Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews architect Vishaan Chakrabarti on the future of cities, equitable urban development, and resiliency planning.
In this episode Professor Goldsmith interviews architect and author Vishaan Chakrabarti about his work in the public, private, and academic sectors, how urban planning is changing in response to social movements, and why public spaces are so important in today's fragmented society. They also discuss planning for an uncertain future in regards to climate change and urban resiliency, and how to include community stakeholders in the process.
Music credit: Summer-Man by Ketsa
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Hi, this is Betsy Gardner, Senior Editor at the Harvard Kennedy School and producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Today, our host Professor Steve Goldsmith is interviewing architect Vishaan Chakrabarti. To make sure that you don’t miss an episode, please find us and subscribe under the new Data-Smart City Pod channel, and thanks for listening.
Thanks again for being with us for another one of our podcasts. We're with Vishaan who's an architect author, professor, founder of a practice of architecture and urbanism, worked for the terrific Bloomberg administration in New York City in the years following 9/11, covers a lot of ground on the future cities. So first thanks for being with us.
Thanks for having me.
How about a minute or two about your impressive background to the various areas you've touched academically, public sector and private sector, just so we can understand a little bit about your context?
I've had a pretty crazy non-linear career. I like to call it frost dressing, because I studied all sorts of things and then finally came to urban planning and then architecture late. And I've kind of toggled for most of my career between architecture and urban planning. And I've worked in a lot of different sectors. I was working as an architect and then 9/11 happened and kind of felt the call to public service. Went to work for the Bloomberg administration in those years. Did some more work in academia, did some work in development, and then went back to architecture and then formed my own practice about seven years ago, which is based in New York.
And so I've really been very privileged to see the world of city building and community building from a lot of different angles. And I think it's hopefully made me a better professional and a better steward of my own practice as I try to generate the next generation of talent and so forth. And one of the things that's interesting Steven is when I got very interested in cities in the early '90s, cities weren't a big topic. It was still kind of the vestige of the late 1970s and so forth. And that you might remember the '90s is actually a very suburban era. That's when suburbia actually grew into even new heights and SUVs and minivans came to the fore and so forth. And I think 9/11, Katrina, the Great Recession, a lot of the events that were the entry events into the 21st century changed all that. Now you can't swing a cat without talking about cities. So it's an interesting moment to actually be having these conversations.
There's so much to talk about and we only have limited time. I mean, we're in this point obviously where cities have more infrastructure funding than almost all have ever had before in one time. And they have concurrently changes in so many areas, not just COVID changes, but climate changes, some issues concerning civic spaces and violence, the conversation about inequity. So if you were advising today's mayors or senior officials, how would you think they should incorporate these theories of design as they spend the infrastructure dollars? I mean, how would they even think about incorporating this much change in the design of infrastructure?
To me, this isn't rocket science, it's about synthesis. And what I mean by that is both east Asia and Europe have been way ahead of us for decades now in terms of thinking about especially mobility infrastructure, expenditure, and affordable housing, and how you think about those things together. So I think part of the problem we have in terms of our governance is these things tend to be very atomized. And so there's housing investment going over that's flowing maybe from HUD or something like that. And then you've got DOT expenditures and DOE expenditures. We've been trying to develop things like affordable carbon negatives, small scale, but urban housing prototypes, but it doesn't matter if you have to drive to get to it. So you have to think about it as being planned with an urban fabric, a transit-based fabric.
And again, none of this is rocket science. People have been talking about all of this for decades. We just don't do it well. You look at Hong Kong and the way the metro system and housing development works together, there's numerous European examples. And I just don't think we've been doing this well. So in New York City for example, my firm did a master plan for the city of New York for Sunnyside Yard, which is out in Queens, 184 acres, 12 transit lines, commuter rail. That's the kind of place where it's a big investment lift, because you've got to create the land. It's a rail yard. But the reward for creating dense, affordable housing, parks, schools, social infrastructure, it's transit based in the heart of downtown Queens.
Thinking about that together is I think where we're failing. Where we see these things as widgets. We put a light rail system where there aren't enough people. We put housing when there's not enough transit access. And then people say, "Well, that's a waste of money. That's another example of government wasting my money," because we're not looking at these things holistically.
How do you accommodate? You can call it resilience. Let's just call it dynamic change for a second. So you're going to build something today that in its use could change. The nature of the sidewalk could change. The number of pedestrians could change. The bike lanes could change, fill in the blank, or one could be anticipating that some piece of construction might be underwater actually. Is it through the use of sensors? Is it through more community participation? How are you incorporating future planning at a time where so much is unknown?
Yeah, it's a great question. When I worked in the Bloomberg administration and my boss at the time was Dan Doctoroff and often would get like have to be at City Hall until eight or nine on a Friday night. And I'd call my wife and I'd say, "Sorry, I'm going to be late for dinner. Sorry about the guests." And she'd text me back and she'd say, "What is there? An urban planning emergency? Is something going to happen in 40 years instead of 30?" And it is a huge problem this problem that you're raising. I mean, you think about EISs and how long it takes to be agile in the space that we're working in.
And I think this is where communities play a huge role because no one knows their community as well as the people who live and work there and they have their ears to the ground, and listening to them and understanding the changes that are happening there I think that's better than a sensor, because I think that is a human being as a sensor. I think it's really listening to how people perceive and understand the changes that are happening in their community. And I think this is going to become even more critical with climate change.
So for instance, we're just starting this big project in Australia, in the Sydney Waterfront, and First Nations, what we used to call Aboriginal culture, but now is referred to as First Nations plays a huge role in this project because the First Nation's traditions of how you think about responsiveness to water actually are much better than a lot of our 20th century concrete infrastructure interventions that we think are the best ways to deal with water. So I think that's one of the best things to do is just really try to listen to people. Technology can be key to that, but I just think you always need that human lens as the intervention between technology and whatever kind of conclusion you reach.
Have you seen anything you think works particularly well in terms of community engagement in design? When I was in New York City the planning didn't report to me, but a number of the other agencies that did it felt to me that the professionals would come up with a plan and then tested on the community as contrasted to come up with a plan with the community and then make it more transparent.
I think there's actually two parts to your question as I see it because the pandemic forced us to work in this different mode. And right now we're working in Detroit and Indianapolis and we just did this master planning study for Niagara, downtown Niagara is a fascinating place. All of the community engagement, stakeholder engagement happened via Zoom. And we found two things that were really fascinating. One is you got a very different crosscut of the demographics of the community because there's only a certain group of people who can basically afford the time to go out to a community board meeting. If you're a single mom, it's pretty hard to go to a community board meeting, but if you get your kid to sleep, maybe you can sneak on a Zoom call for a half an hour or 45 minutes.
And that makes a huge difference. And there's a lot of data around this that the people who can show up at community board meetings are often wealthy and white. And so I think our ability to reach much more diverse audiences through digital interaction is great. That's one thing. The other thing that we just found is that on the Zoom function there's a polling function. So you can anonymously ask questions on Zoom and we would get great real time feedback. That's a format that doesn't reward the person who's the extrovert, the person who doesn't necessarily feel comfortable speaking up in a crowd, but is perfectly happy to take an anonymous poll. And again, there's gender data around this that men are more likely to speak up in meetings than women and so forth. And so I actually think the pandemic taught us a lot about how to do these things differently and potentially better.
The other piece of what you said is I think one of the most fascinating quandaries of our time in terms of working in this time, which is do people with expertise come up with an idea, a framework plan and present it to a community, or is it supposed to really come out of the community? And I don't think this is a black and white issue. I think community members often have day jobs and they don't have times to come up with a plan. They often don't have the expertise. In New York City you may recall there's the ability through something called the 197-a Plan for communities to do their own planning. I've been trying to urge Community Board 5 in Manhattan to do this around Penn Station, because I think the state's plan is pretty awful and they just don't have the resources.
And even in the statute there's the ability for the community board to get a little bit of money to hire some experts to do some things. So I do think there is still a role for expertise. There's a role for us, but I think it's how the work we do is presented and framed. As opposed to it being a fait accompli, how do we present framework, ideas, options, present the ramifications of options? And I do think that there's a role for people who train in these things to be able to present the communities with ideas. I don't think it has to all just come from community members who tend to have very busy lives of their own. Again, I think it's a gray area in here and I don't think I have the precisely right answer, but I do think that expertise is still important.
I wrote one final question for you. Even though I'm interviewing, I have to tell you a story. So I got elected Mayor of Indianapolis many years ago and I went immediately out in the first couple weeks to cut a ribbon on a new park. Even though my predecessor had done the entire park, I still went out to cut the ribbon. And instead of getting adulation from the public, they were really upset because the basketball court was on the side of the park where seniors lived in apartments and should have been on the other side of the park where the noise wouldn't have.
So I raised them philanthropy money to redesign a large number of our parks. We held my first community meeting. I said, "We're going to rebuild your park. What do you want over there and how do you want it located?" And this guy stood up and he said, "You have the park planners. We're not park planners. Tell us what our options are and then we'll ask them." So just kind of listening to your presentation it reminded me of that story.
Yeah. And that is the quandary.
How about just in a closing comment, you could spend weeks talking about equity, climate. We've been looking a little bit at design of neighborhoods on outcomes for young adults who live in those. If you looked at the most vulnerable neighborhoods, the ones that don't receive a lot of investment but might now, how would we think about designing for healthy goals? Maybe not necessarily around climate per se, but how about just terms of public health and exercise and green spaces? What are the components that you think every design should pay attention to for neighborhoods that we're trying to revitalize?
Well, I mean, I think there's certain basics that we all need. I'm a big believer in public space and I think public space is the glue that holds us together. I think we've learned that during the pandemic, but I think even more importantly in this way that we're seeing our democracy being undermined, that to me public space is the counterpoint to social media in our world. If social media is this thing that is making us more fragmented in our bubbles, public space is the thing that forces us to see this person who looks different than us or practices a different religion than us and says, "That person isn't that scary. That person actually and I have more in common than we don't." So to me that health is a very broad topic. And of course there's all sorts of things you can talk about in terms of walkability and viability and all of those things that we planning geeks talk about.
But I think there's this core notion of public space as the glue that should hold communities together. And again, I don't think we're designing public space in great ways in lots of places. I mean, sure in our big cities where you have lots of big budgets for fancy landscape architects and big parks. But as I do a lot of work in rust belt cities and stuff, we're either planning parks where the people are not, we're not planning enough density around those parks. Things are still way too auto oriented and that damages health in all sorts of ways.
You asked me as a sort of closing, I think we're at a extraordinarily opportune moment right now. This infrastructure bill, hopefully this war will resolve, but this war should be pointing to the enormous threat of being reliant on fossil fuel and petro-dictators. As we think about climate change, we can think about all of these things together, the equity issue, the climate issue, the health issue, the security issue, the democracy issue. And really in my mind, all of those can come together through the lens of designing good communities. I really think that's an enormous opportunity in a lot of especially our mid-size and smaller cities in this country.
Well, we could talk to you for a long time, but we've just had a terrific conversation with Vishaan. Thank you so much for your time and your insights today.
My pleasure. Nice to be with you.
If you liked this podcast, please visit our us at datasmartcities.org, or follow us @datasmartcities on Twitter. And remember to subscribe at the new Data-Smart City Podcast channel on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. This podcast was produced by me, Betsy Gardner, and hosted by Professor Steve Goldsmith. We're proud to be the central resource for cities interested in the intersection of government, data, and innovation. Thanks for listening.