Influential New York City planner, Alexander Garvin, died last week at his home in Manhattan at the age of 80. A passionate advocate for the public realm, Garvin worked as a planner under five different mayoral administrations. In addition to his work for the city, Garvin dabbled briefly in architecture, worked in real estate development in the 1980s and 1990s, and authored several books on planning. Beginning in 1967, he taught “Introduction to the Study of the City” at Yale, influencing generations of planners and urbanists.
“The streets, squares, parks, infrastructure and public buildings make up the fundamental element in any community,” he told The New York Times in a 2011 interview, “[They are] the framework around which everything else grows.”
A Manhattan native, Garvin trained as an architect at Yale, receiving both his Masters in Architecture and in Urban Studies in 1967. Following graduation, he worked as an architect at Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s Manhattan firm before deciding he was less interested in designing individual buildings than the urban fabric as a whole.
Garvin entered the public sector as a planner under Mayor John V. Lindsay in 1970. He went on to work under Mayor Abe Beame and subsequently served as Mayor Ed Koch’s director of comprehensive planning. From 1980 to 1995, Garvin worked in real estate development. In 1996, he published his first book The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t, which has since become a staple in American planning education. The book caught the attention of then-president of NYC2012 and soon-to-be deputy mayor of economic development under Bloomberg, Daniel Doctoroff, who enlisted Gavin to direct planning and design for his ambitious bid to have New York host the 2012 Olympics.
Garvin, who freely admitted to Yale Alumni Magazine that he “couldn’t care less about sports,” oversaw the site design of the Olympic Games from 1996 until the plan was vetoed by the State Assembly in 2004. Although the bid ultimately failed, the plan was incorporated into Bloomberg’s administration, which rezoned large swaths of Manhattan and the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront. Doctoroff and Garvin’s work for NYC2012 ultimately paved the way for the Hudson Yards development, the extension of the 7 line, and the redevelopment of the Queens West neighborhood (the proposed site of the Olympic village).
From 2002 to 2003, Garvin directed planning for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which oversaw the plan to rebuild Ground Zero after September 11th. During that time, he proved instrumental in implementing architect Daniel Libeskind’s plan to ensure that the Twin Towers’ original site would become memorialized and not commercialized.
As a planner and urban visionary, Garvin had a blunt and pragmatic approach to shaping public space. “I don’t care whether something is modernist or neo-traditional,” he told the Yale Alumni Magazine in 2001, “The question is, does it work? Does it make life better?” He stressed to his students that successful urban planning consists of “public action that will produce a sustained and widespread private market reaction.”
Although Garvin’s work was ultimately guided by the market, the planner was originally inspired by Jane Jacobs. He described himself as “deeply affected” by her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which condemned the top-down planning of urban spaces that obscured the needs and desires of its citizens. In The American City he wrote, “We…need a better understanding of how effective planning is translated into a better quality of life. It is not accomplished by planners operating in a vacuum."
This combination of pragmatism and idealism was perhaps best seen in Garvin’s classroom. In his introductory course, students would engage in a fictional planning scenario in which Garvin would assign various roles: developer, architect, protesting citizen, or public official. At the end of the semester, students were graded by how well they could justify the decisions they made. “The most important thing Alex Garvin did,” architecture critic and former student Paul Goldberger told the Yale magazine, “is explain the realities of the world in a way that is not cynical, but as passionate and as full of belief as any aesthetician.”