NYCxDesign 2018: NYC Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen on Design for a Better City

Glen spoke with Metropolis about how cities—and New York City in particular—can support and benefit from design culture.

nycxdesign 2018 Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen
Courtesy Laurel Golio

As a deputy mayor of New York City, Alicia Glen heads up housing and economic development, placing her at the helm of ambitious citywide projects like the Housing New York 2.0 plan, released last year, and the expansion of ferry service. She is also an advocate of economic opportunities for women and underserved New Yorkers. Glen spoke with Metropolis about how cities—and New York City in particular—can support and benefit from design culture.

Katie Okamoto: New York City supports design-forward projects in many ways—monetarily as well as through planning and construction processes. Why is it important for the city to invest in design right now?

Alicia Glen: At the human level, people are happier, more productive, and better citizens when the way in which they interact with their urban environment is exciting and engaging. It’s incredibly important when you just walk down the street.

There’s also a business reason: Whether the city is sponsoring a building or place or whether we’re reviewing plans for a private project, it’s important that companies want to be located in places where there’s a lot of energy. Some cities are so focused on their heritage that they lose their forward-looking approach. I think we’ve done a very good job of trying to protect and promote some of the beautiful architecture in New York [while] also encouraging people to be experimental.

KO: How does an event like NYCxDESIGN advance your own work in trying to diversify New York City’s economy?

AG: I think one of the great things about NYCxDESIGN is that it attracts tons of New Yorkers, who are by definition diverse and have a lot of ideas and opinions. It gives them a forum to engage with—to see what’s new and happening and help them be creative. And it’s also an enormous draw for people from abroad. NYCxDESIGN is a forum in which those kinds of collaborations and collisions can happen.

Any New Yorker will tell you the one thing that freaks people out about the city is how expensive real estate is. One of the things that we’ve decided to do as a government—because we really do think design is integral to (a) how the city looks and (b) the economy, because it’s an enormous part of our revenue—is help young design firms get an opportunity to get into the game by creating low-market space [in the Brooklyn Army Terminal and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, for example] and letting us promote them. NYCxDESIGN is a great way to do this.

KO: Does NYCxDESIGN act as a platform to enable the emergence of more diversity in design?

AG: I think NYCxDESIGN, because it is a way to organize a very diverse and sometimes diffuse set of firms, thinkers, and institutions, provides a unique opportunity—to women-owned firms, for example, and firms that are run by emerging designers or architects—to mingle, connect, and showcase their work. There’s so much buzz around NYCxDESIGN that it sort of levels the playing field, and that’s what New York, I think, is all about. It’s making sure that people who historically have not been seen become leaders in the field.

KO: How does a thriving design culture benefit New York City’s citizens?

AG: We want NYCxDESIGN to connect people, neighborhoods, and the whole of New York in a way that I don’t think a lot of other things do. I think everybody can be a fan of something like a ferry. If I’m walking into a public park, I want to think, “Wow, somebody actually thought about what that bench should look like and how it feels when you sit on it.” Because whether you’re a teenager, a tourist, or a titan of industry, sitting on a well-designed bench is a really important thing. It’s not sexy, but it matters.

At the end of the day, I think it’s really about how you integrate good design into ordinary people’s lives. Because, ultimately, cities are their neighborhoods and their people.

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