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Citymakers: The Culture and Craft of Practical Urbanism
By Cassim Shepard
The Monacelli Press, 2017

A paddleboarder in the Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn is an EPA-designated Superfund site, polluted by decades of discharges, storm water runoff, and toxic industrial dumping. Nonetheless, the canal attracts intrepid explorers as well as a host of innovative strategies to inspire citizen-led environmental stewardship. Photo by Alex Fradkin, courtesy of the Monacelli Press

Citymakers draws on six years of content from Urban Omnibus, an online publication charting innovations in urban practice tried and tested in the five boroughs of New York City. In the book, author Cassim Shepard, who launched Urban Omnibus in 2009 with the Architectural League of New York, explores a broad variety of experimental and practical projects to make cities and neighborhoods more sustainable, stimulating, and inclusive: a constructed wetland on Staten Island; a workforce development and technology program in Red Hook, Brooklyn; a public art installation in a Bronx housing project; a housing advocacy initiative in Jackson Heights, Queens. These and an array of other examples in Citymakers comprise a cross-disciplinary, from-the-ground-up approach that encourages better choices for cities of the future.

Former Urban Omnibus colleague and fellow urban planner Jonathan Tarleton interviewed Cassim about the book.

Jonathan Tarleton: When I started reading the book, I thought, “This is a book about cities and the people who make them.” By the end of it I came to think that you were perhaps making a broader argument about what it means to be a public citizen, an engaged member of a community.

Cassim Shepard: I hope so. Underneath all the diverse local challenges that citymakers everywhere are addressing is the relationship between a place and the people who live there, regardless of its density or population. The potential of activating that awareness, cultivating people's sense of agency to positively influence the development of that place, is absolutely something that cuts across all sorts of density and settlement patterns.

A boardwalk on the Rockaway Peninsula damaged by Superstorm Sandy

The Queens neighborhoods along the Rockaway Peninsula suffered some of the greatest damage during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Pictured is an attempt to name the cause of the extreme weather on the Rockaways’ famous boardwalk in the immediate aftermath of the event. Photo by Alex Fradkin, courtesy of the Monacelli Press

JT: At one point in the chapter on housing, you describe the need to challenge “urbanist dogma.” What other aspects of urbanist dogma did you feel the need to complicate or counteract?

CS: I think that people who love cities have been too reticent to assert normative ethical principles about what we want from our urban places. That’s why the book is organized as a kind of narrative manifesto, a collection of ethical imperatives drawn from looking closely at the examples we collected on Urban Omnibus. Asserting a very specific ethical imperative around each category discussed in the book — public space, infrastructure, information technology, housing — is, I hope, a move towards a normative set of principles that urbanism needs. You can sum that all up by saying, “What kind of city is desirable?” as opposed to only asking, “What kind of city is possible?”

Construction workers in Jackson Heights, Queens

Municipal construction workers in Jackson Heights, Queens. Citymakers attempts to bring together stories about designers and planners, neighborhood volunteers, and the public servants who plan and maintain our infrastructure. Photo by Alex Fradkin, courtesy of the Monacelli Press

JT: At one point you write, “We don’t want to get caught trying to predict the future.” Urban planning and design is obviously a future-oriented profession. How do you square that with some of the pitfalls of trying to anticipate what’s coming?

CS: One of the great ironies of the built environment today is that 19th-century buildings are so much more flexible than 20th-century buildings. It’s not like we’ve never created things that can be adapted and shifted to different uses. What made late 20th-century built environments so inflexible was modernist efficiency that demanded too tight a fit between form and function, which has led to a brittleness in our infrastructure and building stock that cannot be adapted to new uses. Constant study and reevaluation are necessary and need to be part of the work of planners and designers. It can’t be that planners and designers are there at the beginning, but then we leave it to social workers and social scientists to figure out what went wrong after a place is already inhabited. The point isn’t just, “Let’s keep studying design and planning projects in order to know when to intervene,” but rather, “Let’s stave off the need for intervention with maintenance.” One of the most important, least-sexy takeaways from my research into affordable housing in New York is maintenance, maintenance, maintenance.

Businesses under the Williamsburg elevated subway line

Local businesses line the streets under the elevated subway tracks in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo by Alex Fradkin, courtesy of the Monacelli Press

JT: There is a passage in the book about visiting the New York City Department for Environmental Protection and experiencing a surge of appreciation for public servants whose work is often performed outside of the public eye. Since Citymakers shines a light on specific practitioners and interpreters of the city, do you see the book as a way to counteract the notion of government as the problem?

CS: Absolutely. When reflecting on the content we published on Urban Omnibus, I realized there are three inextricable existential threats facing us today, and that became one principal impetus for me to write Citymakers. Every one of the stories told in the book reflects — in its own, localized way — these threats and how they are connected. The first two threats are obvious: accelerating climate change and widening inequality. The third one is less obvious: the crisis of trust between citizens and government. And it occurred to me those three challenges need to be addressed simultaneously and holistically, not as distinct silos of thought, action, and despair.

In trying to define what and who is a citymaker, I wanted to unite three different groups of people. First, those who come to mind automatically when we think about citymaking: the designers, planners, elected officials, and engineers. I wanted to bring those stories into dialogue with the volunteers who aren’t professionally involved but dedicate some portion of their lives to trying to make their neighborhoods just a little bit better. The third group that I wanted to bring into this conversation was public servants. We often only think about local public service delivery when something breaks. We focus less on what is being proactively planned, on the amount of vision and dedication that must last beyond electoral cycles to maintain a consistent long-range plan to make cities better.

Corona Plaza in Queens

Corona Plaza used to be a triangular parking lot wedged between a row of shops and an elevated train line. Through the efforts of residents, business owners, and local institutions, it is now a vibrant, open space for both informal gatherings and planned festivals of food and dance celebrating the ethnic diversity of its surrounding Queens neighborhoods. Photo by Alex Fradkin, courtesy of the Monacelli Press

JT: In the technology chapter, you take a very clear stance on how disruptive technologies can be inherently regressive and state that in our desire to create more efficiency and less waste, we sometimes forget that some of this “waste” and “inefficiency” is people’s jobs, particularly in the public sector. Do you see ways in which the jobs that are being sidelined by this logic of efficiency can be reintegrated into the system?

CS: First off, the jobs that are going to be put most at risk by the promise of new technologies are “unskilled labor.” As Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us, there’s no such thing as unskilled labor, and every kind of labor requires skill even if it doesn’t necessarily require a college education. So the first jobs that are going to be sidelined as technology delivers greater and greater efficiency are in manufacturing, driving, stocking shelves, etc. But beyond that, there is a promise of tech-enabled efficiency within government services that will reduce the ranks of our public sector. And there’s something ironic in the fact that when you pose this question to typically hubristic techno-optimists, one of their first answers is, “I don’t know. By that point we can have universal basic income.” Personally, I don’t think that’s a satisfying answer because we’re not just talking about people’s ability to put a roof over their heads and food in their children’s mouths. We’re also talking about a sense of purpose, of contributing to society, of structuring your day—even if your job is poorly paid. We’re also talking about the place many of us meet our spouses, form deep relationships, and spend the majority of our waking hours. That’s why we need to think through the social infrastructure that work currently provides, places to find that sense of purpose or to establish a social life, and find ways to fill those gaps by creating more third spaces that aren’t just offices or factories, homes or cafés. We need new types of public spaces, new types of convening, new types of things you can do with your extra time.

When we launched Urban Omnibus, it was right at the very beginning of the financial crisis. What we observed immediately was the number of young designers and architects who were laid off. For the first time in these young people’s lives they weren’t going to work 60, 70 hours a week. And that led to a rejuvenation of community spirit, of people educating themselves about the challenges in their neighborhoods and eventually doing things like literally building ad hoc miniature golf courses in the vacant lot down the street, or helping to rebuild a neighbor’s home, or planting a tree. So if there is a way to enable that sense of agency beyond jobs, then maybe that is a silver lining to the structural economic change that is going to cause a tremendous amount of pain in the next 30 years and lead to a lot of job loss and very precarious situations for a great number of people in our economy. But if we can get ahead of that by figuring out a wide diversity of ways to encourage folks to invest time in their neighborhoods, then maybe on the other end of that structural economic change we will have a more engaged citizenry.

Stores in the Flower District, Manhattan

New York Flower District, 26th Street, Manhattan. Photo by Alex Fradkin, courtesy of the Monacelli Press