Let’s Make New York Sexy Again
A French Version of this article was published by Le Petit Journal | Click Here
It felt like a never-ending story. We lived in cramped apartments, unsuited to a life of confinement, kids went to school in their bedrooms while adults adapted to remote working (how often with roommates in the next room?), exercising in our living rooms, sometimes if it only meant pushing around the sofas and other furniture. If we were lucky enough to have internet access, we could shop for our groceries online. And through the windows, as the city skies grew lighter each day, out on the streets, the cars became scarce. An unusual silence descended on New York.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed all the flaws of the urban model, says Saint-Gobain Chairman Pierre-André de Chalendar in his book The Urban Challenge (Odile Jacob).
In New York City, articles and analyses of the city’s future multiplied. “Is New York City Over?” headlined the New York Times last summer, thus echoing comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s editorial, “So You Think New York Is ‘Dead.’”
As in Paris, some residents fled the city. Some of the more affluent New Yorkers moved to West Palm Beach, the Hamptons, or the countryside; others, among the more precarious and suddenly unemployed, unable to cope with the rising costs of city life, just left.
Pierre-André de Chalendar is convinced that the desertion of the city is a temporary phenomenon. We need cities more than ever. According to the United Nations, the world’s urban population will grow from 4 billion today to 6.5 billion in 2050. In less than 30 years, two-thirds of humanity will be living in an urban center.
“The challenge is to create cities that are desirable, pleasant and protective of our natural resources.” Pierre-André de Chalendar
The Urban Challenge opens with a description of the legendary town of Uruk, the cradle of writing. Arguably the first city in history, Uruk’s origins can be traced to 5,000 years BC in the heart of Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. One of the oldest known texts tells of the adventures of Enkidu, a man who lives “in harmony with nature, in the company of wild animals.” But when Enkidu meets Shamat, an inhabitant of Uruk, she describes to him “the thousand and one wonders of the city, where the inhabitants are richly dressed, dance, share sumptuous meals, drink beer. Shamat embodies the sophistication and seduction of urban culture, which alone allows humans to surpass themselves, to express their talents and powers,” writes Pierre-André de Chalendar.
In New York and elsewhere, the challenge is to create the city we want. A city that places quality of life at the heart of its development, “a model where nature and the city are no longer in conflict, where mobility is fluid and carbon-free, and where sustainable, high-performance buildings provide comfort and health, and respond to the aspirations, reinforced by the health crisis, to live better, together.”
In The Urban Challenge, Saint-Gobain’s Chairman proposes to create a model that “promotes social inclusion and places all projects within a participatory logic,” the founding element of a flexible and sustainable city.
What will our habitat look like tomorrow? Are we going to create living spaces—in buildings or individual homes—with rooms dedicated to remote work, sports, education, and first care? Will we renovate and/or build connected buildings that are no longer thermal sleeves thanks to innovative materials and solutions produced without depleting natural resources? Will we allow winter heating and summer air conditioning systems to keep contributing to the city’s stressful and polluting background noise and temperature differences?
Kathryn Wylde foresees New York City in 2031 as a “more walkable, more breathable community.”
At a February conference organized by the French American Foundation, “Building a Brighter New York City,” Partnership for New York City President Kathryn Wylde foresees New York City in 2031 as a “more walkable, more breathable community, but with a strong and growing economy.” The transformation of the city has already begun, she adds, taking Paris as an example. “We have adopted a new framework of more streets that are available to pedestrians, fewer cars, more cafes, outside retail shopping. Outside markets were put in place and to the extent the weather allows. I think there’s a lot of appetite to continue that approach: fewer cars, more pedestrians, more bicycles.”
Kathryn Wylde imagines a city that looks a lot like the 15-minute city proposed by the Franco-Colombian scientist Carlos Moreno and described by Pierre-André de Chalendar, an urban space where all the necessary services, including going to school, entertainment or health care, are available within a 15-minute walk. “That will certainly have an impact on the support for the mass transit system; we’re no longer going to necessarily have a hub-and-spoke economy where everybody is coming into Manhattan to work and going home at night,” says Kathryn Wylde.
As Pierre-André de Chalendar reminds us, almost all greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in France come from fuel consumption, and in Paris there are between 250 and 425 kilometers of traffic jams on any ‘normal’ day. One of the obstacles to reducing car use in Paris, as in New York, is the distance between work and home.
Pierre-André de Chalendar’s book, The Urban Challenge, “helps us imagine how (cities) can change and grow–and become greener, healthier, and more prosperous places for all.” Former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg
A challenge for New York, the ‘crossroads’ city of the world, that has passed through a series of recent crises, including the bankruptcy of the 1970s and the 9/11 attacks, 20 years ago this Fall. If this urban challenge is possible in New York, it will be, as the song says, possible anywhere.1
In 2001, no one lived around the World Trade Center towers in the Financial District, as Kathryn Wylde reminds us. As soon as Wall Street and the banks would close, the neighborhood would turn ghostly, the subways and train stations filled with commuters while private cars, cabs and limousines drove herds of the richest traders back to their Upper East Side pads. Lower Manhattan has now become a vibrant neighborhood of offices, shops, and residential buildings.
At a moment when New York is once again fully opening its restaurants, shops, cinemas, sports and concert halls, and its undergrounds Jazz clubs—such as Smalls in the Village, where earlier this week a gifted and ‘unmasked’ young pianist from the Bronx let his fingers play their notes accompanying the music of a trumpet, a saxophone, a bass and the rhythm of drums—all in the wake of a successful vaccination campaign against Covid-19, the urban challenge, that of making the city desirable once again, is accessible, both politically and technically. It is even an opportunity and a chance to invent the city of well-being, of exchanges and of respect for the environment, provided we tackle this challenge “together,” writes Pierre-André de Chalendar.
The Urban Challenge – Reviving the Desire to Live in the City
Pierre-André de Chalendar | published by Odile Jacob