The History of the Future: Contextualizing the Exhibition of the Fourth Regional Plan for the New York Metropolitan Region

By Kristian Taketomo

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A basement in Greenwich Village may hold a sneak peek of what’s to come in the New York Metropolitan region. Until November 3rd, the ground floor at the Center for Architecture houses a free exhibition of the Regional Plan Association’s latest long-range strategic vision for the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region, the Fourth Regional Plan.

The first of the small exhibition’s three areas summarizes the guiding principles and major points of the Fourth Plan: its values (equity prosperity, health, and sustainability), its action areas (institutions, climate change, transportation, and affordability), and selections from its sixty-one recommendations. The second area showcases the winning proposals from the 4C Project — a design competition for the region’s four corridors, as identified by RPA. The last area reviews RPA’s organizational history.

Although the exhibition overviews the major themes and proposals of the Fourth Plan, it’s not merely a condensation of the 383-page publication, The Fourth Regional Plan: Making the Region Work for All of Us, which you can download for free by visiting RPA’s website (www.rpa.org). Instead, the exhibition brings the Fourth Plan to life with large-scale maps, detailed landscape and architectural renderings, and a host of other graphics and illustrations, offering a uniquely immersive glimpse into RPA’s vision for the future of New York.

Three Plans for the New York Metropolitan Region

Why should you put stock into this particular organization’s ideas about where the region is — or should be — going? One of the earliest entities dedicated to planning at larger-than-the-city scale, RPA can count mega-projects like the redevelopment of Governor’s Island and the construction of the Palisades Parkway among its achievements from its 96-year history. Its three previous long-term, comprehensive plans, which were completed in 1929, 1968, and 1996, helped shape the New York metropolitan area we currently inhabit. This Fourth Plan builds upon the legacies, both concrete and intellectual, of its predecessors.

In 1922, a group of New York business leaders formed a new civic organization seeking to overcome the deficiencies of fragmented, small-scale planning by surveying the entire metropolitan area. Seven years later, in 1929, RPA published the First Plan, The Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs.[1] Among the First Plan’s proposals were the development of a metropolitan “trunk line” railroad, and of suburban and city rapid transit; the improvement of area harbors and waterways; the extension of the public park system; the conservation of private open spaces; the establishment of planning boards; and the construction of new automobile infrastructure, including bridges, tunnels, and high-capacity radial or arterial highways, beltways, and parkways. During the 1930s and 1940s, many of the First Plan’s recommendations were realized during the New York State governorship and later presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR — who happened to be the nephew of the First Plan’s Chairman, Frederic A. Delano — mined the First Plan for construction projects that could put the unemployed back to work.

The Second Plan, published as a series of reports in late 1960s, took aim at “urban problems” such as metropolitan sprawl (“spread city”); downtown decay; highway congestion; racial and socioeconomic segregation; dwindling open space; future population growth; and the unequal distribution of jobs, housing, and public services. The Second Plan proposed strengthening and developing new and existing regional nodes — such as Jamaica (Queens), Downtown Newark, Downtown Brooklyn, White Plains, Stamford, and New Brunswick — serviced by an improved, federally-funded metropolitan transit network. While the domestic and international primacy of Manhattan’s Central Business District remained RPA’s foremost concern, the organization urged the revitalization of these secondary centers via public transportation, white-collar jobs, and mixed-income housing. The Second Plan also made recommendations for the distribution and management of public services, waterfront planning (for the Lower Hudson), national and regional approaches to urbanization, and public participation in the regional planning process.

The Third Plan, A Region at Risk, responded to the economic recession that hit the tri-state area “earlier, harder, and deeper” than anywhere else in the early 1990s.[2] Completed in 1996, the Third Plan discussed the region’s still-uncertain path to recovery and explored globalization’s economic opportunities. The so-called “Three E’s” — economy, equity, and environment — undergirded the Third Plan’s slate of recommendations to improve transit; increase greenways and open space; continue the development of regional centers; grow jobs and recruit employers; and strengthen regional governance.

Like its predecessors, the Fourth Plan emerged from crisis. Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 had rudely awakened area residents to the region’s climatic vulnerability. Moreover, the public reported a troubling “loss of confidence” in regional institutions. So in 2012, RPA decided it was time to write another plan for the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region. After five years of research and public engagement, RPA published the Fourth Plan in November 2017.

Exhibition as Engagement

Any comprehensive vision for a region as massive and diverse and complicated as this one will contain controversial elements, but without enough popular support or with enough popular hostility a plan will stay on paper only. RPA is no stranger to pushback, and the current exhibition comprises part of a public engagement strategy honed over decades of battle.

In producing the first three plans, RPA encountered opposition — from scholarly skepticism to public protest — to their long-range, large-scale approach. The First Plan found an adversary in Lewis Mumford, who argued that the region’s best course was restrained growth and decentralization. Yet RPA had the ears of influential politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, developers, and leaders of academic, financial, and cultural institutions. It leveraged this powerful network to achieve many of its goals in the face of opposition both from high-profile critics like Mumford and from segments of the general population. While some individual researchers at the association expressed interest in gauging (and influencing) public opinion, the overall approach of RPA during the First Plan could only be described as “top-down.”[3]

By the completion of the Second Plan in 1968, regional planning had been assailed on multiple fronts for over a decade. Beginning in the mid-1950s, “freeway revolts” broke out in cities across the country and world as people tired of enormous highway projects that consumed whole neighborhoods and splintered communities. In the tri-state region, Jane Jacobs became the face of popular resistance. In the suburbs, municipal home rule frustrated planning at the metropolitan and regional levels. In response, RPA waged an elaborate and expensive public participation campaign including television programs, opinion polls, public meetings, and educational events.[4]

In the 1990s, RPA again found itself swimming against the tide — something the organization acknowledged and defended in the Third Plan: “In an era in which narrowly focused, one-issue-at-a-time strategic planning predominates, the decision to proceed with a long-range, comprehensive plan once again represents a radical departure. By proceeding in this way, RPA reaffirmed a longstanding conviction that the region’s concerns are indeed regional and interrelated — recognizing the concept that it you ‘pull on a thread, you move the stars.’”[5] RPA employed engagement strategies learned from both its previous attempts — while it leveraged connections to then-governor George Pataki to adopt its regional rail concept, it also used TV advertising, in-person town halls, and even internet campaigns to reach the average citizen.[6]

The current exhibition furthers RPA’s effort to be perceived as transparent and receptive, not tyrannical or heavy-handed, by offering everyone a free, accessible means of exploring and responding to the Fourth Plan’s ideas and recommendations. Indeed, RPA’s history of both success and failure in courting public support has led the organization to view public engagement efforts, such as this exhibition, as crucial to achieving its objectives. In the words of Sam Carter, Managing Director of the Rockefeller Foundation, “Community involvement is a key factor in building stronger, more resilient ecosystems; by bringing The Fourth Regional Plan directly to communities through this exhibit, residents have the opportunity to weigh-in on their future by assessing the creative designs and solutions to some of the most pressing challenges New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are facing.”[7]

The Center for Architecture is one of two venues for the Fourth Plan exhibition. Though the Fourth Plan debuted at this location, RPA chose the Chapel at Fort Tilden, near the western end of the Rockaway Peninsula, for the first public presentation of the 4C Project in early August.[8] But why Fort Tilden? As part of Gateway National Recreation Area, which became the nation’s first urban national park in 1972 at the Second Plan’s recommendation, Fort Tilden is a powerful symbol of RPA’s efficacy, influence, and foresight.[9]

The 4C Project

Throughout its history, one of RPA’s core beliefs has been that the fates of apparently disparate areas are more closely intertwined than they might seem. After all, the organization was founded on the assertion that locales as distinct as bustling, urban Manhattan; suburban Paramus, New Jersey; and the sparsely-populated Long Island Pine Barrens were somehow knit together into a cohesive metropolitan area. The three previous plans expressed the notion of regional interconnectivity in relatively prosaic ways; the urban core connects to its suburbs, small towns, agricultural areas, and wildlands via the movement of goods and people along transportation arteries like roads and rails, and by shared geographic features like rivers, valleys, and shorelines. The Fourth Plan develops this theme in novel ways, as the exhibition’s section on the 4C Project illustrates.

Launched in January 2017, the 4C Project asked architects, landscape architects, urban planners, and designers to develop creative, strategic responses to issues facing the region’s four corridors identified by RPA: the Highlands Corridor, the Coast Corridor, the Suburbs Corridor, and the City Corridor. The project sought to “visually demonstrate how policy changes, new investments and innovative thinking proposed in The Fourth Regional Plan can reshape different geographic areas in the Tri-State region and prepare them for the next 25 years.”[10] In March 2017, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded each of four winning design teams a $45,000 grant to study and strategically design for two sites in their corridor and to develop a “corridor-wide narrative.”[11] The Center for Architecture displays these winning designs.

The 4C Project employs a strikingly elastic definition of “corridor” compared to its forerunners. As the exhibition’s section label explains, “In conventional practice, a ‘corridor’ is a linear geography organized around a highway, rail line, or natural feature like a river. This initiative used a more expansive conception of ‘corridor,’ one that includes considerations like urban-development histories, shared potentials for economic growth, climate change threats, natural systems, and species migration.”[12] The corridor concept, according to the 4C website, “allows for the development of designs that engage issues that are germane to the territory and transcend the limits of a given place. Design strategies can be…grounded in real case study sites but also abstract enough to be shifted from one location to another along corridors with similar conditions.”[13]

As Paul Lewis, Associate Dean of the Princeton School of Architecture, explains in one of the 4C website’s featured quotes, this new spatial orientation represents a dramatic departure from previous plans: “Where the past plans focused on Manhattan and center-to-periphery hierarchy, these new designs explore potential within four typologically distinct geographic and ecological corridors that comprise the region as a whole, revealing more complexity and diversity.”[14]

This section of the exhibition raises interesting questions in the context of RPA’s complicated history with public engagement. After struggling for many years with getting residents of the periphery to care about the center and vice versa, how does de-centering Manhattan change the image of the region that the association wishes to promulgate? How hard will it be to get people to understand this less literal version of “corridor,” and, beyond that, to actually identity as a stakeholder in the corridor or corridors in which they live or work? Ultimately, will these changes make the public less willing to accept the precept that the region is a comprehensible whole, making it more difficult for RPA to achieve buy-in for projects of an enormous scale?

Each of the four designs on view likewise reframes old planning concepts and analogies in new ways. For instance, the winners of the Coast Corridor, design team Rafi Segal A+U + DLANDstudio describe their vision for what they call “coastal urbanism.” In their proposal, an environmental buffer protects areas of human habitation from the ravages of “unstoppable” nature.[15] The coastline, they argue, becomes the “new urban frontier.”[16]

The concept of “urban frontier” isn’t new. Since historian Richard Wade’s landmark study of cities in the American West, The Urban Frontier (1959), the expression has popped up time and again, from Charles Abrams’s The City is the Frontier (1965) to Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier (a term Jackson attributed to Wade, his mentor)[17] (1985) to Joel Garreau’s Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (1991).[18] In The New Urban Frontier (1996), Neil Smith engaged frontier imagery in both the ugly history of American expansion and the mechanisms of gentrification. “The frontier discourse,” Smith wrote, “serves to rationalize and legitimate a process of conquest, whether in the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century West, or in the late-twentieth-century inner city.”[19] Then, a few years ago, sociologist Saskia Sassan suggested that the large complex, global city is a “strategic frontier zone” for both “global corporate capital” as well as the disempowered and disadvantaged. As she explained in a 2013 MOOC, a frontier zone is “a space where two actors from different worlds encounter each other…[where] there are no established rules governing that encounter.” The essence of cities today is this lawless, ‘Wild West’ milieu, not traditionally “urban” structural forms or arrangements.[20]

Now, in the Fourth Plan, we see the latest iteration of the urban frontier — the coastal urban frontier. What is this newest new urban frontier? It is the line between “civilization” and “savagery”? Is it a contact zone? Is it neutral territory? Is its ownership or meaning contested? How does power operate in this space? And who or what is being conquered — people, nature?

The exhibition at the Center for Architecture does not provide the answers to these or the many other questions raised by its vision for New York’s future. But it does offer you plenty of food for thought and conversation, both at the surface level — the desirability of its expansive prescriptions and the feasibility of its imaginative design proposals — and at the meta-level — does the exhibition succeed as a public engagement tool and win the Regional Plan Association the support it needs to execute its goals?

The Future of the New York Metropolitan Area: The Fourth Regional Plan is on view at the Center for Architecture (536 LaGuardia Place, New York, NY 10012) from July 26, 2018 until November 3, 2018. Free admission.

Notes

[1] The First Plan consisted of two volumes. Regional Plan’s recommendations were laid out in the first volume, called the “graphic plan,” published in 1929. This volume also contained the first atlas of the New York metropolitan region. The second volume, published in 1931, explored the wider history of planning, planning concepts, and the specific problems of planning for the New York metropolitan region.

[2] Regional Plan Association, A Region at Risk: The Third Regional Plan for the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut Metropolitan Area, by Robert D. Yaro and Tony Hiss (New York: Island Press, 1996), xix.

[3] For more on the First Plan, see David A. Johnson, Planning the Great Metropolis: The 1929 Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs (London: Chapman & Hall, 1996).

[4] See Regional Plan Association, Public Participation in Regional Planning, by William B. Shore (New York: Regional Plan Association, 1967).

[5] Regional Plan, A Region at Risk, 2.

[6] Robert D. Yaro, “Metropolitanism: How Metropolitan Planning Has Been Shaped by and Reflected in the Plans of the Regional Plan Association,” in Planning Ideas that Matter: Livability, Territoriality, Governance, and Reflective Practice, eds. Bishwapriya Sanyal, Lawrence J. Vale, Christina D. Rosan (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 170.

[7] See https://4c.rpa.org/about.

[8] Hope Daily, “‘The Fourth Regional Plan exhibition opens next Thursday at the AIA New York Center for Architecture,” Archinect News (July 17, 2018), https://archinect.com/news/bustler/6693/the-fourth-regional-plan-exhibition-opens-next-thursday-at-the-aia-new-york-center-for-architecture; Michelle Cohen, “New rendering of proposed Triboro Corridor, 17-stop outer borough light rail and linear park,” 6sgft (August 8, 2017), https://www.6sqft.com/new-renderings-of-proposed-triboro-corridor-17-stop-outer-borough-light-rail-and-linear-park/.

[9] Peter Kihss, “Recreation Area in Harbor Urged: Regional Plan Would Widen Idea Hickel and Lindsay Will Discuss Tomorrow,” New York Times(May 12, 1969), https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1969/05/12/78345166.pdf.

[10] See https://4c.rpa.org/about/process.

[11] Jason Sayer, “Regional Plan Association unveils the final designs for the Fourth Regional Plan,” The Architect’s Newspaper (August 9, 2017), https://archpaper.com/2017/08/rpa-fourth-regional-plan-designs/.

[12] Center for Architecture.

[13] https://4c.rpa.org/corridors .

[14] Ibid.

[15] Regional Plan Association, The Fourth Regional Plan: Making the Region Work for All of Us (2017), 362.

[16] Center for Architecture.

[17] Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), ix.

[18] For more on the concept of the (sub)urban frontier, see the literature review in Josh Rennie Short, Bernadette Hanlon, and Thomas J. Vicino, “The Decline of Inner Suburbs: The New Suburban Gothic in the United States,” Geography Compass 1, no. 3 (2007): 641-656.

[19] Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City(London: Routledge, 1996) xv.

[20] Saskia Sassen, “The City: Today’s Frontier Zone, Glocalism 3 (2014), http://www.glocalismjournal.net/issues/global-cities/articles/the-city-todays-frontier-zone.kl; Leuphana Digital School, “Global Cities as Today’s Frontiers,” (January 11, 2013), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iu-p31RkCXI.