Given the robust number of New York City voices one hears on the streets of Ulster County even on winter weekends and the growing number of Hudson Valley residents who travel to make their living in the big city and its inner suburbs during the week, it was timely that Gotham’s leading civic planning organization held a meeting on the SUNY New Paltz campus last Wednesday morning in the throes of the preparation of a broad new 31-county regional plan. More than 50 people found themselves seated around a large U-shaped table in the Student Union Building asked to share their views of how the Hudson Valley was going to change in the next generation or so.
Co-sponsors of the event were the Manhattan-based Regional Plan Association (RPA) and Newburgh-based Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress. RPA is two years into devising the successor document to its 1996 Third Regional Plan, written at a time when the preoccupations of the largest cities in the nation were dominated by security concerns and what seemed like inevitable suburbanization. The Third Plan “was not a happy time,” RPA research vice president Chris Jones told the New Paltz audience. It was a time of widespread poverty, corporate downsizing and uncertainty about the role of city centers.
Since then, of course, many cities, and especially New York City, have experienced a revival of job growth and an unprecedented economic boom. Though acknowledging this transformation, RPA’s approach in a new brochure, “Fragile Success,” moves on quickly — it seems to me entirely too quickly — to focus on the challenges:
“The region has progressed as a whole, but too many people haven’t shared in this growth,” it said. “Real incomes have actually declined over the last 25 years for the majority of families. Some of the fastest-growing problems are in our suburbs, not in New York City. And we are more vulnerable to disasters than ever before. Above all else, our governing institutions are failing to make the hard choices necessary to address our most difficult problems.”
Pattern for Progress has its own ideas. It wants to focus on a three-year “urban action agenda.” The work product would not be a master plan, Pattern president Jonathan Drapkin emphasized in a follow-up interview this Monday, but would establish a strategy. The first year would gather data about 25 Hudson Valley communities (including the Ulster County urban places of Kingston, Ellenville and probably Saugerties), the second would suggest development plans for each urban area, and the third would focus on project implementation. How could Hudson Valley urban areas resume their growth, pay for their infrastructure, and at the same time provide a sustainable new revenue source?
Pattern asked the Ford Foundation for financial support. Ford said that RPA was looking for funding, too. How could the two find a way to work together? Where was the overlap?
The New Paltz meeting represented a step toward deepening the relationship between the two organizations. How are they doing? “It’s the beginning of the process,” replied Drapkin. “It’s too early to know.”
In- vs. out-migration
Recent census commuting-pattern numbers show that the economic influence of a booming New York City is cutting both ways: The number of New York City residents moving to the Hudson Valley (particularly Brooklynites) seems to be accelerating, and the number of Hudson Valley residents getting their paychecks from New York City is increasing, too.
Not everyone reads the numbers the same way. In our conversation on Monday, Drapkin disputed this interpretation. Citing (correctly) a Cornell University specialist, he told me that “right now the numbers tell me otherwise.” If I’m paraphrasing him accurately, he seems to me to be saying that the current in-migration of population into the Hudson Valley is expected to be insufficient to replace the current out-migration, and the long-term prognosis is that in the medium to long term the Hudson Valley population will decrease.
The wonderful thing about research, even social science research, is that the answers it provides can lead to actions. As it says on Karl Marx’s gravestone, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
Current economic research makes clear the economic underpinnings of the current surge of urban vitality (see especially Ed Glaeser’s “Triumph of the City” and Enrico Moretti’s “The New Geography of Jobs”). New York City, a world capital more than ever, is a big winner in the process. The exurbia around it on the one hand enjoys the presence of major human assets and is in a position constructively to utilize the new digital technology. On the other, it faces threats such as increasing suburbanization, lack of central cities, poor infrastructure and inadequate leadership.
Pattern’s focus on studying 25 small Hudson Valley urban communities strikes me as a promising approach. Hopefully, we’ll get some answers in the next three years not only to how our world is changing but also to how we can change it.