Bloomberg’s PlaNYC head on the ‘challenge’ of relying on state and federal money, and the importance of the humble bench

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David Bragdon. (bikeportland.org, via flickr)
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Earlier this month, David Bragdon, the director of Michael Bloomberg’s office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, was dispatched to a small grey-and-white lecture room in Avery Hall at Columbia University to talk about the administration's views on urban planning to a half-dozen smaller-city mayors.

The talk was part of the annual gathering of the Mayors' Institute on City Design, in which mayors from across the country convene for lectures and site visits, and also for closed-door sessions in which they consider the future of cities.

“You’re the six I really want to talk to here, for the work that you did,” said Bragdon, in a blue pinstripe suit that was a size or two too big, and a blue patterned tie, in his opening remarks.

Bragdon, 52, has been in New York City for a little more than a year, having left Portland, Ore., where he was the longtime president of the regional Metro Council, to head an office whose job is essentially to implement PlaNYC.

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He's an obvious choice for a policy position that is also a kind of sales position, with carved features, floppy, light-colored hair and an enthusiastic and engaging manner. Also: he likes infrastructure. (When he left Portland for New York, he traveled via Amtrak.)

His position in Oregon on the Metropolitan Council was an elected one and among political wonks in Portland he was considered a potential candidate for mayor. He pushed for conservation of rural areas, long-term planning in urban areas, and fiscal discipline.

The mayors participating in the program came from cities of varying sizes, climates, and fiscal conditions: Kaua'i, Hawaii; Pleasanton, Calif.; Coral Springs, Fla.; White Plains, N.Y.; Waukegan, Ill.; Hoboken, N.J.

Bragdon oversees what is actually a very broad portfolio. Talking to the smaller-city mayors in his official capacity, he touched on transportation, water quality, air quality, climate change, brownfields, parks, housing, energy codes, zoning and solid waste. He himself has not generated any headline-worthy proposals since arriving in New York, but that isn’t necessarily the job.

His name comes up in connection with solar initiatives, flood mitigation, addressing combined sewer overflow, the Greener Greater Buildings Plan, the Zone Green initiative,  (now half-completed) Million Trees program, a social-media project called Change by Us NYC, the waste-reduction program Refashion NYC, and the city's continuing efforts to partner with various nonprofits like Housing Works, the Bronx River Alliance, the New York Restoration Project, the Urban Green Council, among other similar organizations.

“No citizen’s going to vote for your reelection because you took care of this stuff,” he said in his presentation to the six mayors. “But in fact they should be thanking you for it, and that is keeping the water pipes going, keeping the sewer pipes going, the bridges repaired. Something that Mayor Bloomberg really focuses on as part of our planning efforts.”

He stated what he considered to be two cardinal rules about urban planning: The type of population a city serves will change and the city must change with that population, and what seems like a long time is not long at all. He applied this to what he described as the rise, fall, and rise again of New York City.

“In many respects,” he said, a an old black-and-white photograph of downtown Manhatttan behind him, “some people would say that New York in the middle of the 20th century, well, this was really the height in New York, after World War Two. The height of capital finance, entertainment, sports, everything, you name it.

“When they decided where would the United Nations go: no question, it’s going to go in New York, it’s the capital of the world. Back in 1950.”

He moved to a slide of an anonymous street, weeds coming up between cracks in the sidewalks, buildings boarded up, and a sign read “DEAD END” in the right-hand corner.

“Years later, New York was considered a wreck. People were leaving, businesses were leaving, and 25 years after 1950 the city was almost literally bankrupt.”

Twenty-five years, he said, seems like a long time, but New York plummeted in 25 years, and after 25 years, it has returned to at least some kind of glory.

“Many residential mortgages are 30 years," he said. “One of the common street trees that we plant, they don’t mature until 25 or 30 years.”

He moved to a slide of a freight train on an elevated rail.

“I lived in this neighborhood until 1971", he said, “and this is exactly what it looked like every night.”

It was the meatpacking district, in the days when meat was actually packed there.

“This was a piece of infrastructure that aided the economic development of downtown Manhattan when downtown Manhattan consisted of this very industry, which was meatpacking,” he said. "Every night the train would go down there, and thousands of people that worked and relied on that piece of infrastructure went to work, had jobs, because of that transportation access and that infrastructure.”

Conforming to what is now mandatory in any presentation, lecture, booklet, or pamphlet regarding the new New York, he pulled up a photograph of the High Line, which now occupies the same rail line and, which apparently was where the six mayors were going after the event. (Note: The High Line was, and is, highly dependent on private money.)

“Something that I think New York has done very well, but that other communities also can do, is re-purposing different types of infrastructure, and realizing  the types of economic impacts that different infrastructure has in different points of time,” he said. “This is the same piece of infrastructure, and I deliberately call it infrastructure because I think of parks and the outdoors are in fact inseparable from urbanity. Now when this was proposed people said, 'Well, this is kind of a frill.'”

It isn’t, he said, because New York is now about “creative knowledge industries.” The High Line is as much economic development as the railroad was, he said, in front of a photograph of a building nearby now owned by Google. “That’s where their employees want to be.”

Giving residents more choices when it comes to public schools has kept families in the city, he said, as well as other things that make life more pleasant for people like the “creative knowledge” workers, like laying down bike lanes.

What New York has done successfully, Bragdon said, is take assets it already has and change them to serve a different type of person. The High Line being one example, another being the removal of traffic from Times Square, making Herald Square and Union Square more easily negotiable for pedestrians and “restoring law enforcement, public safety, driving the crime rate down.”

Bragdon also said that implementing PlaNYC  means being innovative in the organization of the city's bureaucracy, because the issues—”population growth, changing demographics, energy diversification and economic development, maintenance of our infrastructure, and climate change”—”really do interact with each other.”

He credited his boss with figuring out how to make that work: “It took a mayor who was willing to knock some heads together among different parts of the bureaucracy and say, ‘Alright, even though managing rainwater is the responsibility of the Department of Environmental Protections, and even though maintaining the streets is part of the Department of Transportation and even though parkland is something that is done by the Parks Department—expertise about vegetation is in that department—all those agencies have different cultures, different funding sources and various different things they’re trying to achieve. If we get them all together, we’re going to green the streets.”

This was his introduction to PlaNYC itself, which he said the mayor worked out in 2006 and 2007 and which encouraged and required interagency communication.

On top of the interagency bureaucracy is the city's dependency on state and federal government to function, Bragdon explained.

The M.T.A., for example, gets its funding from the state, which is wont to repurpose money that is supposed to be dedicated to transportation, and Washington.

“These big capital projects are a huge challenge,” he said, “because we’re so either hamstrung by the state or dependent on federal money that is no longer there.”

Similarly, since New York’s utilities are privately operated, they are regulated by the state and the federal government.

“Where we’ve been really successful and where I think New York is doing very well is a lot of what we control as a municipality," he said.

“At a time when international organizations, when national governments aren’t doing everything that some of us would want them to be doing in terms of climate change and protecting the environment, if you think about it, many of the tools that we have in that realm, whether it’s building codes, whether it’s recycling, whether it’s modes of transportation, those aren’t actually national issues, they’re all decisions that can be made for the most part by city councils, by planning commissions and by community boards," Bragdon said. "So rather than wait for the United Nations to do something, wait for Congress to do something—which probably means we would be waiting a long time—there’s a lot that we can do in each of our communities.

“When you’re thinking about design, this is a very big picture of a big place, but the details are also important. The city has recently been experimenting with: What’s the right type of bench in a place like this? And over the next two years of the mayor’s term we’ll be expanding. It sounds like a very simple program, the city bench. But think about that from the standpoint of your own communities."

“The six cities that you represent, as the population ages: does somebody come out of the grocery store and have a place where they can sit and rest before they go home? A lot of the time those of us in public service are thinking about public works are thinking, what’s that big new investment? What’s the stadium, what’s the concert hall? What’s the big-bang thing? It might be something,” he said.

But it’s possible that “we, at some point in our career say, actually, that bench I worked on, that simple bench is the biggest contribution to change.”

“The lesson here," Bradgon said in reference to the rise and fall and rise of New York in a cycle of roughly 25 years, “is stay on top of it all the time. Cities need to be nurtured, need to be continually renewed. You can’t take for granted our success today, but nor should you accept failure as inevitable either. Whether you’re currently in an up-cycle, or at the bottom of a low cycle, you can control your own destinies. You can do that.”

CORRECTION: The name of Portland's Metro Council was rendered in the original version of this article as "Metropolitan Council."