Calling All Designers

“It’s the early 1850s. Plans are drawn up for an enormous Central Park, at a time when much of Manhattan was open fields and forest. Some propose a much smaller park. Where do you stand?

“[It’s] the 1890s. Plans are drawn up for a subway system that goes all the way into northern Manhattan. Some say it will cost too much. And who needs a subway in the countryside? What do you say?

“[It’s] 1931, the middle of the Great Depression. Plans are drawn up for a new Midtown mega-­project. As Gershwin wrote, ‘They all laughed at Rockefeller Center.’ Are you laughing, too?” Thus Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrapped up his vision statement for a “greener, greater New York” on Earth Day 2007.

Each of his historic examples was the work of visionary planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers, and investors. They created the New York that millions have been drawn to for two centuries. Our human resources are as great, or greater, than they were in the past. We’re poised to build the sustainable twenty-first century—as Mayor Mike envisions in his 127 proposed projects, many of them impacting the design community: the creation of parks, retrofitting buildings, making schools community-friendly, new transit, and more housing.

As cities look to become carbon free—seeking cleaner ways to grow and prosper—they stand to become magnets for investors, intellectuals, travelers, and new settlers. Will the design community respond to the challenge of building the twenty-first-century city? Will they rally around the mayor’s plan? Will other leaders be able to see beyond their own egos? Will we all be able to keep in mind the Kenyan proverb the mayor read at the American Museum of Natural History, where he delivered his speech: “The Earth was not given to you by your parents; it was loaned to you by your children”?

The first Earth Day began as a teach-in on April 22, 1970, with 20 million participants nationwide; we don’t know how many of them were designers. In the Internet age, the 2010 Imperative, Webcast in February, was the first global emergency teach-in; it sought to bring design education into the green movement. This event attracted a quarter of a million designers, students, educators, and their allies from 48 countries. Thousands of visitors continue to share their thoughts on the subject on the movement’s Web site. All this was organized in the office of one passionately committed architect, Ed Mazria, by a few dedicated people with laptops.

This gives me hope that the design community will rally to make New York and other cities “greener” and “greater.” We have the infrastructure in place. Our local AIA chapter is a dynamic organization concerned with quality-of-life issues. From their accessible street-front headquarters, they reach out to allied professions as well as the public with rich and provocative programs on the built environment. They have a public voice that is poised to make Mayor Mike’s vision a reality.

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Here are a handful of Mayor Bloomberg’s 127 initiatives for a more sustainable New York City. Read the full list of proposals at www.nyc.gov/planyc.

Use solar energy in city buildings.

Adapt unused schools and hospitals for use as new housing.

Restore underused or vacant waterfront land.

Plant one million trees in vacant lots.

Manage traffic with congestion pricing in Manhattan.

Introduce biodiesel into the city’s truck fleet.

Reforest 2,000 acres of parkland.

Promote cycling.

Open schoolyards as public playgrounds.

Update 100-year floodplain maps to adapt to climate change.

Convert asphalt into multiuse turf fields.

Reintroduce ribbed-mussel beds.

Create or enhance a public plaza in every community.

Promote brownfield redevelopment.

Reduce emissions from boilers in public schools.

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