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  • Writer's pictureElenah Mae Salen

City Czars

Updated: Nov 6, 2023


I saw a New York City miracle this week. Walking along the beautiful street on which I live in New York's Upper East Side neighborhood, there it was. It took me a while to realize that what I was seeing was indeed true. I paused and watched. It was beautiful, magnificent even. It was the removal of the construction scaffolding that had been obstructing 1/3 of the length of the block on which I lived, which had been there since the day I moved in, despite there being no visible construction occurring overhead. Today, I thought, is one to remember.


This week as a member of the ULI New York Technology and Innovation Council (which I also have the pleasure of being a founding member of and past co-chair), we, along with the Infrastructure Council, joined a walking tour of New York's Meatpacking District, culminating with a meeting with Ya-Ting Liu, New York's first Chief Public Realm Officer. Let me say this upfront - she is intelligent, personable, and very impressive.


I asked New York's Public Realm Czar, what is it about New York that makes it so incredibly difficult to have clean streets?

I recently returned from a trip to London, which is also a complicated city of historical relics and moving parts. Yet walking through the streets of London, I did not encounter the trash, rats, and scaffolding that cover the streets of New York. How is it that London could figure it out, and it seems that NYC is only contemporaneously focusing on these issues? Quite simply, NYC is a complicated place with layers of stakeholders and an 'alphabet soup' of city agencies with whom to liaise. The primary motivator behind decision-making appears to be mitigating potential risk, instead of making sense.


The spaghetti of bureaucracy and alphabet soup of New York City agencies are counter-productive to innovation.

What does it mean to be a city czar? The New York Times, in a feature article on departing NYC Night Czar, Ariel Palitz, describes the role as being a 'liaison, a peacekeeper, an educator, and more.' The creation of such an appointment is, in itself, a statement - it says that there is an issue that is a priority, and someone is being tasked to address it head-on.


Across the country, city governments are having many 'firsts'. Phoenix created the Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, with David Hondula at the helm as its first Heat Czar. When joining the office, he informed his stakeholders that to affect positive change, there will be a change - that the existing status quo does not serve them, and that they should expect changes to happen to their way of working. I wonder how that approach would go down in NYC. I wonder how it's being received with the City of Phoenix.


New York is a lively city, and a city of many firsts.

In March the city's media was in a fenny at Mayor Adam's appointment of the city's first Rat Czar, Kathleen Corradi. In discussing the role with the press she said 'No more dirty curbs, unmanaged spaces, or brazen burrowing. There is a new sheriff in town.'


The city is its streets. It is the shared domain through which all people move. In New York, especially, where few people have private open space and 'back-of-house' space is hard to come by, so much more of shared life happens in its streets. This is one of the greatest parts of New York - the theater of life on its streets. For better and sometimes, for worse.


The world around us is changing at an exponential speed, and it is continuing to accelerate. Our cities' ability to progress must not be stunted.

If there are not the mechanisms in place for Czars to succeed, the cities will not keep pace with their citizens' needs, problems will compound, and these meccas of creativity and vibrancy will meet their demise.

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