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How Fixing an Overstressed Region Could Change Brooklyn

Even as New York City has flourished in recent years, its physical flaws have become painfully apparent: broken-down subways, unaffordable housing and vulnerability to climate change, among other ills. All of these hit home particularly hard in Brooklyn, the most populous borough. Can they be fixed?

It’s easy to dismiss such problems as too big to tackle. But one group, the Regional Plan Association (RPA), considers those challenges its reason for being. The venerable research group, funded by businesses and foundations, is known for thinking big not just about the city but more broadly the tri-state area. Its first regional plan, issued in 1929, laid the groundwork for highways and parks; its second plan, in the 1960s, promoted regional economic development; and its third plan, in 1996, pushed transit investments like the Second Avenue Subway and envisioned developing Manhattan’s Far West Side.

Now comes The Fourth Regional Plan: Making the Region Work for All of Us, which offers many ambitious proposals, some pie-in-the-sky, others eminently practical. The rationale for pursuing them is eye-opening, for it paints the picture of a city and a region constrained by unwise decisions and unprepared for future growth. Lack of investment in housing and infrastructure could make widening inequities even worse. According to the RPA plan, “The region gained 1.8 million jobs over the past 25 years, but is likely to grow by only half that number over the next quarter century” unless major changes are made.

When the plan emerged Nov. 30, the headlines mainly concerned the controversial proposal to shut down subway service overnight on weekdays to hasten repairs (while adding buses) and for a new entity, a Subway Reconstruction Public Benefit Corp., to revamp the system within a brisk 15 years. That focus was understandable; no institution is as central to daily life as the subway.

But the 376-page study–which contains 61 proposals for improving the city’s institutions, transportation, climate-change resiliency, and affordability—could mean far more. It suggests new residential and travel patterns, new business opportunities and workforce development. Most notably, it recommends much-expanded infrastructure, including subway extensions, express buses, and affordable broadband.

Looking out to 2040

It won’t be simple to deliver what the RPA calls “greater equity, shared prosperity, better health, and sustainability.” Big budgets and political leadership–if not consensus–are required but elusive in many cases, notably in the fraught relationship between our governor and mayor, and a federal government wary of providing financial aid.

As New York magazine columnist Justin Davidson put it, the plan “seems perfectly timed to address increasingly urgent problems but appallingly out of sync with today’s political climate.” Newsday, calling it a “conversation-starter, not a blueprint,” opined that, “by going really broad, the RPA made it too easy for more practical, doable suggestions to get lost in splashy, easily dismissed proposals.”

Yet it’s worth keeping the Fourth Regional Plan on your radar screen, since it provides an epic to-do list for making a better city, especially in its outer boroughs. (After all, who knew a decade ago that something like Brooklyn Bridge Park could get built?) We highlight certain issues relevant to Brooklyn below, and offer some speculation on their future.