Insights from NY’s Century-Long Efforts to Become a Global City

A panel of three leading experts offered insights on how the city managed to overcome challenges and create its impressive infrastructure of buildings, bridges, highways, subways, parks and airports at the 2014 Urban Land Institute Fall Meeting that was held in Manhattan in October.

From the consolidation plan that went into effect in 1898 to bring together the five boroughs to today’s high-rises racing skyward, New York City has gone through tremendous transformations that made it the world’s financial and commercial capital and a top destination for tourists.

But how did New York get to be the way we know it today, after more than 100 years of consistent reinvention efforts? A panel of three leading experts offered insights on how the city managed to overcome challenges and create its amazing infrastructure of buildings, bridges, highways, subways, parks and airports at the 2014 Urban Land Institute Fall Meeting that was held in Manhattan in October.

To exemplify the ever-changing face of the city, Alexander Garvin, president & CEO of AGA Public Realm Strategists and former deputy commissioner of housing at the New York Planning Commission, started the discussion panel with a quotation from the acclaimed 20th century architect Le Corbusier who said in 1947 that “New York is not a finished or completed city. It gushes up.” Alexander Garvin went on to explain Le Corbusier’s words: apart from being the financial capital of the world and a top tourist destination, New York is a global city. It is a “melting pot” created by immigrants (nearly 36 percent of the population of New York City was born outside the United States), as well as a cultural center of the world thanks to the large variety of cultural activities happening throughout the city every day.

A post-industrial city, New York has a growing office inventory—according to CoStar, the city’s total office inventory amounted to more than 550 million square feet of space in nearly 3,900 office buildings at the end of the second quarter 2014—and  one of the lowest office vacancy rates nationally and even worldwide. New York is a growing city thanks to the large amounts that have been invested in its capital infrastructure—water supply, subway systems, parkways and highways—and public realm.

Speaking of the city’s subway system, Kenneth Jackson, Jacques Barzun professor of history and social sciences at Columbia University, said: “We built the best public transit system in the world before 1940. In 1940 there was no second place.” Furthermore, New York City became the leading air hub in the world, having developed three highly transited airports. According to recent data from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, in August 2014 the John F. Kennedy International Airport handled 3.1 million international passengers, surpassing the 3 million mark for the first time ever. However, the urban decline that followed World War II impacted the city to the extent that large manufacturers began cutting jobs, which resulted in a decline of urban vitality and a sort of population exodus. “In the 1970s, Brooklyn and the Bronx each lost more people than Detroit”, John Zuccotti added.

John Zuccotti, cochairman of Brookfield Office Properties and former chairman of the New York City Planning Commission, discussed the city’s intricate history of public and private development that resulted in numerous changes in the physical landscape, remembering the actual meatpacking area in what is now known as the Meatpacking District, or the old Hudson waterfront that once served industrial purposes but went through “bitter political struggles” as well as financial hurdles to become the vibrant place it is today.