MPR Decoder #9: Janette Sadik-Kahn on Urban Design Leadership

MPR's late-afternoon curiosity catalyst Tom Weber had urban planning rock star Janette Sadik-Kahn on his program last week as part of the tour for her new book, and their conversation was great.

In the middle of the interview, Weber began to ask JSK (as she is known) about the politics of urban change, and how leaders have to operate in an environment where the often-inelegant status quo often has small numbers of vocal and entrenched defenders.

Here's a rough transcript of what they said:

[Transcript begins.]

JSK: You know change is difficult, and I really get that. And all transportation is local, and people have a lot invested in the status quo. But what we found is that people, if given the choice, will choose better streets. Yeah, there was definitely tussles with the bike lanes when we put them down — we striped over 400 miles of bike lanes — but when we left after the end of Bloomberg’s term, there was overwhelming support for the changes with the bike lanes and plazas. If it had been an election, it would have been a landslide in favor of these new approaches to our streets. And again, it’s just really about looking at our streets differently, and trying things out. When people see the world of the possible, they like what they see, and they choose streets that work better. [The only problem I have with JSK's language here is her over-simplistic use of the term "better." You always have to ask "better" for who? I prefer saying "more walkable" for example. Though in this case, the changed intersection design was literally also better for traffic flow, so maybe "better" is defensible here.]

TW: I have to say as I read this book of yours, I sensed a tone and I picked up on a tone — and maybe it wasn’t even a tone, maybe you were trying to hit me over the head with a hammer — but I got a sense that leaders like yourself should sometimes, and I might be putting words into your mouth [just ask the question Tom. Say it!], should sometimes you should “just do them.” You shouldn’t necessarily wait for consensus, shouldn’t necessarily go through 170 public meetings to make sure the community supports it, you should just do it. What do you mean by that?

JSK: Well, I think that a lot of cities are leery of trying new things, and they’re afraid they might not work. But there’s a lot you can do with a little imagination and some paint and a few signs. And NYC, like many cities, had been stuck in this planning paralysis, we’d been stuck doing the renderings and the modelings and the rest. And it led to where we were on our fourth ground breaking of the 2nd Avenue subway, and New Yorkers had almost given up on the idea that change could happen on their streets. There was no expectation that things could change, so moving quickly to show how you can transform a place, so that they can see it and feel it and touch it in real time, that made a huge difference. [This is similar to Minneapolis Open Streets.] And so piloting things, trying things, being imaginative with the real estate that you have, can go a long way to building a new consensus to building a new status quo on your city streets

TW: So when you closed Times Square, for example, you did it as a pilot project that you would review in 6 months. And lo and behold, 6 months later everyone liked it, so it stayed. Does that in any way, are you ever worried it was going around some of these democratic ideas of gathering all that input?

JSK: Some people say we just sort of forced engineered this onto the streets of New York, and nothing could be further from the truth. These projects were requested and approved by the 59 Community Boards of New York City, and we have 130 elected officials and 8.4M very opinionated New Yorkers. [Holy crap, that's some politics right there.] And so we held over 2,000 meetings in person, all over the city every single year, whether it was a bridge project, a bus project, a road project, we met very much with everybody there. It was very important point, you have to take a hands on approach to get things done.

[The Broadway beach chairs.]
But we did close Broadway very very quickly, and we didn’t know whether it was going to work or not. We thought it was going to work, had confidence that it was going to work… But I remember that night, when we closed it off and we were standing there looking at it and i thought, “fingers crossed…” And one of the things that we realized at that moment was that we’d created 2.5 acres of public space in the heart of Midtown, but hadn’t put anything there. So we realized, “we have to do something.” Thanks to some quick thinking, we got some very inexpensive beach chairs from a local hardware store, and put the beach chairs into the street. Once we opened it to people, they zoomed into the space and jumped into the beach chairs, and the media reported only on the beach chairs. Did people like the color of the beach chairs? The size of the beach chairs? And really nobody focused on the fact that we had closed Broadway to cars.

TW: The bigger point you made was that, yesterday this part of the street was open to cars, and then you painted it over night, and the quickness and swiftness that people gobbled up those chairs to sit down, in a place that used to have cars on it. That’s what amazed you.

JSK: It totally amazed me. I felt like it was watching a Star Trek episode [Kaaaaahn!], where you don’t see anyone in the street, and then woosh! Millions of people were suddenly there.

I used to work in West Midtown 14 years ago and would sometimes go to Times Square for my lunch break, just to experience the automotive and audio-visual chaos of the place. There was this little concrete planter on exact apex of the corner between Broadway and 7th, and I'd take my sandwich or coffee or whatever and sit right on it, and try to take in all the commotion, traffic, and density for as long as I could stand it.

Today of course, the place is still a zoo, completely with predatory American flag breasts, but at least it's a human zoo. (Back when I was there, it was a car-and-taxicab zoo.)

The exchange also brings up an ongoing Twin Cities conversation (especially in Saint Paul) about how changes to streets should interact with public engagement processes. For example, when Gil Peñalosa was here a few years ago, he said something very similar to what Sadik-Kahn say here, that consensus isn’t always possible or even desirable, that sometimes insisting on consensus means that change is watered down to irrelevancy.

There seem to be two spectra here: What kind of community outreach do you do? (E.g. experiential "trials" vs. community meetings vs. online polling, etc.) And, what is the trade-off between achieving consensus and creating change?

Balancing these needs is not simple, but at least according to these two big-city consultants, cities tend to err too much on the side of preserving the automotive status quo. Maybe it's time to simply try things out, change our streets, and see what happens.

[Times Square before-and-after.]

Bonus: Here's the full Peñalosa quote, from his 2014 talk in downtown Saint Paul:
[16:30] Change is difficult of course, and it doesn’t happen by consensus. When they were thinking about whether to make this [street in Copenhagen] pedestrian, they said that cars don’t park in front of my restaurant, they’re going to go broke. You have to listen to everybody and, at the end of the day, what matters is the general interest. Change will never happen by consensus. If you want change to be unanimous, you have to water down change so much, that its not going to be change any longer. So listen honestly, and make a decision. So its about changing mindsets.

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