October 24, 2022
Surveying 100 Years of the Regional Plan Association
The exhibition designed by James Sanders provides an extremely strong overview of RPA’s many encouragements, with its four principal plans (1929, 1968, 1996, and 2017—you can read them all online) and interstitial advice deftly excerpted and accentuated by a range of other context and commentary. A “Regional Plan Association exhibit” is not the sort of thing you associate with aesthetic appeal but a variety of elements—particularly Jules Guérin and Francis Swales City Beautiful dreams from the first report and Barbara Towery’s crisp midcentury graphics from the second—lend plenty of appeal. Video elements, often fluff in exhibits, here include fascinating excerpts from mid 1973s Emmy-winning documentaries about the RPA, narrated by Eli Wallach, Ruby Dee, and Cliff Robertson
Tom Wright, president of RPA explained in conversation that the show is the product of years of work contemplating what from their “treasure trove” of content might be fit to display, a task well-achieved. Having some visual appeal that would attract passersby was key. “If you’re an urban planner, a transportation planner, an architect, or a real estate developer, you’ve heard about us. But the vast majority of residents of New York City and the region have never heard of RPA. We wanted to change that.”
The exhibit is entirely transparent about past RPA misdeeds: highway construction mania, sprawl-encouragement, and more. Wright noted that the RPA helped write iniquitous codes for numerous suburban towns in early decades. “Those zoning codes were segregationist and racist at their very core, and I’m not going to hide that. I’m not going to pretend that didn’t happen. We’re now trying to undo that legacy in many ways, and the only honest thing to do is to recognize it.”
The number of bad ideas implemented is minor compared to the number of sound ideas that never came to pass. Regional Plans are always about delayed gratification; this is intrinsically frustrating. Wall text quotes Robert Benchley, “What do I care about ‘belt lines and circumferential routes’ to be ready in 1965? What do I care about 1965 anyway? I am just a butterfly, living in the present, and I want some service now.” That mild a timetable seems Panglossian compared to the delays of today, when civic plans aren’t things that your children might get to enjoy but that your grandchildren probably won’t.
There are extravagant schemes within the 1st Regional Plan, for grand civic complexes in Mott Haven and Carl Schurz Park, but the depressing thing is seeing far more functional and practical ideas that have yet to be even vaguely realized. The 1929 proposal for a circumferential trunk railroad has only recently crept to the status of partial consideration with the Triboro RX (if we’re lucky).
And yet there are visions achieved: Park schemes were realized, many other excellent general suggestions such as a park use for the High Line became reality. The 2nd Regional Plan’s focus on Jamaica Center development eventually did take off. Wright explained “We’ve had a wonderful partnership with the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation. The staff-member at RPA who wrote the Jamaica Center report for the 2nd Regional Plan founded the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation and ran it for a generation or two.”
Other ideas have borne fruit as well: “We were very active in the East Midtown rezoning, and we testified on behalf of One Vanderbilt; East Side Access is opening in just a couple of weeks. That was a huge priority for us in the Third Plan and we spent a lot of time trying to promote and revive that project.”
The exhibit is keen to make clear that they only suggest ideas; they are grateful for those who carry them out. Wright explained, “I don’t want to take credit for anyone else’s achievements. I stand in awe of those people who actually deliver those wonderful parks and many other things.”
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