About GenslerOnCities

What makes cities tick? GenslerOnCities explores the planning, design, and the potential futures of urban landscapes.

Search GenslerOn
Cities Topics
Connect with Us
« Built to Learn: How Design Can Enhance Education | Main | A Prescription for Happiness: The Importance of Wellness »

Growth, Millennials and the Multinodal City

Image: Wikimedia.

Driven by robust growth, New York’s Department of City Planning projected the city’s population to exceed 9 million by 2030. But, as we know, projections can be wrong, and those estimates are likely to be somewhat premature. As the population swells, so does the pressure put on the city to respond with infrastructure, transportation and housing.

Crain’s recently asked us how to minimize the impact of migration and population growth on current residents. Our response? We proposed building new land to upset urban land economics and repurposing underutilized infrastructure to increase connectivity and unlock an array of opportunities for residents.

The Tipping Point Between Up-and-Coming and Gentrified

The decline of industry as an employment center in America catalyzed a new wave of urbanization. As agriculture and manufacturing faded, the economy, once decentralized across a network of rail and road, concentrated in cities. Cities quickly became the engine of economic growth, responsible for 80 percent of all economic activity. In generational waves of increasing magnitude, people migrated to cities for work and play. In 2016, 63 percent of the U.S. population lived in cities.

This process of urbanization dramatically affected the character of urban neighborhoods. Neglected manufacturing districts have become the playground for a new generation of urbanites eager to convert factories to loft housing, warehouses to breweries and studios, and rename neighborhoods with acronyms, and local real estate markets have been altered fundamentally. This influx of new residents and startups increased rents for local companies and families, some of who found an opportunity to sell, and others who waited until they could no longer afford to stay.

New York Spreads Out

New York presents prime case studies in transformation: beginning in Chelsea, SoHo, TriBeCa, then spreading across Brooklyn (Downtown Brooklyn, DUMBO, Williamsburg) and Queens (Long Island City). In the beginning, early adopters clustered around subway stations nearest to Manhattan, but as the ripple spread further to East Williamsburg and Bushwick, Red Hook and Gowanus, Astoria, a new development growth pattern emerged, a sort of corporate gentrification. Companies – either squeezed out of the Manhattan market or chasing talent that had already be priced out of Manhattan – started locating around mutinodal urban network linked by transportation able to serve the growing residential population.

The establishment of these job centers enables employees to live farther from Manhattan than before, but still commute to commercial districts in Brooklyn or Queens. With the population projected to increase to 9 million by 2030, we anticipate the growth pattern to continue radiating out from Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg and Long Island City. New satellite nodes will eventually emerge along the transportation network. Left to market forces, population growth will likely mimic earlier patterns of gentrification that gradually disrupts the community and displaces existing residents. Our proposal leverages existing infrastructure to support emergent commercial activity and mitigate the impact of migration and population growth. How? By building new land.

Plan for a Multinodal City. Image © Gensler.

Developing a Multimodal Transportation Corridor

The New York Connecting Railroad starts at the Brooklyn Army Terminal and loops through dense residential neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, both below and above grade, intersecting with the subway network every few blocks. The tracks are only used at night to transport containerized waste to landfills outside the city. We propose, in phases, first developing a multimodal transportation corridor parallel to the freight right-of-way to improve access to subway network. In the second phase, we imagine building platforms over the tracks – similar to Hudson Yards – to create new developable land, starting nearest to the subway intersections, then gradually stitching together the urban fabric with additional platforms between the major intersections. The platforms at major intersections become the center of each satellite node, enabling new housing and commercial development to accommodate the influx of residents, retailers and commercial businesses without displacing existing residents. It improves pedestrian connectivity between neighborhoods once separated by a physical barrier. It embraces the decrease in automobile ownership and the future of self-driving cars, seeking opportunities to reclaim parts of the road network for pedestrians and activate the ground plane in new ways.

This development strategy responds to two demographic cohorts: the Millennial generation, though delayed, is starting to age through life milestones (marriage, house, kids), and Gen Z is about to enter the workforce. Millennials, reluctant to completely abandon the city for the commuter suburbs, will likely push deeper into existing residential neighborhoods to purchase single family homes, but still expect entertainment and retail amenities. The Gen Z workforce — coming of age in the sharing economy and employed in tech, media, design and creative industries concentrated in Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg and Long Island City — are more likely to be drawn to apartments, in mid and high-rise buildings, dense with micro units and shared amenities. New residential development targets the Gen Z workforce while providing space for retail and commercial activity for existing residents, Millennials and Gen Z.

A New Urban Dynamic

Developing new land distorts local real estate dynamics and unlocks an array of opportunities. The city can retain ownership of the land, issuing ground leases or employing other non-traditional contract vehicles, to suppress development speculation or rent escalation. The development can deliver affordable housing for new residents, support the community, incubate new companies and partner with local schools. It can bring new green space to neighborhoods removed from the major parks. It can connect previously isolated neighborhoods. Within these possibilities, Gensler’s design solution preempts the traditional process of gentrification and mitigates the impact on the existing community, while embracing, and planning for, the inevitability of growth.

The Gensler project team includes Andrew Brosseit, Michael Kulikowski, Oliver Schaper, Riggs Skepnek and Josh Vitulli.
Josh Vitulli is an Associate in Gensler’s New York office. He is an economic, business and real estate strategist operating at the intersection of data intelligence and design thinking. His advisory portfolio stretches across all Gensler practice areas and scales in more than 25 countries including mixed-use skyscrapers, retail experiences, corporate workplaces, universities, professional sports teams, neighborhoods and cities.Contact him at Josh_Vitulli@gensler.com.