Issue 526

The Regional Plan Association: A Civic Planning Model for New York

As it begins work on a new regional plan, RPA’s vision of a metropolitan region with strong, vibrant urban communities seems more achievable than ever.

Urbanist Article

In 1922, New York’s most prominent business and professional leaders joined forces to launch a singularly ambitious effort to survey, analyze and plan the future growth of one of the largest, most dynamic and diverse metropolitan regions in the world. This initiative was the first to recognize a New York metropolitan region — one that encompassed New Jersey and Connecticut.

The result was the publication of the landmark 1929 Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs and the incorporation of the Regional Plan Association, whose purpose was to implement the plan. Since then, RPA has conceived, researched, written and executed two more comprehensive regional plans for greater New York, in 1969 and 1996. Earlier this year, we announced the beginning of a fourth plan for the region.

The RPA model is founded on the idea that civic groups have a unique role to play in developing a long-range regional vision. Unlike government institutions, civic organizations like SPUR and RPA are able to transcend political boundaries, election-year cycles and status quo thinking to make far-reaching proposals about the policies and investments that will shape the region over generations.

RPA has been enormously successful in advancing the implementation of its recommendations. Most of RPA’s proposals for infrastructure investments, urban development and environmental protection have been adopted over time. The results of this work have helped make New York a great world city and continue to shape the region’s quality of life and competitiveness.


The First Regional Plan

New York in the 1920s was booming economically, demographically and culturally. The city’s population had doubled in the previous 30 years, with well over a third of its six million residents foreign-born. Many New Yorkers were still poor and living in overcrowded tenements, but unemployment was low and per-capita income was rising rapidly. New York’s thriving manufacturing and shipping industries were helping the economy soar. Freight shipped in and out of New York City ports increased by 50percent in the first 25 years of the 20th century. Increasingly sophisticated engineering made possible the construction of skyscrapers, creating the city’s iconic skyline, and a grid of water, sewer and power lines below the streets.

Trains and cars were transforming the geography of the region and a network of underground and elevated subways also was spreading rapidly across the growing metropolis. Intercity and freight rail corridors were adapted and expanded to serve emerging suburban communities in the Hudson Valley, Connecticut, and even Long Island and New Jersey, areas previously accessible only by ferry. Automobiles were becoming more affordable, and rural areas just a few miles outside the urban core of lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn were suddenly within a reasonable commute of downtown. Yet, by and large, the explosive growth of the city and the region in the 1920s was unplanned, the result of little but market forces at work.

When civic and business leaders established the Committee on a Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs in 1922, their aspiration was to introduce rationality in the way the region was growing. For seven years, the staff of the Committee on a Regional Plan surveyed and analyzed the New York metropolitan area at a scale never done before, anywhere in the world. Funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, they produced the first basic regional map of New York, documenting existing conditions block by block. They collected and examined extensive quantitative data about everything from demographics to land utilizationat a time when such data were difficult to come by, let alone analyze. The historian Robert Fishman has described RPA’s vision of the region as “metropolitanist,” positing that the highest concentrations of density, wealth and activity should occur closer to the heart of the region, with circles of lessening concentration as one moves further from Manhattan. He compared this with the views of Lewis Mumford, Benton Mackaye, and other “regionalists” who argued that a polycentric region shouldn’t focus on the core, but should instead balance activities among several nodes. Mumford in particular published a scathing review of the plan, arguing that by trying to reconcile issues of growth and density without actively calling for a smaller metropolitan center (among other issues), the plan had failed to set a clear course for the future. Thomas Adams, RPA’s first planning director, responded that the challenge to the plan was to set aspirational goals that were achievable – otherwise the entire enterprise would be dismissed and ignored. Their debate presaged many of the planning discussions for the last century, including the role of planners in society, the inevitability or desirability of growth, and how technology will change communities in the future.

Many proposals put forth in the plan were implemented in the 1930s and 1940s. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt, first as New York governor and then as president, needed construction programs to put unemployed workers back to work in New York, he turned to RPA – which was conveniently chaired at the time by his uncle, Frederic Delano. Later, as Robert Moses, Austin Tobin and John D. Rockefeller set out to shape New York into a modern city, they also relied on the proposals of the plan.

As a result, many of the plan’s key urban and infrastructure recommendations were adopted by mid-century, including the George Washington, Verrazano and Triborough bridges, the Queens-Midtown and Brooklyn-Battery tunnels, as well as three regional airports at LaGuardia, Newark and JFK. The construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the early 1960s effectively completed the regional highway system proposed in the plan. And the plan’s innovative proposal to relocate docks and related industrial activities out of Manhattan led to the creation of the Port of Newark, the first container port in the world, launching a new era in goods movement.


The Second Regional Plan

By the early 1960s, the recommendations of RPA’s first plan were largely implemented, with one glaring exception: transit connections. The highway network tripled in its extent between 1945 and 1970, while the transit network shrank. Ridership on the subway alone fell by half, generating a vicious cycle of reduced ridership leading to service cuts, which further reduced ridership. The explosive growth in car ownership and federal policies that supported new construction out of city centers led to suburbanization. Land consumption skyrocketed. The surface area of developed land in the region more than tripled between 1935 and 1965, even though the region’s population grew by only 50percent. Every resident in the metropolitan area occupied four times more land in 1965 than three decades prior. Wild, undeveloped natural spaces were becoming a dwindling resource.

Manhattan suffered: Between 1950 and 1965, one in five Manhattan residents moved out and the suburban population grew by 63 percent. And jobs followed: While the number of people employed in Manhattan remained stable between 1959 and 1965, the number of jobs in the suburbs grew 20percent.

In the second regional plan, released during the 1960s, RPA identified and quantified the alarming trends caused by sprawl, including environmental degradation and decline of older urban centers. These findings led RPA to propose a bold program of concentration of employment. RPA called for Manhattan to become a commercial, financial and cultural capital on a national scale; and for regional centers, including Jamaica, in Queens; Downtown Brooklyn; Newark, N.J.; and Stamford, Conn; to absorb most other growth.

A significant reinvestment in the regional rail system was a critical component of the second plan. Without an attractive and reliable subway, commuter rail and bus network, there would be no viable alternative to isolated suburban office parks accessible only by car. RPA successfully pushed for the federal government to fund transit just as it funded highways. The federal Mass Transit Act of 1964 adopted RPA’s principle of federal assumption of capital costs for urban mass transit. By ensuring adequate funding, the region’s transit agencies were able to plan for the long term. In 1968, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority brought together the subway, bus, commuter rail and many bridge-and-tunnel toll facilities of New York City, Long Island, Westchester and Connecticut under one roof.

The plan called for what we today would call mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhoods. RPA also introduced the concept that the supply of undeveloped natural spaces was limited, and that without an aggressive program to acquire and permanently preserve natural landscapes, they would all eventually be gobbled up by development. Building upon a high-profile RPA report, The Race for Open Space, the plan championed the concept of national parkland near urban areas, which led to the creation of the 27,000-acre Gateway National Recreational Area, the nation’s first urban national park.

The second plan also broadened the concept of public participation. Through meetings, conversations and a workshops involving 5,600 volunteers, RPA identified the major concerns that formed the backbone of the second plan, including the loss of green space, a growing separation of rich and poor, racial segregation, long commutes, inadequate housing, low transportation standards and lack of community focus. The public participation approach used by RPA in the process to research and write the second plan ultimately became a model for public participation in plan-making in the U.S. and around the world.


The Third Regional Plan

A severe economic downturn hit New York in the early 1990s, and by 1996, it was still not clear that the region was going to fully recover. From 1989 to 1992, the New York region shed 770,000 jobs, the largest job loss of any U.S. metropolitan region since World War II, eliminating virtually all the region’s growth during the prosperous 1980s. To put this in perspective, New York lost more jobs during the recession of the early 90s than it did 20 years later in the “Great Recession” of 2008 to 2010.

What’s more, a generation of under-investment in human and physical assets had left the region living off the legacy of initiatives of previous generations. Lack of investment in the region’s schools, rail systems, community design and natural resources were slowing down the economic recovery and limiting our capacity for growth. Equally troubling were the stubbornly rooted inequities between rich and poor, and between racial and ethnic groups. The income gap was widening, driven both by global economic forces and the failing of the welfare system to bring people into the economic mainstream. Social divisions and tensions were palpable, particularly as crime rates soared in New York City and other urban centers.

Meanwhile, the trends of suburbanization had only accelerated. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the region’s population grew by 13 percent, but the amount of land devoted to businesses and residences shot up by 60percent. From 1970 to 1995 the region’s highway network gained 300 miles, while the transit network continued to shrink. Ridership fell by 20 percent on the New York City subway system.

In the third plan, RPA argued that economy, environment and equity – what we called the “three E’s” – formed the basis of the region’s quality of life, prosperity and vitality. The next generation of growth was to be focused in the region’s existing downtown employment and residential areas. Eleven regional downtowns were identified – from New Haven to Trenton to Mineola – that together could attract one million new jobs. Development would be directed to “brownfield” sites – abandoned industrial areas, landfills and waterfronts – instead of less accessible “greenfield” sites. The third plan advocated preserving the region’s remaining three million acres of intact natural resource systems at the periphery of the urbanized area by creating regional growth management systems to contain sprawl. The plan supported new initiatives to green and revitalize parks and streetscapes in our cities, especially the largely underutilized urban waterfronts of the New York-New Jersey Harbor and the Long Island Sound.

The growth of the region depended on the ability to get around, and the third plan emphasized the importance of creating a new transportation network that could support a more concentrated form of suburban growth that stayed largely within the region’s core. RPA proposed a reconfigured Regional Express Rail system that would operate seamlessly throughout the region, based on finally building the Second Avenue subway (which was a core part of the first plan in 1929) and expanding transit access in New Jersey and Long Island. To pay for these investments, RPA advocated charging motorists to enter into Manhattan – what would come to be called congestion pricing.

Finally, achieving these goals would require new ways of organizing and energizing the region’s political and civic institutions, and the third plan argued that governance structures should be organized to support growth management, local tax reform and service sharing. The plan envisioned the creation of new public institutions to finance and provide regional services, such as a tri-state regional transportation authority, a restructured Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a tri-state infrastructure bank. The regional authority and bank remain proposals, while the Port Authority began the process of focusing on its core mission, only to have 9/11 redirect its priorities to rebuilding Lower Manhattan.

Almost 20 years after the completion of the third plan, we find ourselves once again at an inflection point in the history of the region. Many of the recommendations of the RPA’s third plan, such as constructing the Second Avenue subway and a link from the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal on Manhattan’s East Side, are underway. Landscape preservation efforts have succeeded in preserving the most critical watersheds and sensitive habitats, while a combination of demographic and societal trends are encouraging movement back into cities and downtowns. The extraordinary growth and rebirth of Brooklyn and parts of Queens, the New Jersey waterfront and downtowns from Newark to Bridgeport are all positive trends.

These trends are part of a larger narrative, in which RPA’s vision of a metropolitan region with strong, vibrant urban communities, seems more achievable than ever. Transit ridership in NYC has grown 58percent since 1992 – almost all of it off-peak and weekend travel, and more travel between the “outer boroughs,” as opposed to peak-period travel into Manhattan. Driving continues to decrease in the region and nationwide, falling about 6percent on average from recent peaks, while “non-commutation” trips on commuter railroads have grown from about 30percent of all trips to over 40percent. Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2035 initiative, New Yorkers know that a million more residents are coming, that they would be good for our city and economy, and that we need to build the housing, schools, parks and transit to accommodate them.

But at the same time, a new set of challenges has emerged. Climate change is no longer a theory, and the results of Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy have taught us that we need to prepare for future storms even as we work to reduce our carbon emissions and create a cleaner energy economy. Social networks and transit ridership are exploding while car ownership and driving rates drop. The persistent gap between haves and have-nots has not lessened, and geography and segregation still determine the opportunities for far too many people. Almost one in 10 residents of the region live in “RCAPs” – regionally concentrated areas of poverty. And our public institutions – the MTA, Port Authority, and city and state agencies – are all struggling under debt loads that make it very hard to see how they can finance and implement the next generation of investments we will need to grow sustainably, such as a high-speed rail network connecting the northeast megaregion, expansion of our airports and renewable energy resources.

In this environment, RPA is beginning work on our fourth regional plan. It will be the first to include social media in an effort to try to reach all 22 million residents of the region. It will incorporate emerging big data and smart city strategies, even as we stick to our core principles of a “metropolitanist” vision. We hope to live up to the legacy of the previous plans, and also reinvent the metropolitan planning process along the way.

Tom Wright is the executive director of the Regional Plan Association.