Nearness: New York seeks the right balance

19 Mai 2021


While major cities are emptying out – the flux recorded by the postal service in New York points to an exodus of 300,000 families – other cities are implementing projects in which proximity is an added value and a lever for coherent innovation in political programs linked to the goals of Agenda 2030. Melbourne, for example, has launched a “twenty-minute neighborhood” plan. In Copenhagen, the Nordhavnen district makes the claim of “five minutes to everything.” Paris has been a forerunner, where the mayor Anne Hidalgo has inserted the “15-minute city” model as a strategic driver for growth of the French capital, a measure rapidly replicated in Milan.

I The 15-minute city…
Chicago and NYC ahead of the pack

The famous Wall Street financial districtThe famous Wall Street financial district

The 15-minute city, a concept that is now familiar thanks to recent events, is actually a theme that has been investigated by institutions and designers for decades, as they have grasped the social and economic opportunities offered by effective distribution of urban spaces and services. In 1909 Daniel H. Burnham developed the concept of the “neighborhood unit” for the Chicago Plan, making it a key factor for the construction of new compact residential areas.

Already at the start of the 20th century, then, it was felt that the proximity of services, public infrastructures and housing could help to build communities with a recognizable social and cultural identity on a local scale, helping to combat the typical anonymity of big cities.

This proposition was part of a wider-ranging debate in the early 1900s in many North American metropolitan areas, regarding how to check the growth of the leading industrial cities. With the advent of mass motorization these settlements ran the risk of uncontrolled expansion, generating anonymous and increasingly distant suburbs.

As an alternative, the concept of the city-region was developed, formulated for the first time in the “Regional Plan of New York and its environs” published in 1929 after six years of work. Its goal was to orient planning activity in an area around Manhattan of about 5000 square miles containing 9 million inhabitants, indicating a series of guidelines for the various institutional levels involved. The most important were:
— to discourage high settlement density in city centers, through programs of housing construction in suburban contexts, above all to provide homes for one or two families in low-density settlements;
— to return the main production activities to the city center, from which they had fled due to high traffic levels that made central areas less accessible;
— to promote the construction of new “compact” residential districts in keeping with criteria of sizing and spacing of neighborhood units.

The activation of the plan was delegated to local administrations, since there was no level of government corresponding to the territory it addressed. Together with the first federal investments in highway construction, this factor led to the substantial failure of the entire plan. The weakest point of this spatial proposal was precisely the lack of services: the new residential suburbs were left without the connections that form the groundwork of the neighborhood unit. Cars had to be used to gain access to any type of social contact, which penalized these settlements and triggered a vicious circle: lower population rates implied slimmer opportunities for investment in facilities and services that could boost their appeal.

The Chicago Plan developed in 1909 by Daniel H. BurnhamThe Chicago Plan developed in 1909 by Daniel H. Burnham

II Who will return to the office in the Big Apple,
restoring the value of proximity?

A survey conducted by the non-profit organization Partnership for New York City reports that only 22% of the large companies with offices in Manhattan will require employees to return to their headquarters on a full-time basis. Roughly 66% of the firms are oriented towards a hybrid model, in which personnel will be present in office only two days per week. Another 9% have decided that offices are an asset of the past: in the future only a small managerial facility will be required, for a few people, while most of the employees will be working from home.
This orientation has spread across many companies in Europe as well, but New York is particularly impacted by this sudden change. The city has two business centers: the financial district in Lower Manhattan, extending around Wall Street, and the Midtown area around Rockefeller Center. Prior to the pandemic, every day Manhattan was invaded by over 1.6 million commuters, whose presence set in motion a value chain that was very important for the city. What are the viewpoints of companies coming directly to grips with these numbers?

Hamilton Grange Teen Center New York Public Library, © Rice+Lipka ArchitectsThe Library of the Hamilton Grange Teen Center in New York, designed by Rice+Lipka Architects

III Google, Facebook, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs:
smart working, yes or no?

From the recipe of Google, which envisions a flexible and mixed system, or a “hybrid approach” as the company puts it in a corporate blog, to the return to the office chosen by other large firms like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs.

Google’s official position was expressed by the CEO Sundar Pichai on Twitter: “We’re moving to a hybrid work week with most Googlers in the office approximately 3 days a week. We’ll offer more location choices around where to work – in one our many campuses – as well as the option to be fully remote based on role and team needs. And we’ll offer flexible benefits like the option to work from anywhere for up to 4 weeks a year. Google’s future workplace will have room for all of these possibilities.” Pichai imagines 60% of Googlers working together in the office for several days each week, with 20% in new offices and 20% working from home.

Facebook is convinced that home working will continue, even after the pandemic. The social media giant told the BBC that it is considers remote working as a crucial opportunity in the future. “People in eligible roles at Facebook can apply for permanent remote working, subject to approval from managers.”
The founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg predicted that 50% of the company's employees could be working remotely within the next five to ten years. Zuckerberg has also confirmed increased investments in technology for remote interaction and video systems. ''We have invested in products that help people to feel connected and present together, no matter where they are.”

© Ketut Subiyanto© Ketut Subiyanto

Workplace now has over 5 million paying users. ''We’re announcing a series of functions to improve our video offerings on Workplace and Portal: Workplace Rooms, Workplace on Portal TV, and updates to Workplace Live. To contribute to speed up the growing demand for collaboration and productivity based on virtual reality, we are releasing Oculus for Business for everyone.”

Two American banks based in New York, on the other hand, seem to believe that a return to the office is the best solution. Goldman Sachs has asked most of its employees in the United States and Great Britain to return to presence in the office by the end of June. The CEO David Solomon has sent a letter to personnel in the United States, officially summoning them to return to the office by Monday 14 June 2021. The same is true of JP Morgan. CEO Jamie Dimon has observed that the greater flexibility permitted for employees who work from home on a part-time basis is fine, it is still no substitute for being at the office. In his view, the pandemic “accelerated a trend, but it does not work for younger people. It doesn’t work for those who want to hustle, it doesn’t work in terms of spontaneous idea generation.”

A view of the financial district of Manhattan with the well-known  stepped building, headquarter of JP MorganA view of the financial district of Manhattan with the well-known stepped building, headquarters of JP Morgan

IV Dark stores, a proximity base for e-commerce

While in California the first Amazon Fresh supermarket has opened for business (hyper-technological, but conventional in terms of its offerings, including deli counters, fresh baked goods, fresh produce, meat and fish, and the classic array of shelving with multibrand products), in Brooklyn, at Industry City, a project has been launched to transform a classic Whole Foods store into a “dark market.” This is another first, which in New York takes its cue from a physical place usually organized as a normal supermarket (though with a full focus on organic food), making it into an adjunct to online shopping. The Whole Foods sign remains, but only the company’s employees have access to the shelves, where they gather the products ordered by clients online, filling shopping carts and handing the groceries over to Amazon drivers, who deliver the goods to customers’ homes, though only in the Brooklyn area for now.

The facility becomes a warehouse ready for use, installed in a strategic location to rapidly reach a consumer target, able to stock and distribute perishable goods that require quick delivery times. The advantage of a purposed structure, Amazon explains, is that it can absorb the increasingly frequent demand for online grocery shopping, which was previously handled by the Whole Foods chain through its conventional outlets, by creating fast pick-up points. The idea takes advantage of an intuition that became necessary during the lockdown, when various stores of the group were forced to close, functioning only as storage and pick-up facilities for online shoppers. At the moment everything is back to normal, with the exception of this new facility in Brooklyn that will probably pave the way for others, in other big cities.

Whole Foods MarketThe new Whole Foods Market in Brooklyn, a new format for proximity delivery of online purchases

V Open Streets, a revolution “on the road”

In New York, as it awaits the return to normality on 1 July, putting an end to all restrictions on commercial and cultural activities, over the last year the government has demanded great sacrifices from the restaurant sector. The gradual restart is still in progress for bars and restaurants: starting only on 7 May, venues have been able to resume working at 75% of normal capacity, while from 17 May customers will also be able to eat and drink indoors. Throughout this long hiatus, however, outdoor seating areas and terraces have made it possible to stay in business, even during the chilly New York winter. This way of living in the city has changed its appearance, transforming many streets, blocks and parks (from Brooklyn to Manhattan to Queens) into an uninterrupted sequence of open-air eateries.

Much of the credit for this strategy goes to the Open Streets program of temporary pedestrian zones, launched in the summer of 2020 by the city council, which is now considering making the initiative permanent. Even when the pandemic is behind us, local districts and communities will be able to apply to participate, and the digital map of pedestrian streets and squares will be updated. Where urban planning permits, permanent urban furniture will be installed to encourage the outdoor activities of bars and restaurants. At the moment, the program covers 20 different sites in 5 neighborhoods, from Vanderbilt Avenue (Brooklyn) to 34th Avenue in Queens.

Some New York streets completely redesigned thanks to the Open Street program, which allows free occupation, if authorized, of part of the streets spacesSome New York streets completely redesigned thanks to the Open Street program, which allows free occupation, if authorized, of part of the streets spaces

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