You can look at what we do as an attempt to make people pay attention to the things in their lives that they do not pay attention to. We try to get them to see the value, the quality, maybe even the soul, of things they barely know exist, turning these things, if we are lucky, into talismans of their faith in themselves. “This gasoline is not mere gasoline! It is the stuff that powers your life! And choosing it is not merely an act of convenience! Choosing this particular gasoline shows that you care about the future of the planet, of your children, of the universe!” These things you depend upon, we tell the world, they are more than the simple joists and buttresses of your life, the hidden support structures that are anonymous commodities. They are important! Meaningful! Valuable! Different!
And if you look at what we do that way, then you can admire the people who do it really well for their ability to take a thing out of its normal, workaday context and, by reframing it, reveal a hidden insight that doesn’t simply change the game – but shows us how the game around us had actually already changed. Who, by recontextualizing it had actually made us aware of this revolution. Made us aware that we were using the thing the wrong way now – that THIS, this new way of looking at it was, in fact, the right way to look at it, the normal way, the clearly-now-obvious way. And that the old way was suddenly not merely outdated but actually absurd.
And that, that’s actually the genius of what we do. And it is at the heart of Janette Sadik-Khan’s fascinating book “Street Fight”.
Sadik-Khan was the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013 – appointed to that position by then Mayor Michael Bloomberg, after serving stints in the Department of Transportation in Washington under Bill Clinton and in the NYCDOT under David Dinkins. During her tenure running New York’s DOT, she oversaw the building of nearly 400 miles of bike lanes, 60 pedestrian plazas and 44 acres of bus-only lanes, all impressive accomplishments, all worthy of accolades and attention.
And yet it is this sentence, tucked into the early early, lower case roman numeral pages of the book that is the revelation and that makes the whole exercise fascinating on another level. “Streets,” she writes on page xiv, “comprise 25 percent of the city’s landmass, making the transportation commissioner the largest real estate developer in the city.”
To hell with Tishman Speyer and Brookfield and Related and Extell and the rest of the ones you read about in the Real Deal. The NYCDOT controls a quarter of the landmass in New York City. Six inches of every twenty-four, from Yankee Stadium to the Fresh Kills Landfill, and from the High Line to Ildewild. You take four steps anywhere in the city that never sleeps, one of them is on DOT property.
And that way of recontextualizing, of thinking of the roads and streets of America’s biggest city not as simply paths of transit – but as real estate in one of the most real estate obsessed places on the planet – is why we are talking about this book on this advertising site. Because it does what we do. It fundamentally changes the way one thinks about something you thought you could only think about one way. And it does it because of consumer insight. Thereby opening up all sorts of fascinating questions about how people engage with cities in the first place – and how they do so, now.
Think about those streets as simply streets and you’re only thinking about ways to make them more efficiently pass vehicles and people into, across and out of the city, because that’s what streets do. But think about streets as real estate, and you’re thinking about how they can do what real estate does – enhance people’s experience of the city and indeed their very lives.
Think about city streets as real estate and you can transform the idiosyncratic vehicular oddities of Manhattan that Broadway routinely manufactures throughout the city – those unnavigable five-way intersections at Times Square or by the Flatiron building – into outdoor parks with tables and chairs and food vendors that become social and cultural hubs. Hubs that become thriving economic contributors to the very communities they are a part of. And when did a street ever do that?
Think about streets as real estate, and you open your eyes to all of it you now have available to you in front of some of the most iconic entities in America. The Empire State Building. Radio City Music Hall. Madison Square Garden. Prime locations that no developer – let alone any marketer – would let lie blank and fallow for very long. What could you do with them? What would the public do with them? What would companies who wanted to reach that public, do with that?
And remember, we’re still talking about exactly the same item you had before. It’s still streets. It’s just a fundamentally different product, because it has been transformed by your observation of consumer usage. For as Sadik-Khan writes, quoting Jane Jacobs “’There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings that we must fit our plans.’”
Which is actually a really good thing for any brand manager to remember.
Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution by Janette Sadik-Khan & Seth Solomonow was published by Viking Penguin on 03/08/16 – order it from Amazon here or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).