In February, the Danish architecture firm BIG announced plans to construct a building in the Bronx. The glass, steel, and concrete-clad structure will contain meeting rooms for community groups and educational programs. An exercise courtyard will offer a climbing wall, and green roofs are planned to cap the structure. It also happens to be the new home of the NYPD's 40th Precinct.
With ambitions to be more like a community center than a bunker, it's not the design you'd expect from a police station.
The project, along with nine others, is a recipient of the 34th annual Excellence In Design award from the mayor's office, which recognizes ambitious public design projects in the city. The projects were chosen by New York City's public design commission, a group of 11 people that includes professional designers, museum representatives, and the mayor, who meet every month to evaluate buildings, landscape architecture, and artwork that's proposed for construction on city property.
The awards program began in 1982, after a time where design wasn’t prioritized because of budgetary constraints. The Public Design Commission (which was called the Municipal Art Commission until it was renamed in 2008) decided that it needed to actively promote design, creativity, and innovation in civic projects to incentivize better work and recognize the efforts of the ambitious municipal agencies behind the projects. The awards are a way of broadcasting—not only to the public, but also to designers, policy-makers, and other cities—what good design looks like in the context of a 21st-century city.
Along with the Department of Design and Construction (which is like a matchmaker between civic projects and talented architects), the Public Design Commission's work has helped to create the governmental culture that makes New York a hotbed for innovative urban design. Few cities even recognize municipal projects with design awards.
Every year, the commission reviews between 800 and 1,000 and earmarks the best ones for awards consideration. "The ones that get commended are about what kind of city we want to be," says Justin Garrett Moore, executive director of the public design commission. "That public investment, tax dollars, political energy goes into these projects is a reflection of the city’s values. What's important is they have a spectrum of different things that are public benefits and resources—like infrastructure. How that gets designed and how it inserts into different communities is an important conversation."
The 2016 awardees are emblematic of how the city is slowly reshaping its urban fabric to address some of the biggest challenges its facing. Here's how.
New York City has a population of 8.4 million people and an area of over 300 square miles. A priority of the current administration is investing in public projects that can positively impact many people, from all walks of life.
"What’s been important about New York is that it’s a place that’s unique in the world and we have a lot of different people all in one city," Moore says. "All neighborhoods and communities are different. Our economic, racial, and values spectrums have broad ranges. A lot of these projects are taking that into account."
The 40th Precinct is one example of a design that's built with the intention of serving everyone in its neighborhood by using architecture to mend some of the fractured dynamics between police and the community. Meanwhile, Parks Without Borders and the Community Parks Initiative, two honorable mentions this year, are redesigning public spaces throughout the city to be more welcoming—for example, taking down perimeter fencing to make parks easier to access, to make them look less ominous, and to create more sight lines—and retrofitting crumbling amenities, like bathrooms.
"Design excellence is not all about aesthetics; it’s how it functions and works," Moore says. "Is this project designed in a way to best serve its users?"
LinkNYC—a project that's replacing payphones with Wi-Fi kiosks—received a nod for its ambitious plan to overhaul aging communications infrastructure and provide free internet access to neighborhoods with low rates of broadband connectivity. The experiment, while begun with good intentions, has been scrutinized for invading privacy and for what the Village Voice called "Google's personalized propaganda engine." The project has also come under fire for letting users watch porn, which led the city to temporarily suspend web browsing on the kiosks' touch screens until arriving at a permanent solution.
But as a design project, Moore says, the commission appreciated its scale and how it was offering a service to neighborhoods where internet connectivity is sparse. "In an urban design context, what is [Link] doing as a system and as a piece of infrastructure in the city?" Moore says. "There were conversations about equity and access, and it broadens the discussion about what design can accomplish."
The city's environmental health is another top priority.
"The big issue we’re trying to balance in NYC is that we want the city to be successful," Moore says. "It needs to be able to grow and public projects are taking on the responsibility of accommodating growth while simultaneously thinking about sustainability and environmental concerns and considerations. With the results of the recent election, there’s going to be more burden and responsibility for the city to lead on that front. New York has been leading the way and we’re even more resolved to do so."
For example, the city is currently overhauling a waste water treatment plant located on the north side of Brooklyn. Instead of thinking about the project as a utilitarian piece of infrastructure, the city wanted to spin it into a public amenity—and is building a walking trail along Newtown Creek, opening up the shoreline to public access.
"If the city were building a [water] treatment facility without the conversation about what more can you accomplish for public benefit and the environment, you’d miss out on an incredible opportunity," Moore says.
Just as the LinkNYC project is building an entirely new infrastructural system, so is the new network of anti-idling ambulance pedestals that's slowly being deployed throughout the city. Designed by Ignacio Ciocchini for MOVE Systems, the pedestals are engineered so FDNY ambulances can plug in and receive power for their essential systems (like refrigeration for medicine and communication). The current protocol is leaving the engine running for hours on end for power, which leads to air pollution from vehicle emissions.
"This is a pragmatic concern," Moore says. "There's a need for emergency services from mobile vehicles when they're parked—we need to have them dispersed through the city for lower response times—but they're spewing pollution. The pedestal is a reinvention of infrastructure."
Coming up with a functional design that wouldn't be obtrusive in the streetscape was a challenge. "It’s something that affects the environment because of clutter and visual impact," Moore says. "[MOVE System's designers] channeled the vocabulary of street furniture to have as limited an impact as possible, but still also be user friendly."
In a city that's bursting at the seams—the population is expected to hit nine million by 2040—doing more with a limited amount of land is the key to managing growth. Part of the solution is density and layering uses in a single location, like Dock 72, a co-working building planned for the Brooklyn Navy Yard that also includes retail and food in the same building.
"We have very limited land and that’s our fundamental problem in many ways," Moore says. "It's about getting the most out of public site. We’re really looking to design thinking and design excellence to help negotiate those challenges. It's tough: no one likes density or a lot of conflicting things happening one one place. We have to figure out how design can help address those issues and the city planning department has already started this with zoning adjustments."
Affordable housing is one area that will be a key focus for the public design commission next year. (No housing projects received awards from the commission this year.) Part of mayor De Blasio's goal is to construct and preserve 200,000 affordable housing units in the next 10 years, and city-owned land could play a role in achieving this goal.
"The Public Design Commission only looks at projects that are on city-owned land, but going forward is we’re going to start seeing projects there aren't only a park or library, but are also mixed use that includes affordable housing," Moore says. "This is a place where the mandate of the administration, which reflects the mandate of people in the city, is to find ways to do more and better quality housing in the city and to connect that to the quality of a neighborhood. Projects that really look at the mix of things that a public site can deliver—access to jobs or open space—is what makes cities and neighborhoods work."
New York's strategy surrounding public projects—layer uses, consider sustainability, build equitably—could be used as a loose blueprint for framing the infrastructural works the Trump administration tackles and the national agenda it sets. But Moore points out that the president elect's rhetoric for infrastructure involves calling it "urban renewal"—an outmoded, outdated way of thinking about urban design.
"If you have that mindset of doing things—it’s single purpose thinking—we can go backwards in cities very quickly," Moore says. "These projects [in the awards] are the opposite; they’re layering in so many things and approaching problems creatively. That’s the thinking we need. It needs to be inspired."
[All Images: courtesy Public Design Commission]