A New Look at Local Real Estate Politics
It’s not lost on unions that cities with high density and aging infrastructure are cities that will overhaul their underground pipes in the next few years to adjust to climate change. So it’s not exactly politics as usual that the ostensibly Democratic construction union in New York just endorsed incumbent Mike Bloomberg, ostensibly a Republican candidate, for mayor. Bloomberg has pushed for an aggressive remaking of New York’s pipes and pathways since 2007. Critically, Bloomberg has stressed winning over the public with sexy design in everything from new schools to new sewage plant- promising political blessing from tastemakers and from specialist contractors.
Development politics today are about building a broad base of jobs by engaging a broad range of opinions. I’ve learned the same lesson from advocates in dilapidated city neighborhoods and from planners whose clients include Riyadh and Bank of America: big real-estate projects look handsomer and work more richly when more involved parties discuss their design earlier and more frequently.
This happens less reliably than you might think after a decade of gentrification. Governments still shape big projects’ planning and design with scant public input and . The resulting schemes often carry infuriating flaws: Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower fails police-department muster, Boston’s Big Dig doesn’t work. But cities can tweak zoning code and communications to involve the public earlier and with more authority.
A first step involves absorbing volunteer projects into the city bureaucracy. From New York’s High Line railroad trestle to Atlanta’s beltline greenway and Los Angeles’ riverfront, community groups invested years into researching land title, available funding and environmental risks. Their home cities have all co-opted free labor to make these parks real. Why shouldn’t this be a standard municipal function? Like civic “coolhunters,” ombuds from the mayor’s office or Planning Department can survey and respond to initiatives like these.
The next step would reinvent the public-comment period to include public brainstorming. Deliberately inclusive, visual design sessions are now guiding ambitious planning in “hot” neighborhoods from Manhattan to Seattle. City government can learn disciplined consensus-building from architects and community organizers, and can goose the labor market by adapting these tools to civic scale. They can include budgets for design literacy in funding to community-based organizations or incentives for developers who conduct open design outreach.
These investments would complement the growing use of design and planning in public schools as a problem-solving language or of design as a language-neutral tool for public input in immigrant neighborhoods where English is less common. The conclusions will be as plain and invigorating as a well-proportioned park.
And if the construction trades have to live with a little more public scrutiny in the bargain, no worries. They’ll figure out how to make hay from it.
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