An Interview with Jeffrey Shumaker
by Max Moinian
May 31, 2018
Who are you and where are we?
My name is Jeffrey Shumaker and we are in Bryant Park by my office.
What’s your favorite privately-owned public (POP) space in Manhattan?
One of my favorites is Grace Plaza. It was recently renovated with an Amanda Burden touch: many types of seating, movable and fixed, and lots of planting. POPS can be controversial, viewed as privatizing public space. Unfortunately there are many POP’s I don’t like, built under the original rules which had virtually no design requirements whatsoever. These spaces need to serve the public, but we need somebody to own them, otherwise no one will take care of them. They’re often lost in limbo.
You mentioned Amanda Burden. What were her main goals that you aligned with during your time at the DCP?
I think the main thing she brought to the Department of City Planning and to the city was a pedestrian and human perspective. Even in the work we presented to her. They were otherwise generic diagrams about rezoning or changing a neighborhood. No surprise the community wouldn't understand what you were talking about. A lot of credit goes to Amanda and the Urban Design office in bringing the work down to the human, through sketching and clearly communicating intent on proposed changes. Not just from the air, from a helicopter view, but from the ground. That’s the vantage point that people live and experience the city from.
The intention is to make legible drawings. But does the act of drawing perspectives rather than plans change the design?
Absolutely. It definitely changes the design. It forces you to get into the qualities of things that only you as a person can really appreciate. When you draw from the air you’re focusing more on the roofs of buildings, mechanical, and other things. From the ground you start looking at use, transparency, materiality, street trees, the design of the sidewalk. All the things you wouldn’t see from above.
During your master’s at MIT, what was the urban crisis everyone was talking about?
That’s a good question. Compared to what’s happening in the world now, it was a relatively happy time. I worked with Dennis Frenchman on projects in China. I think the crisis was the rapid development of cities, and not necessarily in the best way.
What are some of your favorite planner jargons?
Resilience, sustainability, livability, equity. Not to say that they’re not important. With PlaNYC, the whole city was viewed through these lens and it was groundbreaking when it was first released in 2007. What I am saying is that
planners and designers need to start communicating in a way that people understand.
We should not be exclusive. You want people to understand the process so that they can advocate for better planning and design in their own communities.
Public realm is a good one. When you speak to communities often times they dont even understand what you’re talking about when you use the term “public realm.”
What’s the alternative?
Public life, public space, streets, parks -- call it what it is, what people can identify with.
Can you talk about autonomous vehicles (AV)?
Everything cycles back around. For example, street car designs might be useful for AV: the idea of dedicated zones to move efficiently. We’re looking at older streets to inform future ones. Maybe using different technologies now, but the design is essentially the same.
In this rendering, there’s no difference between the sidewalk and the road. There’s a kid on a scooter in front of a car. When you’re speculatively designing future streets, who is at the table and how is safety discussed?
Those renderings were very aspirational. There’s a big role for urban designers to play in preparing cities for this technology when it’s ready. There’s still a lot of work to do before we get to truly safe streets. And there’s always a risk that the technology may fail. But I think it’s important to be optimistic about what the future could be.
It’s a call to action.
My fear is that cities are not going to get ahead of this technology in the way cities didn’t get ahead of the car to begin with. When the car came cities were designed around them. A lot of the work we do today is fixing that problem: making cities less car-oriented and more pedestrian-oriented.
Those renderings are part of a conversation we’ve been having with the City. To remind them that now is the time to lay the groundwork for this technology when it gets here.
Did the vision of a shared street start from another discipline? Is the car company telling you this is the vision?
It was very much internal. Based on my experience at the City and with DOT, but mostly internal. It was our idealized vision of what could be.
There is a danger in private companies driving this conversation and investing billions of dollars into the technology without a strong public partner.
All of the major car companies have a research wing looking at the future city, showing nice images of pedestrian-friendly, smart cities. You have to wonder: what are they in it for? Are they sincere in wanting to make cities better for everybody? I think there’s a need for strong government and regulation to counter that.
I doubt you were talking about AV when you were in school. What do you think prepared you for this work?
Trends change, the terms we use change, but the fundamentals are the same. Fascinating to me now that I’m working internationally is that from the ground, cities are very similar. The character, design, and neighborhoods are different, and you celebrate those differences. But having places to sit, good sidewalks, plants, places of interest…that is everywhere.
Nanshan Center, by KPF
LVGEM Baishizhou Master Plan Shenzhen (c) KPF
Elements that every city needs, but is there a model that you can just drop on cities?
That’s a good question, and it’s a tough one. Good urban design principles may be basic to you and me, but sometimes it’s important to state the obvious.
What are the principles that carry over form public to private practice?
Municipal governments are frankly being starved everywhere.
Certainly in this country, cities are fighting for every last dollar, and need to be smart about leveraging private development for the benefit of the public. New York has become an expert at this, for public space, subway improvements or waterfront access, there are many ways...
At the City, you can’t realize anything without the private sector. We depend on them for affordable housing, parks... But when you’re working for the City you’re a public servant. You are ultimately working for the public. In the private sector, you work for clients and you can only push things so far. But, no matter where you work, you are always trying to find a balance between doing what’s best for the private property owner and what is best for the city and the public.
Some people may think that government work is actually more restricted.
In a way, yes. There are many layers to it. A lot of the work we did was never shown publicly, it was really meant to keep the conversation going for us. Sometimes the City is your client, and that could be the best of both worlds. The smarter developers realize that generally what’s good for the city is good for the bottom line.
Planners have been repairing past mistakes. But now there’s a big shift into thinking about the future … I don't know if that existed as much before?
I haven't really thought of that. A lot of the work I was doing was essentially how do we bring a sense of urbanity back into places. Infilling surface parking, mixing uses… Now, given the challenges of climate change, technology, cities are just trying to keep up, let alone get ahead. It forces everybody to think differently, in more immediate and longer terms about where cities are going.
Is it cyclical? Or do we keep refining big waves?
Maybe the waves are getting smaller and faster. All the disruptive technologies are happening at a pace that cites can't keep up with. At least with the kind of zoning we have in New York, which is frankly old-fashioned.
It’s an incredible set of rules that allowed this diverse city to grow and change over time. But now you need something more flexible and dynamic that can change as quickly as neighborhoods change.
Do you think there are too many rules?
Yes I do. The physical zoning resolution just keeps getting thicker and thicker. Its three very large volumes. We don't tend to take out, we just keep adding to it.
We need smarter rules, not simply more rules.
Was there a point where you shifted into thinking more about the future?
City agencies aren't necessarily known for being the most proactive or progressive, but the Bloomberg administration was different. The now famous Bloomberg pilot project: we don't have to change the rules to try it, and if it works, then we change the rules. A good example of this is micro-unit housing. We removed the minimum unit size requirement and held a design competition. Some very creative designs showed how outdated the rule was. Carmel Place was built and is very successful, and we ultimately changed the rule citywide.
What is going on in New York City right now?
I think the affordability crisis gives a sense of urgency that is understandable and warranted. There is a need to create lots of affordable housing fast. The rush is too fast for many neighborhoods. As much as everybody wants affordable housing, there is pushback. Anytime you talk about neighborhood change people get very defensive. Particularly when it’s their neighborhood. In theory everybody wants affordable housing and nobody wants to shut the door on newcomers.
But we’re at a tipping point: so many people want to be here, which shoots up prices. Even in East New York, the first neighborhood under the de Blasio administration to be rezoned. Investment was brought there for the first time in a very long time. And the minute the City announced its plans to rezone, speculators started buying and flipping property. Then you see the values go up, and up, and up. It’s a tough issue. Cities have gotten so expensive and exclusive. If people can’t afford to live here, what kind of city are you left with?
Are you a fan of infill development projects?
Yes. I think it achieves a lot of urban design goals. I think most would agree now that the tower in the park model was just anti-urban. It created campus conditions. You're either in it or you're not. And in talking to NYCHA residents and tenant associations over the years...there is a strong sense of us vs. them, people who live in the development vs. those who live outside. That’s not an urban position.
I understand the defensive nature against an infill proposal and the valid fear of losing one’s home, but the status quo is just not sustainable. Without more Federal money, NYCHA has to figure out how to generate income on its own. I think there's a way to do it that could keep everyone in place, probably even add affordable housing along with market rate units. Create better communities with less space -- better quality, not quantity. So they're not campuses. So they're part of the urban fabric.
Do you think there’s a need for more private planning firms?
Definitely. There are very few firms you could go to for planning and urban design that really get it. That understand and focus on the zone between the city and regional scale and the building scale. I think ultimately more firms and more competition is better for cities.