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March 17, 2021  

“If you have a property in the city, you should not leave it empty.”

March 17, 2021

New York City is at a crossroads.

So say Carlo Ratti and Saskia Sassen in a recent Bloomberg CityLab article, “The Case for a Duty to the City.” Many wealthy residents are fleeing New York City for the suburbs. Perhaps a third of the small businesses that closed down last year won’t be returning. And, according to a recent survey, executives report plans to reduce office space by 30%. Ratti, the director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Sassen, a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, say New York has a choice right now:

If we do not act, we might end up with a metropolis of zombie neighborhoods, engulfed in a downward spiral of struggling businesses catering to increasingly empty offices. However, if we implement the right policies and foster a quick restructuring of real estate assets, the looming disruption may give us an opportunity—to test out urban policies we have never had the will or the necessity to imagine, much less implement. With familiar options destabilized, the times are inviting us to be innovators.

To revitalize the city they suggest policy changes like vacancy taxes, more flexible zoning regulations, and working with governments and nonprofits to provisionally repurpose properties. They make the case that owners and tenants have a “duty” to the city: If you have a property in the city, you should not leave it empty. Why a duty? Because a city “is not just an agglomeration of real estate assets; it is primarily a repository of human vitality, without which those assets would be worthless.”

Ratti and Sassen’s article is the topic of this week’s episode of Upzoned, with host Abby Kinney, an urban planner in Kansas City, and regular cohost Chuck Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns. Abby and Chuck talk about the challenge of transitioning the financial and regulatory environments in a place like New York, the pros and cons of a vacancy tax, and the systems that encourage land speculation. They also talk about the powerful rhetoric of “duty,” and how it might help towns and cities—including, but certainly not limited to, New York City—get unstuck and start building real prosperity.

Then in the Downzone, Chuck recommends Uprooted, the new book by Grace Olmstead. (Olmstead was our guest on Monday’s Strong Towns podcast.) And Abby talks about an upcoming vacation.

Additional Show Notes