In 1913, Manhattan Borough President George McAneny, like so many New Yorkers after him, was fed up with construction. Huge new buildings were popping up at every new subway stop, with no particular vision or consideration of the existing neighborhood. Measures were needed, he wrote, “to arrest the seriously increasing evil of the shutting off of light and air from other buildings and from the public streets, to prevent unwholesome and dangerous congestion both in living conditions and in street and transit traffic, and to reduce the hazards of fire and peril to life.” To find some semblance of order, he established a zoning committee.
The final straw for McAneny came two years later, when construction on a widely despised 40-story superblock in Lower Manhattan called the Equitable Building was completed. In 1916, he led the charge to create New York City’s very first zoning resolution.
McAneny’s phrase – “light and air” – shows up in the 1916 New York Times headline reporting the new zoning rules. It showed up again 102 years later, at a panel during 92Y’s “City of Tomorrow” March 2019 summit, featuring conversations on real estate, architecture, and design. This time, the phrase came from City Planning Commissioner Marisa Lago, who predicted that New York’s next zoning battle would be around light and air. She wasn’t just talking about air rights and building shadows, but about screens.
Screens in subway stations. On subway cars. On LinkNYC wifi hotspots that are taller and flashier than the phone booths they replaced. On top of yellow cabs. Inside elevators. Across entire building facades. They fundamentally alter the experience of a pedestrian at ground level, and they are everywhere.
If urban planners care about our daily experience of moving through our neighborhoods, they’re going to have to reckon with the screen revolution. Whether it’s cast iron buildings in Soho or brownstones in Park Slope, preserving the look of a place cements the way it feels, and we haven’t quite figured out how screens should fit in.
Don’t get me wrong; screens can be great. Anything that keeps the MTA from resorting to hand-scrawled signs announcing subway service changes deserves a shot. And the video wall at the IAC Building in Chelsea, visible from the street, is cool! In a place as dense as New York, there are always trade-offs. When fleets of bright blue Citibikes were installed in 2013, many residents denounced them as aesthetic horrors. Aesthetically horrific or not, the Citibike program is so wildly successful that it’s worth altering the streetscape for.
But just as New York needed some central planning for construction in George McAneny’s day, a comprehensive look at screens is now in order. As a city, we’ve taken a thoughtful approach to all kinds of new technologies, from carriage horses to cars. Balancing the way we install screens around the five boroughs is the natural next step for planners.
Oh, and if you get the chance, it’s worth checking out the old Equitable Building at 120 Broadway. It houses, of all things, the Department of City Planning.