As part of her annual State of the City address, on February 9 City Council Speaker and potential mayoral candidate Christine Quinn announced her support for the future growth of New York’s design industries: “We have more designers than any city in the United States, with nearly 40,000 New Yorkers working in everything from graphics to movie sets, architecture to interior decorating. We’ll grow our design sector by stealing an idea from the fashion industry. Fashion Week, which starts today, brings 300,000 visitors and nearly $800 million into our city every year. Working with Council Member Karen Koslowitz, we’re going to give that same kind of boost to our design industry by creating and hosting a New York City Design Week.”
The next mayoral election is still over a year in the future, but the speech does raise the question of what a new mayor will mean for the city’s departments of Planning, Transportation, Parks and Design and Construction not to mention our dynamic design community. It is common knowledge that Mayor Bloomberg’s administration made a conscious effort to bring architectural and urban design thinking into city government more than at any time since Robert Moses and John Lindsay in the late 1960s. In the same way that Lindsay’s two terms as mayor coincided with a remarkable transformation of urban life in New York, Bloomberg’s three terms have witnessed a profound change in the life of the city. It will of course be up to future historians to assess the current mayor’s ultimate success and failures but his quartet of Commissioners at City Planning, Transportation, Parks, and Design and Construction have overseen a total transformation in how citizens move about, experience, and live in the city.
Then again it may be that Bloomberg only happened to be mayor when architecture was taken up for the first time by New York property developers as a salable commodity and when they commissioned some of the world’s best architects to design Manhattan luxury housing. The mayor certainly did not directly create anything of great civic architectural quality for our public sphere, but as a believer in the private market supported by public, philanthropic initiatives of high design quality like the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Governors Island development, and the DOT’s bike lanes and “parks in a street” maintained by Business Improvement Districts and other non governmental agencies. These are of course heavily Manhattan-centric in their geographic reach and influence, so Bloomberg’s new city is less visible the farther one travels from Midtown. We all remember when he pinned his legacy to an Olympic master plan, West Side Football stadium, and the possibility of a really great World Trade Center development.
Or it may be that Bloomberg happened to be mayor when New York emerged as the most important design hub in the United States if not the world. Last summer we commented on the Growth by Design report assembled by the Center for an Urban Future that detailed the growing importance of the design sector to New York’s economy. It revealed how design sector jobs in the New York metropolitan area grew by 75 percent over the past decade. In fact the report claimed that in New York the design field (architecture, graphic, interior, fashion and industrial design) has nearly twice as many designers as Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest design hub.
But back to Speaker Quinn and her support for design in New York City. Really, is a week-long design festival the best that the Speaker can do to support and encourage this dynamic sector of the city’s economy? We need to hear what she proposes for the various departments like City Planning and Parks. Its hard to imagine that department heads like Amanda Burden, David Burney, Janette Sadik-Khan, and Adrian Benepe will stay on after 12 years of public sector employment, but will the new mayor even want them to stay or will she/ he replace them, and what types of policies will new commissioners be pursuing? Will the next mayor continue to support new bicycle lanes and curbside park development from the DOT and the ambitious architecture policies of Commissioner Burney? We have heard almost nothing from Quinn and the two or three other likely candidates about their potential policies. Proposing a week-long festival is not really enough of an initiative to tell us much about what a new Quinn administration might mean for the city. In the coming months, we need to hear much more from the Speaker and all the other candidates.