The region’s three previous strategic plans — published in 1929, 1968 and 1996 — used design to project fantastic visions of the future, illustrate new forms of regulation, and generally communicate the changes happening describe the wholesale transformation of urban centers to providing solutions for new suburban development types. Now, as the Regional Plan Association prepares the fourth regional plan, design once again has an essential role to play in shaping and describing our vision for the future.
When prominent business, professional and civic leaders decided in 1922 to plan for the metropolitan region’s future growth, they were taking a unique and ambitious step. Previous planning efforts here and around the world generally focused on individual cities, rather than on large areas encompassing many urban centers and stretching across state boundaries. The landmark effort, which was published in 1929 and led to the incorporation of Regional Plan Association as a permanent, nonprofit organization to see through the implementation of the plan, provided the blueprint for the transportation and open space networks that we take for granted today.
The first plan, formally titled The Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs, proposed an elaborate network of highways, railroads and parks, along with residential, commercial and industrial centers, as the foundation of the physical and social development of the region. The goal was to provide access to more of the region and give options for living beyond the overcrowded core. The plan also identified specific natural areas that could be acquired for public use and persuaded various public agencies to purchase land, doubling the region’s park space.
Among the many successful recommendations of the first plan were the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the location of the George Washington Bridge, the relocation of the region’s main shipping ports outside of Manhattan, the protection of the Palisades and the creation of local planning boards throughout the region.
RPA’s first regional plan was appropriately titled “A Graphic Plan for the New York Region” and today, this nationally historic landmark document is considered the model for joining design planning and policy. The ambition and artistry are unrivaled and the range of representational techniques and subjects is extraordinary.
The first regional plan is also notable for representing technical information in compelling ways. The complete integration of policy and design is exemplified by the series of massing and shadow studies done by Hugh Ferriss and others that would become the basis for the original height and setback regulations in the zoning (also now rediscovered as “Form-Based Zoning”).
Each of the RPA regional plans has produced iconic images of a city and region transformed by innovative design. Keeping with that legacy, the teams have done an amazing job at proposing innovative design solutions that can transform the New York region in order to meet new challenges and opportunities over the coming decades. We hope to build on their visionary work in the recommendations of the fourth regional plan to be unveiled this fall.Tom Wright, President, RPA
At a time when the consensus was that automobile-enabled decentralization was good, RPA identified and quantified the alarming trends caused by sprawl, including environmental degradation and decline of older urban centers. The second plan, published in a series of reports during the 1960s, called for building the transit network necessary for urban centers to thrive. This central premise came to be reflected in the renewed investment in the region’s transit network in later decades.
The plan advanced the idea of economic development of regional centers including Jamaica, Downtown Brooklyn, Newark and Stamford, cities that in recent years have been revitalized as strong transit connections led to the growth of business activity. And in another prescient move, the plan suggested closing Broadway to traffic in midtown Manhattan. Times Square’s pedestrian makeover was completed in 2009.
The plan also called for varied housing types and income groups in each community, and for housing to be near employment and retail – what we today would call mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhoods.
One of the second plan’s most notable achievements was the recommendation that national parks be created in urban areas, an unprecedented concept in the 1960s. The 27,000-acre Gateway National Recreation Area in Jamaica Bay was the nation’s first urban national park.
By the 1960’s, the context for regional planning had completely changed and so had it for design. In response to the political context, RPA made what were at the time ambitious attempts at public engagement for the second regional plan, including town-hall style meetings, newspaper-based surveys and a public television special. Nevertheless, large-scale regional planning was viewed with skepticism and as a result there are no idealized comprehensive visions of the entire region. In the second regional plan, the drawings of the regional settlement pattern show the changing dynamic between the core and the region’s suburban centers which are now becoming more independent.
A cornerstone of RPA’s third regional plan, A Region at Risk, was the recognition that the region’s continued prosperity and global standing were no longer guaranteed. Success could no longer be defined in simple terms of economic growth without accounting for social and environmental costs and benefits.
In the third plan, RPA reconnected the region to its basic foundations, arguing that economy, environment and equity – what the plan called the “three E’s” – formed the basis of the region’s quality of life, prosperity and vitality, and that these had to be rebuilt, together. At the same time, sustainable economic growth driven by productivity gains and access to larger markets could fail without new investments in infrastructure, communities, environments and the work force.
The third 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. It also set in motion steps that led to the permanent conservation of open spaces. RPA helped establish the Central Pine Barren Commission, protecting 100,000 acres essential to Long Island’s groundwater supply. Nearby, RPA also helped ensure the creation of the 230-acre Jamesport State Park, part of a campaign to protect and improve public access to the Long Island Sound.
In the third regional plan, the underlying framework for regional settlement relies on Ian McHarg’s “Design with Nature”: Sometimes summarized as “Points, Lines and Planes”, regional settlement patterns are organized around the integrity of the underlying open space networks (planes), compact centers of development (points) which are linked by transportation infrastructure (lines). Reflecting this are what became the signature images associated with the plan: a series of aerial perspectives—renderings over real but un-named places and landscapes—presented here as triptychs to contrast the existing pattern, with future sprawl (present trends continue) or with compact “smart growth” (third plan policies implemented).