Wednesday, 2 March 2011

A view of New York - London's sister city - from David Bragdon, one its most powerful officials

"The best planning involves having one foot in memory and the other in prophecy," said David Bragdon, one of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's most powerful city officials. "We can learn a lot from London."

Bragdon, Director of New York City's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, heads up the PlaNYC initiative that aims to transform the Big Apple's land, air, water, energy and transport. At first, I wasn't too sure exactly what London could teach New York, especially during this week when councillors are cutting funds to community and youth groups across London's 32 boroughs. 

Bragdon, a passionate yet cautious figure, speaking to a London audience of architects and planners this morning (Wednesday, 2 March), explained New York City is undergoing its own political and financial turmoil.

"People don't understand the imperative of investing in infrastructure as a means to grow jobs," said Bragdon. "But Mayor Bloomberg is steadfast in continually explaining the importance of investing in our infrastructure and reminding people that many of the things that we now rely on are our greatest public works that actually occurred in the Depression of the 1930s."

President Obama supports infrastructure investment, such as on high speed rail and an upgraded electricity supply grid. However, a fresh, dogmatic legion of anti-investment Congressional  representatives, elected in 2010, looks set to resist spending taxpayers' dollars on transport, water, energy and other economic growth and environmental protection measures. It sounds like an echo of the turgid 'investment versus cuts' debate on this side of 'the pond'.

New York's massive 60-mile Water Tunnel No.3 is underway, just as London's Crossrail's seems to be well underway too but Bragdon conceded New York has suffered some setbacks. New Jersey state politicians rejected proposals for a much-needed Hudson River tunnel. Plans to "green" New York's famous yellow cabs - to reduce their emissions and increase fuel efficiency - were "invalidated" by a Federal Court.  Recycling and 'garbage management' aren't as advanced as in London. 

New York also lags behind London when it comes to road pricing - congestion charging' - and traffic management. "New Yorkers do pay though - but with congestion and pollution," said Bragdon.

New York enjoys some progress too. Oil-fuelled heating for major buildings is being replaced with natural gas. Times Square, Herald Square and Madison Square are now partly pedestrianised to encourage a cafĂ© society look and feel. 

Some 150 disused schoolyards have been converted into neighbourhood playgrounds in the last four years. Over 300,000 trees have been planted in the last three years. "London's parks make the city what it is today," said Bragdon. "Our goal is for every New Yorker to live within ten minutes of a park. Now, eighty-one per cent do so."

In an echo of Prime Minister David Cameron's 'localism' agenda in the UK, Bragdon believes "many of our city-wide objectives can be best achieved by local civic organisations and property owners". Community groups, for instance, could win funding if they can come up with cracking ideas to reduce the impact of rainstorm run-off water on the city's creaking sewerage system, a scenario familiar also to Londoners. 

Bragdon suggests Bloomberg will want to sign off his mayoralty in three years by leaving behind a legacy of investment in economic growth and environmental protection projects. Crucially, Bloomberg took over as chair of the C40 Climate Leadership Group, a body of 40 world cities set up to tackle climate change by London's inaugural Mayor, Ken Livingstone. 

Bloomberg is C40's third chair after Livingstone and Toronto Mayor David Miller. "Bloomberg's vision is to create learning networks among cities where innovations are taking place where people live," said Bragdon. 

London leads on transport pricing. Stockholm on waste and energy. Chicago and Philadelphia on storm water and flood control. Tokyo can teach us a lot about building control. Melbourne is the city leading on urban reforestation. 

All of this C40 info-sharing sounded grand but, after Bragdon's interesting glimpse into the Big Apple, I was left trying to remember and then to prophesy, which city in the world can teach both London and New York that investment on infrastructure during an economic downturn can create growth and jobs?

David Bragdon's talk and seminar, New London meets New York, was part of the 'London-New York Dialogue' hosted by New London Architecture at the Building Centre in Store Street. Tony Travers, Director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, opened and chaired the session.

Paul Coleman, London, March 2011.

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