were designing office and residential buildings.
The High Line is now being expanded into a third phase, which will connect directly into Hudson Yards – a $15-billion (U.S.) office and residential development built above a rail yard. That project, co-developed by Canada’s Oxford Properties, was Mr. Bloomberg’s baby. It will house offices for Time Warner, L’Oreal and luxury brand Coach.
Presumably, Coach designers will enjoy walking the High Line as much as the wealthy Chinese tourists who are buying their handbags. One central insight of the Bloomberg administration was that visitors, entrepreneurs and knowledge workers would be drawn by the same magnet: a culturally rich and beautiful city with attractive public space.
If that seems obvious, Mr. Bloomberg’s people were, in the early days after 2001, going against the grain. It was a moment when many kinds of professional work seemed likely to disperse into the suburbs and beyond.
“They were arguing the importance of being in a dense urban place to creative and economic endeavours that don’t look like they need it,” Mr. Davidson argues. “The Internet had decentralized investment. There was this sense that everyone could move out of the city without paying a price in terms of being plugged in and connected.”
But New York had to become the place that everybody wanted to be. It did, through some surprising means. Under Mr. Bloomberg, the streets of New York didn’t just take on a different atmosphere. The streets changed, physically.
I was working in Midtown Manhattan in 2003 and remember making the mildly unpleasant walk down Broadway, from 34th to 23rd Street; the avenue still lined with wholesalers, the narrow sidewalks often blocked, car and truck traffic belching and racing downtown. People on bikes survived, barely. Now that stretch has been branded as “NoMad,” and the Ace Hotel – which is the physical embodiment of the word “hipster” – is in the middle of it; there are also a bike lane and two public plazas. On one of the plazas, opposite the famous Flatiron Building, you can sit at a cafe table (under a blue umbrella), have a coffee, and check in on free WiFi.
Thousands of locals and tourists use that Flatiron Plaza every day, despite the fact that there’s a very nice park right across the street. It provides room for people to gather and be among other people. It also means a bit less room for car traffic. This is all part of the plan for these plazas, implemented by Mr. Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan – who is another hire at Bloomberg Associates. The plazas began quietly, as temporary installations in places where car traffic was confusing. When the experiments worked, they were rolled out more broadly and made permanent.
For Mr. Bloomberg’s people, there is a clear link between the private gain and the public good. Many North American politicians haven't understood that public space affects real-estate value, but the Bloomberg administration set out to capitalize on it. Just as Central Park created great wealth in the 19th century, they hoped to do so with new parks in the 21st – about 300 hectares-worth. “Good design is good economic development,” Ms. Burden told the New York Times in 2012.
Tourism was another high priority for Mr. Bloomberg’s administration, which saw it as both business and cultural diplomacy. He installed an advertising executive, George Fertitta, to head the local tourism authority, and the city hit a series of new records for visitors: the number rose from 43.8 million in 2006 to an estimated 54 million in 2013, with international visitors increasing by 50 per cent. Those foreigners spend much more money than domestic visitors, and their presence pays untold returns in goodwill and investment.
The global super-rich have also been buying real estate, as a forest of luxury buildings pops up in Midtown Manhattan. Mr. Bloomberg has welcomed this: “If we could get every billionaire in the world to move here, that would be a godsend,” he said last fall in response to questions about rising inequality.
Those remarks hit a cultural nerve that's been exposed for a decade now. The inner-Brooklyn neighbourhoods that welcomed artists in 2000 are now filling with Wall Streeters; many people argue that the city's pursuit of the affluent is destroying the city's creative energy. The legendary musician David Byrne, who moved to New York in the ’70s when the city was at its lowest, is worried that New York “will be a city closer to Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi than to the rich fertile place it has historically been,” he wrote last fall. “Those places might have museums, but they don't have culture.”
Mr. Bloomberg’s strong support for high culture, including his own private donations, can't fix that. The question, in the long term, is whether the city’s considerable draws – and more remote neighbourhoods – will be big enough for a new generation of creators.
The Bloomberg Mission
Many of the Bloomberg administration's ideas aren't original; rather they reflect some best practices in urbanism around the world. (Ms. Sadik-Khan borrowed some notions about streetscapes from European cities.) And that may mean they will travel well to other cities through the work of Bloomberg Associates.
The details are still unclear, but Mr. Bloomberg’s philanthropic efforts – and there are many – suggest some of the routes the consultancy might take. His Bloomberg Philanthropies works on five major themes: the arts, education, the environment, government innovation, and public health. There is the Mayor’s Challenge, which asks cities to “define a serious problem and craft a bold solution.” Each of 20 finalists, to be announced next month, will send a team of four to an “Ideas Camp” to refine them, then resubmit them, and – in October – four winners will take prizes of €1-million, and one will take €5-million.
If that process sounds complex, it is; there is a presumption that city governments are not good at innovating. One of the criteria is to say “We are the first city to…” Another asks: “Are you using talent, partners and resources outside of city government in a meaningful way?”
What do the results look like? Last year’s finalists, drawn from American cities, included a “well-being metric” to shape policy in Santa Monica, Calif; a revision to recycling programs in Houston that allow citizens to use one bin for everything; and a program called “Providence Talks,” which gives low-income children in Rhode Island language and reading support.
That diversity suggests the scope of Bloomberg Associates. “I think it’s great that they’re going to be a voice out in the world,” says Brent Toderian, a leading planning consultant and Vancouver’s former chief planner. “But it’ll be interesting to see how the conversation goes. It’s not necessarily so that every city wants to be like New York. The best conversations are looking at examples from around the world.”
And some of the specific planning and urban design policies that worked in New York, Mr. Toderian points out, won’t fly without the dense, diverse cityscape that New York offers.
On the other hand, the scale of Mr. Bloomberg’s success has helped create a new climate where cities see each other as peers and share ideas freely. And, as Mr. Davidson says, correctly: “Bloomberg gets a lot of credit for that. The idea that a mayor can do something that has an impact – and large cities have a lot more in common across national borders? That’s powerful.”
Alex Bozikovic writes on architecture and urbanism for The Globe.