Below is a transcript of a recorded interview with Shaun Donovan in conversation with Shaping a Better NYC steering committee members Ben Prosky representing AIA New York, Elizabeth Goldstein representing Municipal Art Society, and AJ Pires representing the Urban Design Forum.
Ben Prosky Hello, I'm Ben Prosky, executive director of AIA New York and the Center for Architecture. Welcome to "Shaping a Better New York City: An Election Primer." In this defining and historic election, New York City's planning and design organizations have organized to convene a series of conversations with candidates vying to become New York City's next mayor. This election will require leaders that can center equitable design, planning, and development in their administration in order to shape a better NYC. Today, on behalf of AIA New York, The Architectural League of New York, the Design Trust for Public Space, Municipal Art Society, Open House New York, Regional Plan Association, the Urban Design Forum, and the Van Alen Institute I'm pleased to welcome mayoral candidate Shaun Donovan. Today, I am joined by co-moderators AJ Pires, president of Alloy Development and board member of the Urban Design Forum, and Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the Municipal Art Society. The questions posed today have been developed by the eight organizations in this coalition.
Let's begin. Shaun, deep and pervasive challenges abound as New York works to build back from the pandemic and to build a more just and equitable city. The physical environment of New York plays a very important role in determining whether the people of the city can live productive and pleasurable lives. What is your vision for the physical city? Its streets and buildings and parks and waterfronts? How have you arrived at it and how will you shape it going forward? Who will you talk to? Whose voices will dominate? What sources will you draw from for ideas?
Shaun Donovan Ben, it's so wonderful to be with you, Elizabeth, AJ. I've had the deep honor of working with so many of your eight organizations over the last few decades to shape this city in a more equitable way. And I'm excited to be here for this conversation.
What I would say is that I hope you all leave this conversation today, all of you that are watching, believing that I am the best person to be mayor at this moment of crisis for three reasons, because I have the deepest experience in crisis, leading this city and country back, of anyone in the race. I combine that with the biggest, boldest, most comprehensive ideas about the future of our city and our public space. And I have the experience at all levels of government to turn those ideas into reality in the everyday lives of New Yorkers. My own story of public service begins with my family. I am both the son and grandson of immigrants. My father grew up in Costa Rica and Lima, Peru, and came to this city like so many millions of immigrants in search of opportunity. And he found it. But I grew up in a city watching so many others around this city not find the same opportunity. In fact, I watched homelessness explode on our streets. I watched communities like the South Bronx and central Brooklyn literally crumbling to the ground. And that's what lit a fire in me to go to work on behalf of this city — to help it rebuild again and again from crisis. I began by going to work at a homeless shelter in college. And then I came back to work with a nonprofit that worked with community organizations and leaders like Bishop Johnny Ray Youngblood and east Brooklyn congregations to rebuild Brownsville and East New York, [audio unclear] and Nos Quedamos in the South Bronx. All of these voices, as you ask then, those are the voices that I've been listening to for 30 years to rebuild. And that began a career that taught me what it means to lead through the worst crises our city and country have faced.
Just to be specific, I was housing commissioner in this city in the wake of 9/11. I was housing secretary in the midst of the worst housing crisis of our lifetimes. When Sandy hit our shores, I was asked by President Obama to lead the entire federal recovery effort. And then I guess because no good deed goes unpunished, he asked me to be budget director over the $4 trillion federal budget. And just weeks later, Ebola hit. And I ended up side by side in the Situation Room with Dr. Fauci, our military leaders, so many leaders across the government to make sure that an emerging global health threat didn't become a pandemic that cost tens of thousands of New Yorkers their lives. So I know what it means to lead through crisis. And I know that those who are the most vulnerable before a crisis hits are always hurt the worst by it. And that's why I will lead putting equity at the front. It's why I have done that again and again in partnership with all of you.
As a designer myself who studied architecture and planning and housing, I fundamentally believe that designers need to be at the center of reimagining this a city that works for everyone and that's what I've done in my career. And I want to give you just a few specific examples of what I would do as as mayor to make this a more equitable city. It's why when I was housing commissioner, I worked directly with so many of your organizations to create the New Housing New York competition that led to Via Verde, where I actually launched my campaign. And that's how proud I am of it. It's why I worked as HUD secretary with other cabinet officials across the government to create the Sustainable Communities Partnership to invest in transit oriented development and more sustainable planning. And it's why after Sandy hit, I created Rebuild by Design. So really imagine new solutions to climate change.
And at the center of my platform as mayor are 15 minute neighborhoods. We know, today, that you can predict a child's life expectancy and life chances by the zip code they grow up in this city. That must end. And it would end by rethinking the way we plan our city around 15 minute neighborhoods where every New Yorker has within 15 minutes of their front door access to everything that they need for opportunity. And we will only achieve 15 minute neighborhoods with a designer at City Hall and with the partnership of designers across this city to reimagine New York as a city that works for everyone.
Ben Prosky That's great. I just want to I want to follow up. I'm glad you mentioned that you were trained as an architect. It hasn't it hasn't passed this group by. We know that. And so I'm just wondering a little bit more — and you started you started to talk about this — how will you structure your administration to achieve your vision? There's so much turnover that's going to be happening there. There are ways we've done this, muscle memory. How would you structure it as mayor?
Shaun Donovan Well, first of all, we need to plan in a different way. To be frank, too often our Department of City Planning acts like a Department of City Zoning and really begins to think about planning and engaging with communities as we think about a rezoning. We need to turn that on its head and begin engaging directly with communities much earlier. As you all well know, one of the great things about what's happened in design since I was at school, when CAD was just a glimmer in someone's eye, we have incredible tools now for participatory design to help New Yorkers who aren't experts be able to envision and work with trained designers to reimagine communities. We need to employ those tools and get into communities much earlier with a restructured Department of City Planning. But that has to go with a structure starting at City Hall that really brings together all of the pieces we need to plan. The silos in government are the enemy of good design so often. So I would create an Office of the Public Realm in City Hall that would coordinate across every single agency to ensure that we're getting truly groundbreaking, pathbreaking work in our designs, but also in the way we plan and engage with people across this city.
Ben Prosky Great. Thank you. AJ, would you like to ask the next question?
AJ Pires Thanks, Ben. Shaun, a follow up to the concept of the 15 minute neighborhood, and neighborhood infrastructure in general as it relates to our health. We know that 20 percent of our health and well-being is related to access to quality health care, but the rest has to do with socioeconomic factors and our built environment. Can you talk more specifically about what some of the clean air and/or access to housing or access to green space policies you would seek to implement to make that 15 minute neighborhood work?
Shaun Donovan Absolutely, AJ. I'm so glad you made this point. Of course, health care coverage and insurance and health care infrastructure is incredibly important. Obviously, we've seen that in Covid with disproportionate death rates in Black and brown communities, the lack of access to vaccines and testing. And so we clearly need within this 15 minute framework to focus on increasing access to health care and health care infrastructure. And that's a big part of the plan. But you're absolutely right that it is the environmental determinants of health that really drive the differences. Think about this. Between Harlem and the Upper East Side, we have decades in difference in life expectancy, decades. And so we need to make sure that all of the things that lead to good health besides health care are part of it.
So first of all, you rightly mentioned parks and open space. I would take the Open Streets program, turn it into a permanent effort and use it as a starting point to bring our streetscape into the 21st century. We are a 21st century city operating with 20th century streets when it comes to transportation, to sanitation, to our restaurants. So many different things. And that's going to be critical to have a true Open Streets program to allow walking. Parks, you mentioned. I am married to a landscape architect who I met at the GSD. She helped design Brooklyn Bridge Park. And so many others. We have to start investing and maintaining our parks in ways that fundamentally go to equity. And I would ensure through my 15 minute neighborhood approach, as well as truly investing in our park space and the operating budget of the Parks Department, as a way to ensure that we have more equity across the city.
But then there are also many other issues as well. We know that access to fresh food is incredibly different depending on the neighborhood that you're in. And this is one of the things I loved about the project we did, Via Verde that came out of the New Housing New York competition; vegetable gardens and fruit trees growing on the roofs that the students who are growing up there pick up after school and eat for dinner; not just a health clinic downstairs, but a farmer's market on the on the weekends; making sure that we're really focusing on the distribution of quality produce and shopping in every neighborhood. Those are all critical as well. And we have to recognize a 15 minute neighborhood isn't just about what's in your neighborhood. It's also about what's not in your neighborhood, if we get it right. Our peaker plants that belch smog into our communities are disproportionately located in communities of color. We know that trash and other environmental hazards are disproportionately burdening our Black and brown communities, including our sanitation and other facilities that bring diesel fumes. So there are many, many different ways that we have to focus on the 15 minute neighborhood to ensure the underlying disparities in health, that led to what we've seen in Covid, that we're disrupting those and fundamentally making this a more equitable city.
AJ Pires Thanks. One follow up question, I also married a landscape architect that I met in graduate school, and so I hope this question doesn't get you into trouble. But I'm curious, relative to equitable design in Brooklyn Bridge Park, which I'm sure you're intimately familiar with, if you could cite some examples of some decisions that were made there that you think help improve access to green space and you could imagine supporting in future green space projects — just to use it as an example of something you might know well.
Shaun Donovan Absolutely. Without getting too deep into the sordid history of trying to get the sausage making, let's say, of trying to get new projects built, there was a lot of debate in Brooklyn Heights about the access to the park. And as you know, given the nature of the cantilevered BQE and the promenade, there was discussion about making sure that traffic, foot traffic, would only come into the park from Atlantic Avenue or old Fulton Street. And the decision was made to build a bridge, literally and figuratively, into Brooklyn Heights. And that the kind of decision that needs to be made fundamentally to ensure that there is access and that everyone has access and not to allow the concern about a broader public that comes to a neighborhood wide or even regional park like Brooklyn Bridge Park.
But I would also say that, you know, one of the other things I would say, this isn't so much to do with the specific design, but the choice of where to invest in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Let's be honest, Brooklyn Bridge Park is located in one of the wealthier neighborhoods of the city. And one of the things that the 15 minute neighborhood concept would do when implemented, when I get to City Hall, is ensure that we're pursuing similar kinds of investment in other communities around the city. And as you know, value-capture was used as one of the ways to build that park. Value-capture, I believe, is a useful mechanism to ensure that, especially at a time where we're going to be facing budget challenges, we can significantly invest. But we have to make sure it's implemented in a way that every community benefits. Because let's be clear, you're going to capture more value in high value neighborhoods than in low value neighborhoods. And so that's another area where I believe we need an approach from City Hall that really understands equity and how to use these tools in ways that benefit everyone.
AJ Pires Thanks so much. Ben?
Ben Prosky Thanks. Elizabeth?
Elizabeth Goldstein I'm actually going to ask a question that we were anticipating asking later, because it's such a wonderful segue to your remarks Shaun. The city and the MTA are really looking to expand the zoning for accessibility to incentivize the use of private funding for infrastructure upgrades and station access. Would you encourage more public private partnerships to address our most critical needs?
Shaun Donovan So, Elizabeth, I am a believer that engaging public private partnerships can be a powerful and productive way to ensure our city's recovery. It's something that I've been engaged in, working with philanthropy in many, many different ways. I just give you one example. A year ago, as the pandemic was coming on, I knew, because of all my work in crisis, that we would have a scale of food insecurity and hunger that would overwhelm our emergency food system. I knew that we would see four hour lines and soup kitchens in the South Bronx and Brownsville and many other communities, and so I went to work with José Andrés at World Central Kitchen and Rethink Food. We got restaurants cooking in the five hardest hit neighborhoods. We developed an app that allowed folks to order those meals directly to their homes or pick them up rather than wait four hours at a soup kitchen, maybe get Covid. It was successful enough. It's now being replicated in New Orleans and California. But my point is, that was done quickly with a public private partnership in ways that it would be hard for a city to replicate. And in fact, we tried to get the city to take it up and frankly, they didn't move quickly enough to be able to do it.
And so there is always new designs, new ideas that can be incubated and started outside of government that I think we have to invest in the public private partnerships to do that. But we also have to be careful that government plays its fundamental role of ensuring everyone has access and that there is equity. And in particular, for example, if we're going to rely more on value-capture or public private partnerships, that may have a deeper impact in certain neighborhoods, but not others, we need to be adjusting public funding and public focus to those neighborhoods that are too often left behind, again and again, to ensure there is equity. This is why I propose that we create the first ever Chief Equity Officer in the city's history, reporting directly to me as mayor, that would have authority over every agency to really track and measure whether we're getting equitable outcomes across government, and to have the power to right the wrongs if we're not.
AJ Pires Thank you so much and. Great, let's actually build on this a little bit. So New York City is full of small community organizations with long histories of providing direct services to their neighborhoods. You just mentioned World Central Kitchen. I'm thinking of those types of organizations. And right as the pandemic made clear, there's a gap in how these small but vital organizations receive support from the city. I think also of homeless shelter — private homeless shelter providers and so on. So outside of engaging with local community boards, what is your strategy at City Hall to engage with important organizations like the ones we mentioned?
Shaun Donovan Well, Ben, this is obviously very personal to me as someone who came back from architecture school and from studying public, studying government — I went to work for one of those organizations and partnered with thousands of them, literally, across the last three decades. And here's what I know. I believe the most powerful reason why we moved away as a city, and as a society away from the Robert Moses urban renewal model of redeveloping our cities to a potentially much more promising direction, is because of the growth of these organizations, community development corporations, organizations that are deeply rooted in local communities, and that share the vision of local residents rather than a kind of one-size-fits-all approach. And so we must, as government, make sure that we are bringing them in and putting them at the center of the work that we do in every one of these areas.
But unfortunately, government for too long has treated these organizations as if the sense of good feelings they get from helping people is enough, right, that we can underpay them, under appreciate them, and expect that they're going to survive on a shoestring budget and a sense of satisfaction for doing good. And that is an incredibly shortsighted approach because we keep them small, we keep them barely struggling to survive, rather than really investing in them in the ways we do other organizations and partners. And so what I did at HUD, for example, is say, "Well, this is crazy." We treat for-profit housing providers, that we allow them to take a quote unquote profit. Why aren't we allowing non-profits to do the same thing and use that money as working capital to invest in their people to really create organizations that are institutions in their neighborhoods, that have the staying power. So part of this is we need to make sure that we're getting contracting right in the city, that we're paying on time, but also that we're changing the rules so that we're actually ensuring that these organizations grow and thrive.
One of the things that we can do also, though, is ensure that because so many of these organizations are small, there's a real power in creating networks, technical assistance, and helping these organizations to grow and thrive in other ways. Not every one of these organizations should be experts in bookkeeping or the legal requirements of board composition. And I've worked with many, many intermediary organizations that really form a bridge between these organizations and government. We should be investing more in those and government should be doing more to help support the growth and development. I'll just finish with one example. When I was housing commissioner and the Great Recession was coming on, we were deeply concerned that this rich tapestry of nonprofit organizations in New York would be deeply damaged by the financial crisis. And so I got together with a few friends with money from the Fund for the City of New York, which was a philanthropic piece of City Hall. We created something called Greater New York, and it is an organization established specifically to support and mentor leaders of nonprofit organizations and to help them grow their skills, their analytic capabilities, and develop boards and other leaders. That organization is ten years old. It is now doing exactly the same thing in a new crisis. And I've seen over and over again the power of building a strong, robust network, and networking these nonprofits in ways that both government but also other organizations can really play a powerful role in.
Ben Prosky I think that's so important. It's true as some of the not for profit, and I look at my colleagues here, especially Elizabeth. We carry each other through and figuring out. We didn't we didn't get as much advice from the city as much as we did from each other. And so that network is incredibly, incredibly strong.
Shaun Donovan And on that point, I think it's telling that we started Greater New York in the Bloomberg administration. During the de Blasio administration, the decision was made to separate it from the Fund for the City of New York. And I think it shows, to be very frank, a leadership at City Hall that sees arts and culture as kind of an elite and doesn't value our nonprofits in the way that we should. And that would change when I'm mayor.
Ben Prosky Well, I just want to follow up with another related thing. And it has to do with local control versus broad city priorities. So I think about — you just talked about some really great initiatives you had in mind and would be city wide. And then we think about the community boards. And where things fall in the local community. And, you know, I think that there's been a kind of disconnect. There's been a kind of disconnect oftentimes between the Mayor's Office, Council and then the community boards. So I'm just curious about how you might imagine a kind of different way of negotiating between these entities so that the broader priorities do — and I don't want to say, absolutely not, trickle down — do have a real kind of back and forth between the local community boards. And beyond the community boards, I think the real question is the sharing of power, the people in the neighborhoods who may not always even feel represented by their community board. So I'm just curious, if there are — and you cited some great examples — some insights into how that might change structurally?
Shaun Donovan So, first, just maybe a specific point, and then to get to a broader point, and I'm sorry about the siren here, you might be able to hear going by. The community boards are a vital part of the neighborhood infrastructure and leadership, and I do think it is time to take a look at how we constitute community boards. Part of the challenge as we're looking at issues of equity across every part of our city, for very good reason, we need to recognize that folks who are lower income, people of color, will often have a harder time participating because of economics or holding down two or three jobs. There are lots of reasons. So I think it's really worth going back and looking at how we constitute our community boards, how we recruit members, whether we should be paying members, or providing funding of some kind, to allow expertise to be brought on and really to help community boards to do a better job. And I think if we really believe in them, as I do, then we have to show that by following through with really investing in them.
What I would also say, though, and I've learned this been from decades of planning in communities across this city and across the country. This is not a question of top down or bottom up. It is both. We have to be doing both. We need to do more comprehensive planning in this city. We really need to understand, as we did with PlaNYC under Mayor Bloomberg, where are the opportunities for growth in this city? Where can we be investing in new transportation? Where can we be marrying those up? What are we going to do about our power, our water, all of our citywide systems, our regional transportation systems?
I deeply believe in planning. It's why I created the Partnership for Sustainable Communities with the Department of Transportation and EPA when I was HUD secretary. We made the biggest investment in regional planning that this country has seen in at least a generation and built partnerships with communities around the country to do that so that they could do this regional planning. But at the same time, we have to make sure that when we do that citywide comprehensive planning — and let me just one other thing I would say there — part of this is ensuring the 15 minute neighborhoods that every community is doing its fair share. Just take a very specific example. We shouldn't be concentrating homeless shelters, substance abuse treatment, environmental hazards, all in in certain communities; we need to make sure that there is a fair distribution, even of things that communities will tend to resist. And that's one reason why comprehensive planning is really important. But at the same time, we have to come from the bottom up as well, as I was saying earlier, to really invest in the kind of planning that engages communities much earlier on. And this is where I think if we really put resources and power into not just community boards, but into community oriented planning with the Department of City Planning, we could end up where we don't have these big fights at community boards, because the plans are actually — they reflect revitalization that's happening with and for the communities rather than to the communities, as we so often see.
Ben Prosky Great vision. All right, AJ?
AJ Pires Thanks, Ben. I'm going to pivot to climate, Shaun, and this is a question specifically to Local Law 97, which is the city's carbon emissions program that will largely be implemented in the next administration. And I'm going to assume that you support the intent of the program. And this question is more about the technical structure of the program and the enforcement of it. Do you support it as it's currently drafted? Do you imagine ways in which there might be alternatives and/or boths strains of the program? Using it as an example of a very meaningful and significantly impacting piece of policy, how would you imagine your administration embracing it and moving it forward?
Shaun Donovan Well, AJ, I'd begin by saying I have proposed the most far reaching and comprehensive climate plan of any of the candidates. Actually, just three days after I launched my campaign, I released that climate plan and I am committed to New York City being the greenest city in the world, to leading on climate in a way that we just aren't right now. And that includes big, bold goals to by mid century to get to being carbon neutral and not just implementing Local Law 97, but getting to a net zero building code and many other things that are that are critical. But we have to recognize that the biggest source of emissions in our city is our buildings. And so Local Law 97 is a critical piece of making New York the leading climate city in the world again.
Having said that, I also know, having worked on greening buildings for decades, that it does need adjustments and changes, it does need places where we go farther, but most of all what it needs is city administration that really understands how to work with building owners to make implementation work. So, for example, there have been promises of a PACE program and other financing that would ensure that the burden is not falling on smaller buildings and owners, that we are facilitating the ability to bring in large amounts of capital through energy performance contracts and others. NYCHA is a huge opportunity to bring our buildings into the 21st century, to put public housing residents to work. And one of the things that I'm proposing is to actually do a comprehensive audit of the jobs that can be created by Local Law 97 and really building into my New York City Green Climate Corps, a track that would make sure that we are training with our unions in partnership with 32BJ and other unions. We're training the building service workers of the future. Because, you know this, these technologies are actually quite sophisticated and it's a very different job to run a traditional oil boiler then to really oversee these very sophisticated systems, whether they be solar, geothermal or many others, and to ensure that you're keeping building envelopes tight and other things. And so we really do need an administration that understands that government's job isn't just to regulate, but it's also to support, to finance, and to encourage compliance in ways that are really important. And I think those are all pieces of what we need to do on Local Law 97 if we really want to make it work, rather than just say, "Oh, we've passed a law. Our job is done." In the end, it doesn't matter if it doesn't translate into real change in our buildings and reductions in emissions.
AJ Pires And I guess as a follow up on the other end of the spectrum, relative to participating in getting the grid onto a fully renewably sourced system. Can you imagine any large projects that you could imagine supporting in your administration?
Shaun Donovan Absolutely. One of the things I'm incredibly excited about — Gina McCarthy is a good friend from Obama years. She's now leading the climate initiatives for President Biden and Vice President Harris. And I'm incredibly excited about the recent announcement around wind power. And I'm sure you know that New York State has actually been aggressively looking at adding wind. And this seems like a huge opportunity on our climate goals, but also on my jobs goals. I've committed to creating 500,000 jobs in New York by the end of my first term. And we should be really looking at, and we've started to, where could we locate a port in New York that would bring the components of these giant turbines? They're mostly produced in Europe. Bring them to New York City. Assemble pieces of them, ship them out to the sites off Long Island Sound — I'm sorry, off the south shore of Long Island and install them, maintain them. That's a huge opportunity for New York City, both from an economic development and a climate focus. So that's one area that I'm really excited about. And let's be clear, nobody is in a better position than I am to be able to work with our federal government as well as state government to be able to get that done.
I would also say I do believe solar has huge potential in New York. Public housing, I think is a real opportunity there. Think of all the rooftops in the thousands of NYCHA buildings that as we're bringing all of the systems in those buildings into the twenty first century. I have a plan to bring $40 billion to public housing. About $5 billion of that would be through energy performance contracts. And it's not just solar, but solar is a big opportunity there. Geothermal, there's a range of others that, as I think Ben would know at the AIA headquarters, we worked on a project there. I've seen it myself, geothermal. So there's lots of opportunities to do innovative things, to be able to move this city into the 21st century and become the leading climate city in the world.
AJ Pires Thanks so much. Ben, back to you.
Ben Prosky Thank you, Elizabeth?
Elizabeth Goldstein I think I have the perfect segue question to that. We really want to talk to you about the federal recovery effort and particularly the significant funding that we hope will come to New York City for infrastructure. Obviously, you know that the Biden administration is really defined infrastructure in a much more expansive way than it's ever been defined before, including not only transportation and water, but housing and broadband and other essential services. So can you help us understand, not only how you would try to bring the infrastructure dollars to New York, but also what kinds of innovative ways you might want to push that definition? What are the things that you think New York City's most important infrastructure needs are and how might you get that as part of the infrastructure package?
Shaun Donovan So, Elizabeth. Maybe I'll change the question just a little bit if I can, because this isn't just about what I would do. It's also about what I have done. Literally, over the last year, even as I was running for mayor and setting up this common table program with restaurants that I talked about earlier, I've spent a significant amount of time testifying in front of Congress, working with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, to shape the Covid relief packages that we've already seen pass. And I have been involved in, not just with the Biden campaign, but with the new Biden administration and members of Congress, talking about the jobs plan as well. And so unlike other candidates who might tell you what they might do, I've actually been already deeply engaged with them. And I think it goes to show that no one else in this race really has the deep relationships, not just with the President or Vice President, but with nearly every senior leader in the Biden-Harris legislation and leaders in Congress. And what folks should also know, if they don't already, is New York sends $23 billion dollars more to Washington each year than we give back in return. We finally need a mayor at City Hall who can end that, who can get us the help that we need in our time of need. And I am the unique candidate in this race to be able to finally do that, having led the $4 trillion federal budget and having the deep relationships that I do there.
Shaun Donovan Look, I am really excited about the way that President Biden is looking at infrastructure. I think it's exactly right to think about it very broadly. President Obama used to say to us, we cannot let a crisis go to waste. Coming out of this crisis, if we don't know for sure now that broadband is the essential infrastructure of the 21st century, we're never going to learn that lesson. We must do that now. And I am enormously optimistic that with the right leader at City Hall and with the administration pushing in the way it can, we can bring transportation infrastructure, housing infrastructure, public housing again — more people live in public housing in New York City than live in Atlanta, Georgia. On transportation, I think there's a huge opportunity with congestion pricing in particular, to bring not just our transportation systems, but our streets into the 21st century. I would propose a partnership with the MTA to put more skin in the game, to put some some funding in in order to get more power over the MTA. I think bus rapid transit is a huge opportunity. I will venture to say I'm the only candidate in the race who's actually been to Curitiba, Brazil, and sat with their mayor, who was an architect, by the way, about the design of that system, which is recognized often as the best BRT system in the world. Lots and lots of opportunities around there. But what I would say, in addition to those definitions, I'm a big fan of Eric Klinenberg and his recent book, Palaces for the People. I think we we need to be investing in social infrastructure as well, especially in our Black and brown communities, communities that have been too often left behind. This is why I'm proposing that our libraries should be open seven days a week with expanded hours, because we know, especially as we're trying to build out universal broadband, that they are the central node for gathering to get broadband, to get English as a second language classes. All of the ways that we gather at our social infrastructure is something that we need to be investing in, in addition to the more traditional definitions of infrastructure and broadband.
Elizabeth Goldstein Thank you very much and I'm so glad you changed the question. Ben?
Ben Prosky Great. You know, Elizabeth, we have time for just a couple more, Shaun, before we wrap up. And I think that actually we've heard a bit about the idea of a Czar for the Public Realm, which is very, very interesting to especially our community. But I actually wanted to hop down, Elizabeth, maybe to the question, further down there, which I think builds on this last one, which has to do about the cost of public buildings. Do you want to take that one?
Elizabeth Goldstein Sure. Sure thing. So we wanted to really talk to you a little bit about the cost of public buildings and the fact that it's very high in New York City. And we were wondering how you might reform the procurement process and design excellence to improve the quality of public buildings in New York City?
Shaun Donovan So, Elizabeth, I have having partnered with all of you again and again in my role as housing commissioner and in other ways, having worked very closely with David Burney and many others, there is no question that we need to raise the level of design excellence in our public buildings and not only return to what we were doing in the Bloomberg administration, but go even further. And I'm very proud of the work that we did in affordable housing, not just in Via Verde, but in many others places. But there's more that we can do. And you're absolutely right that we need to attack the really outrageous cost of public building infrastructure costs in New York. We're never going to be the least expensive place to build for obvious reasons, given our density, given the high cost of living here. But what we can do is, first, just make government work better, simplify the process. One of the reasons that it's so expensive is that the uncertainty and the time delays of getting plans made, getting construction done, getting paid on time, all of those translate into higher costs for taxpayers and we must fundamentally remake that system. We also, I believe, need to change the way we do contracting. So that design is a fundamental piece, but also that we're taking every consideration into account up front, including lifecycle costs and many things that would ensure we're actually getting the best value, long term value, rather than so often picking a design and then having change orders and not being able to ultimately get to what we thought was going to be the best price. And frankly, to have the city get gamed on those by a low bidder who never intended to actually deliver at that price. So those are a few things.
There are many others in terms of, I think, moving to the international building code in this city, streamlining the building code, bringing the Department of Buildings truly online, being able to share drawings much more easily. So many other things that are just the nuts and bolts of making work easier in the city for designers and builders.
Elizabeth Goldstein So let me let me just ask a follow, which is a link to the question that Ben alluded to, and that is the built environment includes our streets and our public spaces. You talked a little bit about having someone who managed the public realm. And I guess I'd be interested in understanding a little bit more about what you're thinking in terms of that kind of structure. Are you thinking about a czar for the public realm or as MAS suggested a director for the public realm? But your real vision for what the street could be in the future of New York. You've alluded to this a little bit in your comments that I'd love to hear you flesh that out a little bit.
Shaun Donovan So I prefer Director of the Public Realm rather than czar. So that's what I propose in my platforms. And by the way, I would just say go to ShaunforNYC.com All of these plans are there. We actually published a book a few weeks ago that's over two hundred pages with the most extensive, far reaching visionary plans for the future. I am running the campaign of ideas and I'd love to have you all engage more, get the ideas. It's a living, breathing plan and we'll keep evolving it as we get more and more ideas from all of you and others around the city.
Look, what I would say is in so many different areas, we are operating our cities, our city, with 20th century streets and you just have to walk down and see overflowing trash cans. What cities do you know that pick up garbage on 37 spots on a block like we do? Go around the world. Go to Roosevelt Island and see the pneumatic tubes that collect garbage there. Accessibility for our people with disabilities, our seniors. A fundamental challenge right now. And we know that with an explosion of modes of micro mobility. Look, I'm a lifelong New Yorker. I have I have the scars to prove that I learned to ride a bike in the streets of New York. I get a little scared stepping off the curb with ebikes going 30 miles an hour and scooters and hover boards or whatever. All kinds of things. And I'm excited about those those modes. But we need to build an infrastructure that really reflects the transportation of the 21st century.
And so I think we've not only got to build many more protected lanes and much more BRT, we've got to get light signaling that allows us to move our busses much more quickly. But we also need to think about how we connect up protected lanes for bikes and others and think creatively. The Highline was a certain kind of approach to an abandoned — we have abandoned rail lines around the city that could become our kind of super highways for new modes of mobility and biking in ways that could be really both beautiful and powerful. Many other cities around the world, as you know, have have implemented those kind of approaches. I also think we need to use much better technology and we should have sensors in the streets. We should be able to use the sensors, the GPS that are already on our garbage trucks and street sweepers, so that as we reduce parking, make the city more pedestrian centered, put people at the center of how we move through our streets. We can also really make the use of the more limited parking we have more more effectively while we're also building out the infrastructure for electric vehicles and others.
So those are a few of the ideas around reimagining our streets. But as a designer, I've done that a lot. Complete streets is not a new concept, right? And it and it kills me that we're the greatest city in the world and yet we're behind so many cities in really thinking about it and implementing.
Elizabeth Goldstein Thank you very much.
Ben Prosky So we have just a little bit more time. Wondering, AJ, if there is anything that you wanted to ask or add before we give Shaun the last word?
AJ Pires Well, maybe one topic we didn't dive too deep on, and it deserves far more time than we'll have, but relative to NYCHA and just the wave of challenges. Is there anything that you would like to highlight relative to bigger and bolder ideas? You mentioned some green infrastructure and retrofitting work relative to solar and geothermal. Is there anything else relative to the systemic and structural challenges of NYCHA and the city that you think is important to highlight?
Shaun Donovan First, it is the most precious affordable housing resource we have in this city. It's never been treated that way. I've not only proposed to put it at the center of the housing plan to make sure that every agency that touches housing and homelessness in the city is brought together under one deputy mayor. And to really — I'm the only candidate who really has a concrete plan to get to the $40 billion that that we need. I made the biggest commitment of city resources, $2 billion of city capital a year towards public housing. I also would just say this incredible opportunity to bring designers into the center of how do we reimagine public housing as the asset that it was originally imagined as. And this is what I've done again and again in my career. What's the definition of design? It's to imagine things that no one else has seen before, right? And design, then, is a powerful thing in policymaking, in not just physical space, but we ought to bring design thinking into everything we're doing in government. Let's engage residents and really start to understand what could we do with the incredibly neglected public spaces in public housing? Is there an opportunity to really think about focused, innovative design around seniors? We have so many families that raise their kids in public housing. They're now living in three or four bedroom apartments, but just a couple. There are hundreds of thousands of families on the waiting lists that could use those. Why don't we think about — as we're really reimagining what those campuses look like — bringing our design, bringing all of you together and really helping us do that. And so that's also for me what I helped do with the best mayors around the country in San Francisco and other places. I brought together a lot of those leaders at the Ford Foundation a year and a half ago with tenant leaders from across public housing. We really need to spark imagination and to dream with residents of public housing, not just about everything that's gone wrong, but what could go right in public housing. And that's the kind of design process I brought.
I often say, most people think of public service is the art of the possible. I like to think of it as the art of the nearly impossible. Via Verde is the nearly impossible. Rebuild by Design was the nearly impossible. We need to do that in public housing as well.
Ben Prosky Alright, well, as we close today, any final words or ideas that you'd like to convey regarding the future of New York City?
Shaun Donovan You know, Ben, we've talked a lot about the longer term future, but I also want to recognize and really thank all of you, your organizations, for your leadership in past crises and reflect a little bit about this moment that we find ourselves in. And I put out my arts and culture platform a few weeks ago, and the very first word in the title of that plan was healing. And we have been through a year of loss and pain, really unlike any that I can remember in this city. We've lost more than 30,000 of our neighbors and we need the arts and culture and design to be at the center of our recovery, not just our economic recovery, which it is central to, but our emotional recovery as well, and that is the power. Arts and culture is the soul of this city. AndI will never forget, thank you to MAS and so many of you, I'll never forget the tribute in light. I was five blocks from Ground Zero, watched the second plane hit the south tower and lost a high school classmate, friends, neighbors. I will never forget the feeling of being anywhere in the city in the months after 9/11 and looking up to the sky and seeing those twin beams of light. Reminding us of those we lost, celebrating them, reminding us that we are all New Yorkers, especially in moments like this. We need all of you. We need arts and culture to bring us together as a city, to bind up our wounds, to heal us and move us forward. And that's why we need to fill every vacant storefront around this city, every public place with our artists, our performers. We need our designers helping us reimagine those spaces so that every New Yorker knows that we are alive, that we are back, that we are fun, that we are celebrating again. We need it to heal, but we need it in order to be New Yorkers again. And that is what I believe great leaders do in moments of crisis like this. It's what I certainly would do as mayor, but it's what I would do with all of you. It's what you've done in past crises and what we need you for now as well.
Ben Prosky It's great, great to hear all of our organizations, I know, are — well, we're all working together, and we're working hard. And we're ready to work with the new mayor and we welcome that. Shaan, thank you so much for your time today for joining this mayoral forum. Please make sure you check out all the candidate interviews and more information on Shaping a Better NYC, where you can also learn about our organizations' work to build a better New York. Thank you.
Shaun Donovan Thank you all. Can you tell I had fun? This is great.
Ben Prosky It was great. Yeah.