pier54/55 from above

technical innovations and deficiencies (3.5)

“After you’ve seen your house and all those other buildings that look like toothpicks from that height, what do you do?” asked a skeptical Barry Diller in reaction to the launch of Google Earth in 2005.

Now, nearly a decade later, Barry Diller proposes to gift and tether a $170 million offshore park and performance space to Lower Manhattan. As a “cool statement” for New York City it is one best received from above, like the Palm Island is to Dubai. This is happening while a crop of too rich, too thin, too tall residential towers are constructed across the city.

Not only is the view from above becoming more interesting than the view from the street, but high rise residential buildings are starting to look like toothpicks from any height. Oh, what hath Google Earth wrought?

Addressing the influence of aerial photography in Zoomscape, Mitchell Schwarzer says:

Nowadays, some people are more fluent in the skylines and monuments of world cities or in the topographic features of continents than in the facades of their own street. Elemental lines and smooth shapes have increasingly replaced fine-grained textures within the aerial view, and perhaps within our mental maps as well.

Do these maps generate a desire for more legibility, more skylines and monuments in cities? Did Google Earth give Diller the appetite for an amoeba-shaped structure on the Hudson?

For sure, the view of the world through the mobile phone map is clean, clear, and holds promise of seamless connection. A quick click through a map on a phone plots our course and provides the car to anywhere. For many, the most evolving technical advance that we can see shaping livability in the city is mapping software and transportation systems. The quicker route, the live traffic data, the next bus arrival time, the self-driving car, the cab minutes away, the two-day shipping. The march toward logistic freedom seems imminent with every Google Maps design refresh or multi-billion dollar valuation of a transportation app.

Lewis Mumford points out that in the history of the city there isn’t a clear linear arc of material progress and that some innovations may coincide with deficiencies elsewhere. In this way, a step into some of the earliest cities in Mesopotamia would not be a great technological step backwards. Access to quality sanitation systems were rather good in some ancient cities, with bathrooms, indoor toilets, plumbing, sewage channels. These advances in sanitation receded in the course of time only to reemerge fairly recently, says Mumford. And these advances have yet to be fully distributed.

It may surprise a third of the world’s population that another third lack access to adequate sanitation facilities. More people have access to cellphones than to toilets, says the UN in an attempt to underscore the problem by comparing a deficiency against advancing telecommunications. Yet, it may very well be that the access to telecommunications and monumental (Google Earth-readable) urbanism is a sustaining factors in the relative indifference to the deficiencies like sanitation (broadened to include access to quality open spaces).

Why the 5000 years of indifference to filth and stench? The size of the early city was small. According to Mumford’s sources, half of ancient cities were gardens, meadows, open spaces. Even if you happened to live amidst “rubbish and filth” the open spaces were within a short walk. Like any other urban form, the allocation of portions of the city to different functions including open space was a technical innovation. It could be that as cities grew, this one innovation carried the livability of the city while other technical advances were abandoned or didn’t scale with increased population, because it wasn’t seriously considered a deficiency. Today, these conditions still exist alongside each other, but a sufficient number of us are not immersed within it and/or can move around it without it becoming a problem for us.

While Mumford identifies the garden city-like division of urban spaces into different functions as an innovation in the ancient city, I think we can look at some of the organizational practices behind the renovation and development of our most monumental urban spaces in contemporary cities as innovations coexisting with substantial deficiencies. These deficiencies are not necessarily in sanitation, but rather in the deficiency of quality urban spaces that are within walking distance. Substantial in that it ought to have impact on the decision-making of city governments that permit and carry the risk of new and ever bolder, destination park proposals.

Lets consider the finances of a few public spaces just within New York City, since it is often a model for public parks around the world. Central Park has an annual budget of $58 million. A private, non-profit called the Central Park Conservancy contributes 75% of the annual budget and is responsible for the maintenance of the park. This philanthropic organization was established in the 1980s by George Soros and Richard Gilder to address the iconic park’s years of neglect.

By the 90s, the Conservancy proved it could raise the needed funds for capital improvements and manage the park, so the city gave it more control. Yet, with the capital improvements came new costs, increasing demands on the city to increase its contribution to the budget. ‘When we finished the capital improvements, we made life harder for ourselves,” said the Conservancy’s chairperson in the 90s. ”When you fix something up, you have to take care of it.”

The private foundation approach to park restoration and maintenance became an attractive concept in the 90s with the City Parks Foundation and Prospect Park Alliance both established in the late 80s. By the new millennium, it becomes the go-to model for new park projects as well. The High Line Park, National September 11 Memorial, and Brooklyn Bridge Park all have foundations tasked with capital cost fundraising and with annual operating budgets of $11 million, $60 million, and $16 million respectively.

In her assessment of the role of philanthropy in public park funding, Margaret Walls notes that for the majority of park directors surveyed around the country the operations and maintenance of parks is the major concern while private money goes mostly to capital projects.

The banner success – Central Park Conservancy – would suggest that private funding of a public good is a replicable model across all scales of parks and their localities. It would suggest that the gap of public funding would be filled by civic-minded, private contributions and volunteerism. Instead, disparity between parks in the system have increased to the point where the mayor of New York supports a proposal to extract 20% of park conservancies’ operating budget for use in struggling city parks. For now, the mayor is just asking politely for some funds from those foundations.

“No sacrifice was too great to enhance its prestige and its power, or to ensure its permanence,” wrote Mumford of the citadels that were built in ancient cities. So it would seem like the monumental park has become the contemporary citadel, the bulwarks of power insured by the city and emphasized by our new maps. In an age of mapping software aesthetics, where spaces of neglect can be bypassed and the new monuments digitally reified, the more important it becomes to look at the distribution, accessibility, and sustainability of these ever bolder, technically-innovative park projects.

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