High-Rise IQ Test

How “smart” will New York City’s next-generation public housing be?

Water-logged power meters damaged by Superstorm Sandy sit near public housing buildings without power in Red Hook, Brooklyn, on Nov. 12, 2012.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

This piece also appears in the Sept. 25 edition of New America’s Weekly Wonk.

At Sunday’s People’s Climate March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to cut emissions in the city to 80 percent of 2005 levels by 2050. That’s in line with international projections on the bare minimum needed to mitigate the impact of climate change.

One way the city will cut emissions, de Blasio said, is to make the city’s buildings more energy efficient. But we are still learning the best ways to use technology to reduce emissions and boost resilience. The choices de Blasio’s administration makes will determine the kind of “smart city” New York City will be.

There are two fundamentally different paths that New York could take. One is a “remote-control city” that “reduces the people of the favelas to a stream of data,” as Anthony Townsend describes it in Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. The other emphasizes self-sufficiency and the capacity of people to “recognize problems, design appropriate solutions and … participate in their implementation,” in Townsend’s words. In New York, the first battleground for that choice will be the city’s poorly maintained public housing. The test cases for the new smart city will be the 400,000 people who live there. Will New York City’s public housing of the future be remote-controlled or self-sufficient? Will New York City monitor its low-income residents as data points or engage them as part of the solution?

Remote management at the New York City Housing Authority does not have a good track record. NYCHA homes have withered in the face of federal funding reductions and the diversion of money to policing. The city owns more than 178,000 units of public housing and struggles to meet targets for response times to regular maintenance requests.

NYCHA’s properties were in a profound state of disrepair even before Superstorm Sandy sharpened the contrast between a remote-responder system and self-sufficiency. The storm flooded boiler rooms and electrical closets, cutting off heat, light, and elevators. Neighborhood stores that were only accepting cash meant people could not use the food stamps on their Electronic Benefit Transfer cards. Deliveries of food and fuel into the city took days to start back up.

In the face of these failings, residents helped one another, carrying water up darkened stairwells to elderly residents and holding open cookouts.

Cellphone and Internet service was down across much of Red Hook, but the nonprofit Red Hook Initiative shared its Internet connection with the surrounding community through a wireless network that New America’s Open Technology Institute had helped build before and immediately after the storm. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.) Since then, a team of local residents known as Digital Stewards have added more than a dozen hot spots throughout Red Hook, even connecting the computer lab at a local recreation center and a central neighborhood park without official support from the Housing Authority or the Parks Department. (As the director of field operations for OTI at the time, I was one of the people who helped Red Hook residents get this project off the ground.)

This is not an argument against government. Quite the opposite: Public housing is essential to New York’s future, and not only as affordable places to live. The built environment is an opportunity to connect community members to one another, foster self-sufficiency, and enable collaborative problem-solving. Our social networks and our infrastructure shape each other, adding strength or weakness depending on levels of collaboration in the design and participation in the governance. Government’s role is to build infrastructure and set policy with that in mind.

If there is a silver lining to the suffering and loss of life from that storm, it is that Sandy gave the region the federal money and local inspiration to begin building a more resilient and low-emission city. The mayor and New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer, have pledged $108 million in Sandy recovery funds to conduct repairs and retrofits on one set of public housing buildings in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, with plans to proceed through 15 additional developments. Out of a total of 334 such developments, that would leave 318 more to do. NYCHA estimates the total cost for necessary capital projects to be $18 billion. There’s a lot of work to do.

Much of the initial work in Coney Island is focused on repairs and putting essential equipment above the flood line. The need for long-term resilience and emissions reductions will mean further steps, both low-tech (such as replacing leaky windows and adding insulation) and high-tech (like adding alternative power and environmental sensors).

Whatever construction the city undertakes for its public housing, it is important to build community self-sufficiency through the active participation and leadership of residents in the design, installation, and maintenance of neighborhood infrastructure and initiatives. This is increasingly recognized as a best practice; a recent New York Times op-ed argues for residents to take part in maintenance and construction tasks in public housing.

There is no mention in the press release from Schumer or the mayor’s office of any of the $108 million going for communications infrastructure, but it is impossible to imagine achieving resilience goals or emission reduction targets without a major digital upgrade for NYCHA houses. How would you even measure emissions without a data network? And if you have to have a network for that purpose, it has to at least also keep messages flowing among the housing residents in a disaster. You can also support daily maintenance, energy efficiency, and economic development. Each additional goal for the network requires additional capacity for communication among the people who are using it. The city and NYCHA have to see the 400,000 residents of public housing as a resilience asset, not a burden. The networks they build should reflect that.

Here are five steps New York City should take to provide communication networks for a self-sufficient public housing system:

  • Wire NYCHA houses with local area networks, including ports for wireless access in public spaces and centralized service turn-on points for service providers. This will enable local communication even if a disaster knocks out Internet service, or for those who do not have a subscription. At the same time, it will lower the barrier for new providers to serve the residents because they will not have to run new wires throughout the complex.

  • Set up a virtual local area network, which uses an Internet connection to simulate a dedicated internal loop, to connect all of the complexes to one another.

  • Conduct a training program for NYCHA residents to maintain the local network, install wireless access points in public areas, and support residents’ use of broadband. These cohorts of residents could also serve as partners to teams looking to produce applications and services for NYCHA, following the model of Heatseek, winner of the “Live” and “Best Connected Device” categories at the 2014 NYC BigApps competition.

  • Establish privacy protections that put residents in control of what data they share with NYCHA, other residents, and any users of the network.

  • Leverage NYCHA networks for neighborhood connectivity and resilience so proximity to public housing becomes a benefit.

For the first two years of its existence, Red Hook Wi-Fi focused on the areas around the Red Hook houses rather than trying to gain access to the properties themselves. The urgency to reduce emissions, prepare for sea-level rise, and upgrade basic systems has only increased in that time. Now, as NYCHA takes the first steps on a multibillion-dollar path of reconstruction, the agency should learn from and expand on the innovations of its residents.

As the planet looks to the nations assembled at the United Nations for action on climate change, it should be thrilled to see New York taking the lead for cities on emissions reductions. “We know when New York City acts, it helps move policy in other places,” the mayor said in his announcement. But ultimately that leadership has to come from below for us to succeed in making New York a vibrant and habitable city for the century ahead. The city’s residents are its best hope for being smart.