COVID-19 New Paradigms in Urbanism & Design: Q&A with Michael Samuelian
Founding Director, Urban Tech Hub, Jacobs Institute at Cornell Tech
Michael Samuelian, FAIA, AICP, is an urban planner, real estate developer, and professor. From the revitalization of Lower Manhattan after 9/11 to the creation of a new neighborhood in Hudson Yards and the activation of Governors Island he’s helped plan, design and develop some of the most transformative projects in New York City.
As Urban Designers and Planners we are stewards of a unique perspective through which to view our surroundings. Our social infrastructures and daily routines as New Yorkers have been uprooted by the pandemic; oriented in our neighborhoods, how can we seed more equitable and resilient futures for the built environment?
Charlie: How has the pandemic affected your community, workplace, and daily routines?
Michael: Well, I guess first of all I started my new job near the height of the pandemic in New York in early May. It is strange and challenging to say the least to start a new job, let alone launch a new initiative when the city is shut down and suffering so much. But I am very lucky that Cornell Tech takes the long view and has been incredibly supportive of this new Urban Tech Hub. The Dean sees this as an extension of the mission of Cornell Tech to bridge the gap between academic research and real-world urban challenges. I haven’t met most of my colleagues, aside from Zoom, so I have had to make do with trying to make new connections and build relationships virtually.
Charlie: What differences have you noticed in the urban fabric of your neighborhood or the built environment of your city?
Michael: My neighborhood in Brooklyn, Prospect Heights is very vibrant now. Restaurants are spilling into streets, people are out and about on nice days and even friendlier to one another. I also think that people are making extra efforts to support local small businesses. In spite of the shutdown, the pandemic has actually made our neighborhood more active, bringing an unprecedented amount of life to the streets. I don’t want this to end.
The neighborhood was already a pretty great low rise, high density neighborhood before, but having people home more during the day and lots of street level mom and pop retail and restaurants has proven to be a huge asset with our rejiggered schedules. This is just another proof point that good urban design is the most sustainable approach to community building.
Charlie: As an Urban Designer (or Planner), what changes to our physical environment should become a permanent part of the urban planning and design process as we move closer to re-opening despite the enduring pandemic?
Michael: Clearly the open streets program has to be made permanent. This has given a new life to our streets and sidewalks. This is another example of having a more complete street, giving people more space and cars less. I have been so impressed with how small businesses have created beautiful, somewhat wacky and diverse seating areas on streets and appropriated parking spaces. It gives a European flair with a New York sensibility to our streets and sidewalks.
We should also take a serious look at the street closures. It is hard to say which should be made permanent, but we should monitor any severe traffic impacts on neighborhoods and begin to understand where they can be made more permanent. Also, weekend closures of major streets should be strongly considered and studied. Vanderbilt Avenue near me is closed on weekends and it basically creates a street fair atmosphere without all the commercial crap that usually accompanies those fairs, it is so much more authentic than the typical ones that overtake many avenues in the city on summer weekends.
Charlie: In your view, has social distancing yielded any unexpected benefits to the built environment?
Michael: It is too soon to say. I do think that the reevaluation of large numbers of people commuting into CBD’s is a potential positive benefit. While there has been solid growth in downtown Brooklyn and LIC in the past decade, Midtown and Lower Manhattan still dominate by a wide margin. We have struggled to create a polycentric pattern of business districts in New York City. This is a good time to consider how we diversify all of our neighborhoods in terms of land use. I would love to see a more balanced approach to neighborhood planning that looks at outcomes and data instead of Nimbyism, political posturing and entrenched planning and economic development principles.
While it won’t be applicable everywhere, I am a fan of the recent trend of thinking about the 20-minute city. When I first moved back to New York after grad school, I got my job first (in Union Square), then my apartment (in the Village) because I knew I would be working late hours so much and I wanted to walk to work. There is nothing more sustainable than that. The problem today is almost no one can afford to do that. We need to address that problem before anything else.
Charlie: Are there specific ways you have focused on staying positive throughout the pandemic?
Michael: Yoga, running and cooking
Charlie: What are your predictions, if any, on permanent effects or impacts of the pandemic on the urban realm?
Michael: Overall, I think that we will largely forget about this time period in the next few years and New York will bounce back stronger and healthier than ever. I liken this to the time after 9/11 when folks said that the city was over and that people would never again work in skyscrapers, and look at the city today, we have more tall buildings than ever, and even Hudson Yards built over a rail yard!
But I do think that employers will be more accepting of working from home and perhaps even rethink how workplaces are configured and where they are located. I also believe that as a result, people will make different decisions about where they live and this can be a boon to neighborhoods that are a bit further from legacy transportation systems. I’m hopeful that this can support an expansion of our embrace of new micro mobility options in the city.
A potential negative result is that our increased focus on public health could lead to changes in the privacy of our personal health. After 9/11 we accepted a lot more restraints on our liberties, and I fear that that may be the case with our personal health now. Employers, bars, clubs and lots of other locations of dense public gatherings can potentially ask for a lot more biometric data for entry, and while the overall public health benefits are rational, we need to keep an eye on how that data is collected, stored and shared. I’m scared of the health passport idea that has been written about — it can create a whole new level of bias and discrimination in our country — and we have enough of that to deal with today.
Charlie: What question have we missed in this conversation? Is there anything else in relation to this dynamic time you would like to share?
Michael: One last pitch for my new Urban Tech Hub.
I am so excited about the potential to create a whole new field of study in Urban Technology. We are only now beginning to realize the impacts of pervasive digital technologies on our cities. And more and more we don’t appreciate the impacts of new technologies on cities and the range of people who live in them. Our vision for the Urban Tech Hub puts people first by contextualizing where technology is most appropriate, at the service of making cities and society stronger, fairer and more resilient.
I am actively looking for new partners, ideas, urban challenges and grad students for the program, please reach out to Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Charlie Cunningham is a dedicated urbanist and Project Manager at the firm EA Creative in New York City, focusing on the intersection of Urban Design, Architecture, and Technology. You can follow more of his photos, stories, and current fieldwork on Instagram and Twitter @charlieprima.
Voices of Urban Design is a discussion forum that is curated by the APA New York Metro Chapter’s Urban Design Committee. Posts are edited for clarity and length only; opinions and statements that appear in this blog are not endorsed by the American Planning Association nor its affiliates. We expect and encourage healthy debate!