David Bragdon, Director of Long Term Planning and Sustainability for the City of New York, talks about the importance of big visions and small actors in his native NYC, and moving beyond regulatory convention to promote the common good.
I’m from New York City. I was born in New York Hospital and lived there until I was about five years old. Then we moved to Chelsea and I lived there until I was twelve.
Then I went away for 39 years. I came back in the fall of 2010. Now I live on the edge of Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn.
As a little kid, Central Park was a big part of my life. We lived between First and Second Avenue, but we would walk to the park just about every day. It was a feature of most afternoons of my life.
It’s hard to find a spot in New York City that’s overlooked by other people. But every individual has a different experience of a common space. You can have multiple experiences of a singular place.
My sentimental favorite spot in the city isn’t really a spot. It’s the ride between Whitehall Street and St. George on the ferry because of the air, the wind, the water, and the view of all the different surrounding shorelines and skylines. It’s a combination of what the natural setting is and what the built environment is.
I’ve always just been interested in how things move around. My dad would take me to school on the 2nd avenue bus and we kept a journal listing every bus we rode. Every single day we would write down which bus it was. It was the same route but we would write down the number of the bus. We had pages and pages. I’ve always been interested in how cities work.
New York has a history of bold visionary plans. The Dutch had a plan for a global trading network in the 16th and 17th centuries. Or you think about the commissioner’s plan for the grid network in the early 19th century. Then there were Robert Moses’ plans in the mid-twentieth century. And a lot of different smaller project plans: Forest Hills, Lincoln Center, and others.
New York’s success is a combination of these big intentional projects and lots random factors — the organic forms of growth that come from individuals.
I see my job as defining those bigger visions—investing in the larger long term infrastructure needs of the city—and simultaneously fostering an atmosphere where the smaller, organic stuff happens a block at a time. That is, enabling people to do the stuff that really makes the city great
So how do we as a government enable that to happen? The levers aren’t in our hands. It’s really up to the ingenuity and initiative of the people who live here.
I think that one recipe for change is to unleash a lot of individual as well as collective random genius and innovation. That really can just come out of nowhere. For individuals, the first steps are to figure out what you’re interested in and what needs to get done.
Traditionally, the government regulates stuff and funds stuff. The government builds stuff and taxes stuff. This influence over all of these things is immediate and direct. You regulate some things, and you don’t regulate others. If you fund roads and you don’t fund subways this is what you get. If you tax consumption, you get less consumption. If you tax saving, you get less saving.
To me, the challenge now in government is about how to look past this. How do you supplement the traditional things that government does — regulation and taxation and funding — and think about how can government also be a convener and a coach? How can the government be an inspiration in terms of its personal behaviors or development practices or lifestyle? How do you work with other people to make good things happen? This is different from a purely regulatory approach that just prevents bad things from happening. Regulation is really important, you have to keep doing that, but if you want to do more than just prevent bad things form happening, you have to do more than regulate…you have to help cause good things to happen.
Livability is about professional opportunities, and being able to support yourself and have a good career. But also, using the fruits of that to have a really vibrant cultural environment and good public services. And the ability to get around. The feeling of safety on the streets. It includes some connection to nature as well.
I like to walk. I mean, I’m a big transit rider too, but I like to be able to walk places. I’m just a city kid I guess. I’m not a nature boy at all, even though I can appreciate that. I’ve probably slept outside maybe two or three times in my life.
Environmentalism is actually an extension of being a good neighbor. Environmental stewardship that springs from somebody caring about their immediate surroundings is a very important motivator. You try to expand the concentric rings form there, like, ‘Oh okay I care about my block,’ well ultimately you have to care about the glaciers melting. But starting by caring about your block is a more meaningful place to start rather than some abstraction.
There’s this myth that says ‘Oh, New Yorkers don’t care about nature or the environment.’ I just think that they probably define it somewhat differently. But I think that there’s actually a very strong sentiment here. There is a core of people that are really dedicated on those issues. I’ve been inspired — having been back in New York for the last six months — by just how widespread the commitment to natural restoration and environmental stewardship is in the densest city in the country. There are people who are very dedicated to nature and to restoration, and to water quality, things that people would have thought of was sort of beyond hope, twenty or thirty years ago.
There’s currently a lot of vocal backlash about biking. I think there are real challenges to biking in New York, particularly because of the way the streets are designed to the 20th century standard. But I actually think underlying all of that there is a lot of potential for biking here. I don’t know if it will ever be the 35% road share of Copenhagen, but, you know, we’re a relatively dense city, a lot of the city has a grid system, and it’s fairly flat. We have a fairly vigorous population that does a lot of walking. New York is far more conducive to biking than most people realize. If it were safer and more accessible to the average person, I think we would be surprised at how much rider-ship there would be. But I think we have to give it a chance, and we have to really, really work at it.
Another part of my vision is about the restoration of some of the natural function of the Gowanus creek. The restoration of and connection to rivers, and inlets and creeks, is a very compelling vision to me.
I wake up before my alarm goes off. It’s just the energy of New York, I think. Looking at the skyline or looking at the river. I just find it a very motivating. There’s something about having been born here and having been a kid here, and just feeling like it’s a really important place. It’s really one of a kind. It’s hard to talk about without resorting to clichés. But it’s true if you can do something here…if you can change things here, there’s a national or international implication for whatever lessons could be learned. That’s probably some variation of that Frank Sinatra song — trying to state it without plagiarism, or without rhyming.