Yesterday’s Future

An RPA-themed exhibition performed the usual lip service to social equity without addressing the inequality baked into prevailing models of development.

In 1969, the Regional Planning Association released its second regional plan, which included this cross section of Manhattan (the cut runs along 34th Street). Courtesy the Regional Planning Association

New York has been unlivable since forever. One hundred years ago, a group of visionary citizens—well, a Prohibition-era cocktail party’s worth of politicos, social reformers, planners, and businesspeople—decided to do something about it. They gathered loads of data and made a series of studies and plans. Not just for the city, but for the whole metropolitan region, cutting across jurisdictional lines, looking at flows of water, people, goods, and capital. Seven years and $1.3 million (about $22 million in today’s dollars) later, the newly incorporated Regional Plan Association (RPA), an independent nonprofit, published the first “Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs,” running over one thousand pages across two volumes. To their surprise, over the next decade, many of the bridges, parkways, and parks proposed in the plan were built by Robert Moses, who earned RPA’s “enthusiastic support—until the day in 1939 they opposed one of his projects, and were stunned by the arrogance, dishonesty, and outright cruelty of a man they had once admired.”

This I read at RPA’s pop-up centennial exhibition, The Constant Future: A Century of the Regional Plan, which closed October 25 after a seventeen-day run at Grand Central Terminal’s majestic Vanderbilt Hall. The retrospective, composed of printed boards and banners mounted on a two-story-high steel framework designed by James Sanders Studio, represented the highs and lows of twentieth-century planning—from the transformative Triborough (Robert F. Kennedy) Bridge and the miraculous Fire Island National Seashore to the outrageously destructive Cross Bronx Expressway—and the generational shift toward more inclusive, stakeholder-driven planning efforts. Lacking a strong argument but packed with strong images and a clear historical narrative, the show schooled me on RPA’s role in shaping modern New York. That role is larger than I had realized, though the group’s tactics remain subtle: RPA loves when governors and CEOs steal its ideas.

Some of yesterday’s solutions, like the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), proposed by RPA in 1936, exacerbate today’s problems, like pollution and racial segregation, spurring new proposals, like one by DLAND Studio (now part of Sasaki), included in RPA’s fourth and most recent regional plan (2017) to deck over a portion of the sunken expressway and build a park. If only. Similarly far-fetched, if well-reasoned, are RPA’s recommendations to introduce HOV requirements and remove lanes from the BQE as part of the much-needed reconstruction of the deteriorated, triple-cantilevered portion of the expressway that skirts Brooklyn Heights and underpins the Promenade. The exhibition text on the BQE could be summarized as: “Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.” Meanwhile, Governor Kathy Hochul recently borrowed from RPA’s third regional plan (1996) in proposing a new transit line between Brooklyn and Queens, the Interborough Express, along an underused freight railway.

The Constant Future performed the usual lip service to social equity without addressing the inequality baked into prevailing models of development. Beautiful urban dreams and progressive advocacy swam against banal real estate dictates and conservative political interests. Metropolitan magnificence was betrayed by social problems at street level, however. I was holding a postcard I had taken from the exhibition, a handsome aerial rendering by Francis S. Swales from 1931, when I stumbled upon the most enduring image of the day: a man defecating in a busy subway stairwell. Later, I recalled that one of RPA’s founders was Lillian Wald, a nurse who established the Henry Street Settlement and helped bring healthcare to immigrant neighborhoods. What would happen if planners and developers today collaborated more closely with social workers, healthcare workers, educators, and housing advocates?

RPA has reinvented itself before. An interesting segment showed the group struggling against the midcentury tide of Autopia to secure modest investments in public transit, even as it toasted the completion of the Verrazano Bridge, the last big link in the metropolitan highway loop. At this point, RPA might have disbanded; indeed, some critics questioned its reason for continued existence. Instead, perhaps sensing an opening in Moses’s downfall in the late 1950s and early ’60s, RPA stuck around and began advising on airports, the conservation of natural areas like Jamaica Bay, and the opening of Manhattan’s formerly working waterfronts for other purposes, like parks and housing (which eventually arrived, along with gentrification, but not before vacant piers on the Hudson were briefly reclaimed for cruising and for guerrilla artworks like Gordon Matta-Clark’s Day’s End). These and other studies were gathered in RPA’s second regional plan (1969). But apart from a handful of exceptions such as Battery Park City, New York didn’t pursue big plans for the next quarter-century.

RPA’s influence spiked when Michael Bloomberg took office as mayor in 2002. He reached for RPA’s third plan, which called for building the delayed Second Avenue Subway, connecting the LIRR to Grand Central, opening Governors Island, improving the pedestrian realm, implementing congestion pricing, decking over the West Side rail yards to build today’s Hudson Yards, and redeveloping waterfront neighborhoods. In one of the more revealing quotations in the exhibition, Rohit Aggarwala, a Bloomberg administration veteran who helped found Sidewalk Labs and now serves as the city’s chief climate officer, recalls how the third plan “served its purpose perfectly: preparing good ideas […] and having them ready when their political moment arrives.”

Half a decade since the publication of the fourth regional plan, and ten years after Superstorm Sandy wreaked its destruction, coastal resilience projects are under construction in Manhattan and Staten Island, as planners and communities debate strategies to prepare the region for climate change. An inspired proposal to establish a new kind of national park in the Meadowlands, whose boundaries would expand as the sea rises, remains on RPA’s wish list. The fourth plan also includes fifteen welcome ideas to “make the region affordable for everyone.” The most important of these, “Build affordable housing in all communities across the region,” would require elected leaders and planners to override real estate interests. RPA, with its current board of directors, isn’t likely to lead that charge. The group represents the status quo even as it also urges bold intervention.

And there are limits to RPA’s influence with public and private executives, many of whom attend its annual assembly. If reasoned evidence and alluring visuals, RPA’s two main prongs of persuasion since 1929, were powerful enough to drive change, we’d already have a crucial new rail tunnel beneath the Hudson. We’d have a decent Penn Station—whether through a total do-over or, per Thomas de Monchaux’s suggestion, proffered in NYRA #31, a “mindful and surgical intervention” equal to Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s update of Lincoln Center. We’d have affordable and healthy housing within a few minutes’ walk from parks and transit. We’d put an end to combined sewer overflows and the urban heat island effect while installing thousands of rain gardens and occupiable green roofs. We’d reverse the recent decision by a federal judge to block a common-sense gun law to limit the carrying of firearms in public spaces. We’d neutralize right-wing attacks on free elections, racial justice, and investments in the public realm. We could explain to a visitor in less than five minutes how to reach an airport by public transit.

Regional planning is needed more urgently than ever, but the political capacity for regional planning may be breaking down. Election deniers, pandemic deniers, climate-change deniers, and outright fascists and white supremacists—and now the office-holders they elect, the judges they appoint, and the vigilantes they support—are trying to thwart large government undertakings and undermine what remains of open cities. With evidence-based expertise held in contempt by a large chunk of the public, I can’t help wondering if RPA’s hundredth birthday is also its retirement party.

New York is never finished, though. My heart swells when I see the D train thundering above the FDR Parkway or Brooklyn Bridge Park, striking out across the Manhattan Bridge, naive to the absurdity of it all, dwarfed by the scale of the city and the wind-whipped East River, whose naturally violent tides threaten to swamp us if we don’t recalibrate our relationship to nature. It’s all so fragile and fabulous. This messy collage of planned and unplanned urbanism. Momentarily, the city is ours. For us, by us. The future is open. Then I remember that the city doesn’t care about me, about you, about anyone. It’s built on exploitation. Billionaires and trolls call the shots. But we have to keep working on good ideas. You never know when their political moment will arrive.

Gideon Fink Shapiro is a Brooklyn-based writer who’s lived in the region for twenty-two years, at times commuting south to Philly or north to New Haven, and now takes in the city while pushing a stroller.