In a fractured metro area, New York’s Regional Plan Association finds common ground

The New York City metro area is carved up by waterways and the jurisdictional boundaries of hundreds of cities and three states. (Songquan Deng/shutterstock)

NEW YORK — In the rapidly urbanizing 21st century, how do the world’s great metropolitan regions — their central cities typically surrounded by rings of satellite municipalities — successfully plot their futures?

A major test is underway in the Greater New York City area — home to some 23 million people. The central city is far larger than Manhattan Island with its famed Wall Street financial center and United Nations headquarters. It’s also home to four other city-sized boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. That urban mass is surrounded in turn by some 800 satellite cities and towns spread across three politically independent U. S. states — New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.

And while the greater New York region centralizes wealth, intellectual might and communications power, it also faces — as do hundreds of metropolitan regions across the world — a stunning array of challenges. The New York area’s list includes deep income, ethnic and class divisions, long commutes, expensive housing, ageing infrastructure, splintered governance and rising seas that threaten coastal areas.

No strong political entity can force coherent decisions based on shared challenges across this broad metropolitan region. There’s no single government or authority focused on the region’s common destiny.

But there is a regional watchdog. Its name is the Regional Plan Association, or RPA. Founded by Manhattan-centered business leaders in the 1920s, RPA has no legal powers. Yet it has evolved beyond its early business base into a broad civic alliance focused on identifying Greater New York’s economic and planning challenges and suggesting creative solutions. What RPA does, and how it does it, contains lessons for any of the world’s fractured metro areas.

Presently, RPA is hard at work on the fourth big regional plan of its history, expected to come out late this year. It’s no small effort, with USD 12 million from a range of funders (chiefly the Ford, Robert Wood Johnson, JPB, and Rockefeller Foundations). It’s not just talking to Manhattan power brokers. Rather, according to RPA Executive Vice President Juliette Michaelson, the group is engaged across the entire New York metropolitan area in outreach to a broad range of stakeholders — from local business and political figures to residents of poor and immigrant neighbourhoods, brought in by a series of local forums and dialogues.

Metro regions around the world have been following the effort. RPA has established an international advisory committee for major urban regions to share experiences. Meetings in New York in 2014 and London in 2015 attracted regionally focused groups from Barcelona, Lahore, Moscow, New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and other areas. Guadalajara, Mexico, and Cali, Colombia, have been in touch about how to build an organization like RPA in their own regions.

RPA President Tom Wright says the latest plannig effort reflects the international stakes of the times and ”New York’s connections to the rest of the world as a vital part of the success of our metropolitan economy.”

‘Ideas matter’

The central premise of RPA’s latest planning effort, notes Anthony Shorris, a co-chair of the plan until he became a top official in the New York City mayor’s office, is that “ideas matter — and putting them on the table with a longer time span and breadth than individual governments can.” While RPA lacks the authority to force state or local leaders to implement these ideas, the organization’s deep ties across the region encourage politicians to take up many of them.

For example, RPA can claim a significant share of credit for the wave of development going on now in the long-neglected lower west side of Manhattan. In the late 1990s, the group sponsored an international design competition for the district, and helped convene political and business leaders to push for development there.

Clockwise from left: Chair of the regional plan process Rohit Aggarwala, RPA President Tom Wright, and exeucitve vice president Juliette Michaelson .(Regional Plan Association)

When former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proposed demolishing an abandoned elevated rail line through the area, RPA opposed him and got behind the plan that eventually produced the famous High Line park, one of New York’s top “people places” popular with both locals and international visitors. RPA also successfully opposed the jarring addition of a huge sports stadium in the area, which former Mayor Michael Bloomberg had proposed.

[See: Global city projects inspired by the High Line]

Chair of the Fourth Regional Plan process is Rohit Aggarwala, who first rose to prominence as the key staff leader of Bloomberg’s ground-breaking long-range sustainability plan, “PlaNYC”. Despite that background, Aggarwala doesn’t take what might be considered a familiar “city first” point of view. For example, he suggests that for the New York region to absorb an expected 4 million new residents over the next 30 years, the suburbs will need to play a more significant role by growing more than they have in recent years.

But the “how” of more growth is critical. It shouldn’t come in the spread-out subdivisions typical of American suburbs, Aggarwala insists, but rather in the form of compact, transit-accessible, in-town development. Such growth could turn lagging cities on the metropolitan periphery, such as Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Poughkeepsie, New York, into regional job centers with significant numbers of downtown apartments.

As Aggarwala sees it, the alternative — focusing too much of the area’s growth in Manhattan — would be a disastrous prescription for economic stagnation. “We’d have even worse housing costs than the ultra-high ones we currently suffer,” he says. “It’s necessary to grow capacity at that same time your economy and population expands — it’s a virtuous cycle.”

Many challenges

There’s no doubt that the New York region’s challenges have changed drastically since the last regional plan was published in 1996. Back then, New York City was still recovering from its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Out-migration posed a serious threat. And there was speculation that cities such as London or Tokyo might win the global contest for high-value businesses.

Today, by contrast, the New York region is prospering. City-suburb antagonisms are somewhat less than in the past. The city is adding people again, and population across the region is trending upward. By many indicators, RPA asserts, New York now ranks as “the most powerful and influential metropolitan economy in the world.”

A major event since the last plan came out was the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, which killed nearly 3,000 people. Financial firms responded with an exodus from Lower Manhattan. But they were replaced by an increasing number of high-rise residences, as well as a number of service-sector businesses. In 2003, a serious electrical blackout occurred, but the city suffered no looting, as had happened during a blackout a generation earlier. A building boom developed and continues to this day.

Job growth by place typology, current trends and RPA vision by 2040

While New York’s overall economy has prospered in recent years, new perils have arisen. Superstorm Sandy, the hurricane that struck the city in 2012, revealed serious infrastructure weakness as it cut power, flooded streets, tunnels and subway lines, and damaged some 600,000 homes. The risk of such events seems destined to worsen over time, with some communities almost sure to be submerged by rising ocean levels.

Robert Yaro, former RPA president and still involved in the plan process, notes New York’s vulnerability for “urban heat island” impact: “We need very proactive adaptation strategies to ‘regreen’ the city with street trees, building more resilience into our watershed system … It’s self-interest, it’s economics, it’s general concern about the next generations and the future of the planet.”

There are many other challenges, all of which RPA has laid out in an array of positioning papers for the new regional plan.

Transportation infrastructure is a big one. New York’s subways represent 1920s and 1930s — not 2010s — technology. The RPA plan is likely to call for massive updating and expansion of the underground system. Pennsylvania Station, key to East Coast U. S. rail transportation, remains miserably buried beneath an entertainment complex. And there’s serious delay in building a new facility for Long Island Rail Road passengers at the city’s historic and appropriately named Grand Central Station. Aggarwala says solving these transit-related crises, including “deeply flawed” organization of the responsible agencies, is a key challenge for the new regional plan.

The New York area’s next regional plan is likely to call for more transit-oriented growth in peripheral cities such as Poughkeepsie, New York, seen above. (Juliancolton/wikimedia commons/cc)

Of particular concern is the two century-old rail tunnels under the Hudson River, which were damaged by Superstorm Sandy. These tunnels handle all commuter-rail traffic between Manhattan and New Jersey, as well as inter-city rail to Philadelphia, Washington, D. C. and other points south. Plans to build new tunnels were killed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in 2010 on the grounds that it would cost his state too much  — a demonstration of how difficult regional decision-making can be in a politically fragmented area.

It remains unclear how or when the tunnel situation will get addressed. At a recent RPA conference of nearly 1,000 of the region’s government, business and civic leaders, 85 percent of the audience said they expected the Hudson River tunnels to collapse before replacements are built.

[See: Four challenges to metropolitan governance]

The region’s energy supply is also a big issue. One major source, the Indian Point nuclear power plant, is now scheduled to close in 2021. While renewable energy sources like offshore wind farms are in development, they’re proving slow to take hold.

And if new housing supply fails to keep up with demand, New York could face the same dilemma San Francisco is now suffering — job growth without adequate housing. Outside a narrow band of wealthy corporate players and high-wage professionals, income growth has become stagnant. The combination of forces is pricing out low- and moderate-income households from a growing number of urban neighbourhoods.

There is also political risk. Strong flows of immigrants into the region are clearly playing a productive role in the regional economy. The potential impact of President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration remains a big unknown. As Aggarwala notes, “Immigrants are creative — small entrepreneurs, working for themselves, starting businesses, filling the areas where jobs and labor needs are growing fast. If that were to be cut off, the New York region economy would be far less healthy.”

A Plan for All?

RPA’s once-a-generation regional plans have set the global standard for taking a metropolitan-wide perspective on all these kinds of issues. With its independence, RPA can raise questions that are difficult to address politically. And the group’s reports represent the only collective voice, seeking to speak for the entire region.

Without question, the input process has been dramatically broadened over the years. But the planners’ focus — to think of the entire broad region beyond Manhattan, to search for regionwide “win-win” strategies, to make the case for infrastructure projects that require collaboration across state lines — was clear in the earlier plans. And it’s certain to be underscored in the next plan.

But beyond issues, RPA appears to be making, based in part on urging by the Ford Foundation, a casebook effort to reach out to stakeholders — local governments, citizen groups and regional organizations — gathering their ideas and requesting feedback. The idea, says Aggarwala, isn’t just to solicit input, it’s to develop ideas in conjunction with stakeholders and then wait for political leaders to embrace them on their own. It’s a process, he notes, “that required patience — although the RPA, at age 100, has some.”

New jobs and population within a half-mile of
existing subway or commuter rail stations by 2040

While the final plan will not be ready for several more months, a tentative outline of its goals are published in the report “Charting a New Course: A Vision for a Successful Region.” It lays out facts and figures on such basic aims as “expanding jobs in poor cities and neighbourhoods by 25 percent” by 2040. Other goals include:

  • expanding multi-family homes in affluent towns and neighbourhoods by more than 50 percent
  • attracting three-fourths of new jobs and half of population growth to places within walking distance of transit
  • building two-thirds of new housing in walkable communities (with safe, attractive streets, access to fresh food, parks and libraries)
  • increasing the number of people taking transit to a third of all work trips
  • reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050

RPA leaders recognize many of these goals will encounter strong political headwinds. The clear hope is that early circulation of key targets will prompt engagement by citizens, local governments and other stakeholders, and provide a base of support when the final report is issued.

In terms of investments, the plan is almost certain to contain proposals for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — a joint venture between the two states set up through an interstate compact in 1921. Funded by tolls from the region’s major airports and some of its bridges and tunnels, the authority is empowered — free of any special city or state requirements — to issue bonds for capital improvements. Critics say its operational model, almost a century old, needs rethinking.

Another idea that is almost certain to appear in the new regional plan is congestion pricing. That’s the strategy of charging tolls on private vehicles to enter the central business district — variants of the idea are working in Singapore, London, Stockholm and a number of other cities. RPA suggested congestion pricing in its last plan as well — and Bloomberg tried implementing it — but it ran into bipartisan opposition. The idea never got to a vote in the New York State Legislature, which would need to approve it.

The next version of this proposal may rely on a more sophisticated tracking system than what was proposed earlier — either charging motorists a roadway fee calculated by overall miles traveled (a system employed in the U. S. state of Oregon), or some form of automatic toll system that levies higher fees on especially crowded roads or bridges during peak travel times.

What RPA most intends is to produce a plan that hits the top issues, helps one of the world’s leading metropolitan regions prepare to deal with the leftover challenges — and with strengthened civic sinew, to deal creatively with new ones to come.

See More Citiscope coverage of metropolitan governance:

In the Montreal area, 82 municipalities begin to think and act as one

The ‘Grand Paris’ era begins

Six regions in England to vote for ‘metro mayors’

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Neal Peirce is the founder and editor-in-chief of Citiscope. Full bio


  • Almost a century old, the Regional Plan Association has become a broad civic alliance focused on identifying the Greater New York City area’s economic and planning challenges and suggesting creative solutions.
  • Although the RPA has no formal powers, its deep ties across the region encourage politicians to take up many of its ideas.
  • RPA’s fourth regional plan, to come out later this year, is likely to recommend transit-oriented growth, expanding affordable housing and steps to protect residents from the impacts of climate change.

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