THE PUBLIC MOXIE OF GREAT CITIES

Excerpts from The Planning Game: Lessons from Great Cities, by Alexander Garvin. (W.W. Norton)
©2012 by Alexander Garvin

The focus of most of the book is on the public realm approach to planning—an approach that emphasizes the importance of public investments in determining the future of what we own and control: This is our common property. It is the fundamental element in any community—the framework around which everything else grows.

Cities that adopt the public realm approach to planning make it easier and cheaper to do business, make their citizens, in the words of [Charles Wacker, first chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission], ‘more efficient workers by saving time and money in transit of goods and people,’ and improve the quality of life of their residents. By combining public investments into a coherent agenda, they provide the leverage for capturing and guiding private investment to operate in the public interest while, in the process, improving whole neighborhoods, districts, cities, and even regions…

New York. The resources devoted to effecting change in the New York metropolitan area between 1920 and 1960 served two interdependent goals: to extend the region’s public realm to accommodate its exploding population and vibrant economy, and to improve the quality of life for all its residents. Both were intended to strengthen the city’s competitive position within an increasingly global economy.

To implement this agenda, the region invested in increasing the capacity and efficiency of its port facilities; improving access to and circulation within the region for trucks, buses, and automobiles; reclaiming and providing public access to the waterfront for recreational purposes; and adding to and improving the region’s already significant inventory of parks and playgrounds. In some cases, such as creating a network of highways, bridges, and tunnels, the agenda achieved these goals simultaneously.

Robert Moses. Almost a century has passed since Robert Moses entered the planning game, and nearly half a century has passed since he held any significant office, yet he still dominates discussions of city planning in New York. Any effort to examine the role he played is made more difficult by the fact that our understanding of him is encrusted with conceptions that persuasive interpreters have added over the years. Many of the things ascribed to Moses are in fact the work of others, while much of what he accomplished remains hidden from view. Furthermore, Moses, his supporters, and his critics have all exaggerated Moses’s role.

No one in any city, anywhere, not even Haussmann, built more than Robert Moses. Within the seven counties of New York and Long Island, he administered the agencies responsible for building and maintaining at least 200 miles of landscaped parkways, six bridges spanning nearly 10 miles, and two tunnels extending nearly 2 miles. In addition, he was involved in some manner with about 160 miles of the seven counties’ limited-access expressways, which were in fact built by entities he did not administer. As chairman of the Long Island State Park Commission from 1924 to 1963, Moses spearheaded the creation of fifteen major parks on Long Island, built 133 miles of parkways, and opened 24 miles of public beaches.

“His impact is obvious to anybody who visits a neighborhood swimming pool.”

Between 1934 and 1960 he was also New York City parks commissioner, and under his administration the Parks Department acquired 20,200 acres of parkland in New York City, extended 133 miles of parkway, built 15 huge swimming pools, created 658 playgrounds, and added 17 miles of public beaches to the meager 1 mile the city owned when he came to office. This inventory does not take account of his role as New York City’s urban renewal czar, or the rest of his work in New York State and elsewhere, which includes building two bridges and a parkway near Niagara Falls, managing the New York State Power Authority, and consulting for Pittsburgh, Portland, New Orleans—and much else. Moses did not accomplish all this in a vacuum. He was pursuing an agreed-upon agenda that had received formal legislative sanction at the local, state, or federal level, and often all three.

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1888, Robert Moses lived two blocks from the Yale University campus until he was nine years old, when his family moved to New York City. He graduated from Yale, then earned a master’s degree in political science from Oxford and a Ph.D. from Columbia, in 1914. Many people think of Moses as a thoughtless but effective bulldozer. But he was well and broadly educated, as familiar with the writings of Pope and Shakespeare as he was with cost estimates for the latest playgrounds…

Moses himself created the legend that he was “the man who could get things done for New York.” The legend was credible because he usually implemented what he believed to be an agreed-upon agenda, adjusting it enough to minimize active opposition and making sure he had all the formal government approvals the projects required…

Moses was responsible for executing much of the region’s agenda of public investments in parks, playgrounds, parkways, bridges, tunnels, and community redevelopment. His impact is obvious to anybody who goes to an Atlantic Ocean beach, drives along the Grand Central Parkway, visits a neighborhood swimming pool, attends a performance at Lincoln Center, or crosses the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge. Given his awesome inventory of public works, one has to ask: what exactly did he do and how did he do it?

The Moses Method. It took decades. In the beginning he had one title, chairman of the Long Island State Park Commission, and virtually no power. Over the years he amassed more and more titles, and with them, power. Power did not come from the titles; it came from his skill in playing by the rules of the planning game.

Moses succeeded when he:  (1) pursued an agreed-upon agenda that had received formal legislative sanction at the local, state, and federal level, and often from all three;  (2) hired what he believed were the ablest professionals (without reference to political support) to design his projects;  (3) obtained legislation creating an agency that he staffed with loyal civil servants to whom he entrusted project management and who could hire a staff competent and trained to implement that agenda, had the ability to hire people with the skills it might need in the future, and could engage consultants and companies to provide services it was unable to deliver;  (4) established sources of revenue that allowed him to proceed without further legislative approval;  (5) maintained the support of the relevant mayors and governors who had appointed him; and (6) played by all the other economic and political rules that apply to the planning game.

He never deviated from the second, third, and fourth of these principles. His failures occurred when there was no longer general agreement on the agenda, as happened with the federal urban renewal and highway programs; when he lost the support of the mayor or the governor; or when he ignored one or another of the rules of the game…

Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches. The environmental-recreational agenda Moses implemented had not changed since the establishment of Central Park in the 1850s; as always, it was to improve personal well-being and public health, incubate a civil society, sustain a healthy environment, and provide a framework for development. Its advocates had successfully promoted everything from playgrounds to national parks—always with scattered local opposition from businesses, real estate developers, and property owners determined to protect their investments and their way of life. Moses adopted that agenda when, as secretary of the New York State Association in 1921, he coordinated meetings that resulted in the acceptance of recommendations for parks throughout the state. These were embodied in the plan he prepared in 1922…

“10,450 lockers”

Moses’s objective was a park system for middle-class Long Islanders who could not afford membership in a country club, but who could afford to drive from their homes along landscaped, limited-access parkways to a state park. Both the parkways and the state parks were built and managed by the Long Island State Park Commission. People came in droves. During 1930, the first full year of Jones Beach’s operation, for example, 950,000 cars took the new causeway to the beach; 1.4 million cars came the following year. Most Long Islanders eagerly paid a few cents at the highway toll booth because they thought the visit to Jones Beach was a bargain.

His parks program was ahead of its time in its commitment to environmental sustainability. This is overlooked because it is inseparable from the other aspects of his multifunctional approach to public works. Moses explained, “I am a conservationist, but I object to lockup [sic] the wilderness against recreation.” Moses usually combined his environmental conservation agenda with other objectives. In 1925, for example, he entered into an arrangement with the New York City Department of Water Supply to add to the Long Island Park System more than 2,000 acres of streams, lakes, and parks that had been originally acquired for water supply purposes by the City of Brooklyn (prior to consolidation). The deal permitted the property to be used for recreational purposes, in exchange for improving, maintaining, fencing, and properly policing the waterways.

photo credit: Alexander Garvin

“Leverage for private investment.” “The designers of Jones Beach paid attention to the smallest details, even the garbage cans, which look like something from an ocean liner.”

Jones Beach State Park provides another early and striking demonstration of the characteristic Moses approach to public works. He thought about the present population that would use his facilities and about future generations as well. Eventually, Jones Beach became part of a 14.5-mile chain of state-operated public beaches. And in creating a park system on Long Island, Moses planned for a population far higher than the 235,000 people living there at the time. In 2000 the population had grown to 2.75 million and Jones Beach was still successfully providing facilities for millions of visitors. The transformation of this spit of land— from a barren and almost unknown barrier island into a public park used by millions of people a year—required constructing access roads and bridges, raising the average island elevation from 2 feet to 14 feet above sea level by pumping 40 million cubic yards of sand from South Oyster Bay, planting hundreds of acres of beach grass to hold the sand in place, and building two huge bathhouses and countless other visitor facilities, all connected by a two mile-long boardwalk.

The scale of the venture no longer seems out of proportion. But one can only imagine the reaction in 1929 to a bathhouse containing 10,450 lockers.

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