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Excellence & Innovation: Interview with the Executive Director of the NYC Public Design Commission

“Urban designers are the interdisciplinary Swiss army knives of the design world.” – Justin Garrett Moore

New York City | Central Park View
New York City | Central Park View

Justin Garrett Moore is the Executive Director of the New York City Public Design Commission. Appointed by Mayor de Blasio in 2016, his job is to oversee design in the public realm while advocating “for excellence and innovation.” Or, put simply, to ensure that each design project the city works on is reliable, well structured, safe, and serves the community it is found in. Considering the fact that the city usually works on about 1000 projects per year, Moore tends to keep fairly busy.

The Public Design Commission’s jurisdiction extends “over permanent structures, parks and open spaces, streetscapes, signage, and art proposed on or over City-owned property.” Though it was initially only in charge of all public artworks and monuments, it soon expanded to include public structures as well as open spaces. It was established in 1898 as the Municipal Art Commission by the New York City Charter, and was renamed in 2008 to better reflect its purpose.

Having extensive experience in urban design thanks to a decade long stint as the Senior Urban Designer for the NYC Department of City Planning, Moore appears to thrive in his position. He is primarily focused on “fostering accessibility, diversity and inclusion in the City’s public buildings, spaces, and art.” His previous work includes the Greenpoint and Williamsburg Waterfront, Hunter’s Point South, the Coney Island Plan and the Brooklyn Cultural District.

ARTpublika Magazine had the distinct pleasure of speaking to Justin Garrett Moore about his love of architecture and urban design, as well as about what it takes to make a people-friendly city.

How did New York City end up creating a commission for public art projects?

It goes back to 1898, when the different boroughs were consolidated into one city government of New York. As part of that reorganization, there was a body written into the city’s charter that provided for the consideration of public spaces, including public art.

That time period – the turn of the 19th century – was when the City Beautiful Movement was flourishing, setting up a framework for what people thought made the city function – public art was a big part of that. Today, the commission has a pretty broad jurisdiction. Anything that is built on city land – and that can include streets, parks, public facilities and infrastructure – goes through a review process. That’s kind of the big framework we’re operating under.

When it comes to the commissioning of individual works of art, however, the government is broken down into different agencies. So, you can have the Parks Department, Department of Transportation, Department of Sanitation, the Public Libraries – all of these different parts of city government – constantly building and rebuilding projects.

Some of them fall under The Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art program created in 1982. It provides funding for public artworks to be included in capital projects and is one of the primary ways this city has grown its public art collection, which includes traditional public sculptures and things like that, but also artworks that are incorporated into public and civic buildings.

Can you give an example?

The High Line has a fascinating history. The elevated railway, which was first constructed for industrial use for that part of the city (predominantly a manufacturing district at the time), was a public asset. Around the 1990s there were a lot of questions about what to do with it. At one point, there were thoughts about tearing it down. Community groups were instrumental in advocating for the retaining of it, especially as a public space. There were a number of visions as well as community focused design conversations/competitions that were done around the High Line.

The Van Alan Institute, which is a kind of civic design group based in New York City, did a lot of work on that. The vision was to create a public space, but the city government figured out the mechanisms for how that would happen. Because infrastructure is a part of civic life, it’s kind of the primary function of what government is responsible for. But then there was advocacy by this local group, Friends of the High Line. It’s an organization that has stewardship over that park. The origin and concept of the project over all and public art was a big part of their thinking.

Who gets to decide what kind of artwork goes up?

So, in that case it was Friends of the High Line. But, in New York City, different agencies have control over different portfolios. So, the Parks Department controls parks and public spaces, the Department of Transportation controls streets and public plazas, and so on. Well, the Parks Department is broken down even further in that you have these kinds of local groups – parks conservancies – that will be in charge of the maintenance and operations of city parks.

Park Bench
Park Bench

One of the most popular examples is the Central Park Conservancy. The Parks Department is part of it, but the conservancy takes on an additional role in terms of management and operations and programming. The High Line is a very similar structure, where Friends of the High Line takes care of that side of things – it has a robust kind of regard for community art planning and the infrastructure they set up curates the artworks.

Is the Washington Square Park Alliance a similar kind or organization?

Yes, exactly; all of these organizations, and there are several across the city. The degree to which they participate in with regard to public programs varies. A lot of different groups will help curate the city’s temporary public art. Now, let’s say someone wants to put up a monument in a public space. For example, in Central Park, there’s a recent effort to memorialize the suffragists.

An independent group will get together and do its own advocacy and fundraising to commission the work. It will then work with the Parks Department to find an appropriate location, and then the Parks Department will interface with the broader public/community groups. Ultimately it will go for review through the Public Design Commission. Our commission will present a proposal that would be advanced by the Parks Department in connection with an independent public group, to show what the proposal is and how it relates to the existing public spaces. And, will obviously review the public artwork itself: the content and quality of the artwork.

Can you talk about how public design and disaster management go together?

There’s been a lot of work in New York City around security hardening – designing public spaces to help with managing emergency situations. It takes a lot of time to figure out the design solutions, because there are a lot of different factors that go into it. A lot of temporary measures have been put in place, but as the spaces and projects get redesigned, these measures are implemented into the designs of parks and landscapes.

View of Manhattan
View of Manhattan

A lot of places all over the United States and around the world are currently grappling with the same issues; climate change and rising sea levels mean measures have to be implemented for flood resiliency. In lower Manhattan, where there was a lot of damage after Hurricane Sandy, the area has been redesigned to mitigate for flood risk, without apparent barriers and flood-walls, so that there’s a more seamless public experience while still providing protection for climate events.

What kinds of design elements does someone working on a project like this have to think about?

We aim to simply create a functioning public space that can serve the largest number of people as possible. We want public spaces to be pedestrian friendly and to promote quality conditions: visibility, greening and landscape, pedestrian amenities, like seating or other types of street furniture, lighting for nighttime. We think about age and accessibility conditions. We also think about security (flood resiliency or maintenance and operations type considerations) then we layer those things in think about how these elements can create the most positive effect in that space. So, that’s pretty straightforward.

Where it becomes difficult is planning for different types of users in particular conditions; getting cars and pedestrians to share limited space is often a challenge. It’s even more challenging when security is a consideration. There are a lot of different layers; you have to talk to building owners and traffic engineers and different communities. It’s about a balanced solution where you can have protections but also desirable public spaces.

Who do you need to complete a project like this?

For public spaces in general, you need a lot of different skill sets. You have people who deal with urban planning and urban policy, which are managing the general process. It has a lot of different dimensions: legal or code-type issues, approval-process issues, community input and/or community engagement.

Obviously you have the different design and technical experts; for urban design they usually tend to be landscape architects who work on a different scale of operation. They know about things like tree planting and soils and other technical things that an architect does not know. And then you’ll have transportation designers and engineers that do that kind of work. Finally, there is the community and the stakeholders – property owners, or civic groups in the neighborhood who are involved.

Bike against wall
Bike Leaning Against Wall

In New York for example, there is a very large amount of bike and alternative transportation advocacy. Other groups are concerned with things like public plazas or park spaces, and are interested in sustainability and greening of the city. So there are a lot of different groups that have a voice in regard to some of these changes. But the largest part is definitely city government and the public process side of the planner/policy/design aspect that it takes to advance the project.

Why is public art important?

Stemming from what happened in Charlottesville, we’ve recently had conversations – as part of a national conversation – about the role of monuments and markers in public spaces. Here in New York we don’t really have confederate monuments, but it’s interesting to think about and acknowledge the importance of public artworks and their connection to public spaces. New York is a very large and very diverse city, and there are a lot of people public art does have an impact on. Artwork, objects, and signifying elements are as important as what a place is named.

What does your average day look like?

Oh man, crazy! I mentioned in the beginning that we have jurisdiction over any design that is built on city property on a permanent basis. We do designer reports, so we review over 1000 projects a year. That could be anything from a fire station getting new windows to a new dam being built on one of our reservoirs upstate; the reason New York City water is so good is because the city was smart a long time ago and purchased all the land around our water upstate.

It’s very different every day, just because the nature of the projects is varying. We’re doing all of the technical work, like reviewing drawings and submission material, as well as looking for questions and issues. We’re basically the quality control department for what the city builds on its property: the Parks Department is building a new playground, the Department of Transportation is rebuilding a street, and the Fire Department is renovating their firehouse. That’s kind of the technical side no one thinks about, we’re more known for pushing the city to have as nice of a design as possible.

Children's Playground
Children's Playground

On the west side of Manhattan, there was a Department of Sanitation facility off of Spring Street, a salt shed, where they store the salt for when it snows. It was a horrible, clunky and nappy building. Because of the prominence of the location of the site, our commission really pushed for designers and the sanitation department to see if there could be a better outcome. So there were a couple of reiterations on the design of that project. Ultimately they redesigned the salt shed building to be this faceted concrete form – a pod that’s reminiscent of a salt crystal. Something as banal as the salt-shed is now one of the most appreciated pieces of public infrastructure in the city; designers have models do photo shoots in front of the salt shed building.

We’re kind of constantly pushing for that, because basic infrastructure like that can add value to the city. If you go to the 2nd avenue subway now, some of the city’s most amazing art is there. People who are on their daily commute come across these larger-than-life mosaics of different figures that reflect the people of the city. It’s incredible, that your experience as someone living in New York can be part of a bigger thing that is a kind of collective investment built into our environment. The unique character, diversity, and vitality of the city gets reflected in what we build and how we shape our spaces.

How did you get interested in urban design?

I’m originally from Indianapolis. I grew up in the inner city and had the most lucky and accidental entry into the design world. I‘m black, and there are very few black people in the design field. A lot of that is access to and awareness of the field as well as available career opportunities. When I was a freshman in high school, we got a new gymnasium addition, and as part of that project, the school had the architecture firm hire students as summer interns. And so, when I was 14 years old, I was working every summer in an architecture firm, which is a very unusual situation.

From a very early age, I had access to a very incredible field. It was just very interesting. So, I went to architecture school/college and for graduate school I came here to New York to attend Columbia University, that’s how I got interested in what I call the urban scale architecture. So I ended up doing a second master’s on urban design, also at Columbia. Personally, I really feel the urban design field, urbanism, is so rich and diverse, I never get bored. The connectedness to people, social and economic change, and issues like climate all really come together at the urban scale.


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