NEWARK, NJ — As Newark continues to redevelop, architects and planners explored how policy and people-centered design strategies can improve the human experience in the city during an interactive discussion Thursday at the Newark Museum of Art

NJIT and Gensler, a global design firm, hosted the "Shaping the Future of Newark: Designing Cities for People" discussion that focused on a variety of issues that impact New Jersey's largest city.

Today 4.2 billion people, just over 50% of the world's population, live in cities. By 2050, more than 70% of the world's population will live in cities, according to Roger Smith, Gensler design director of architecture.

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"Cities, because of their energy and diversity, are centers of innovation, culture and economic vitality," Smith said. "In fact, over 80% of the global GDP is generated from our cities."

Even so, panelist David Troutt, Rutgers Law School-Newark distinguished professor of law, noted how Newark has experienced an affordability crisis for many years, with the majority of Newarkers "extremely rent-burdened."

Troutt said in other cities, policies examine unstable, vulnerable populations as an afterthought, but for Newark it must be a priority. He said 80% of Newark's population are renters.

"It's most difficult for policy-makers and designers to recognize the mutuality of interests between the unstable and the stable, the vulnerable and the most prosperous, the "us versus them" (mentality) that has segregated us," Troutt said, arguing that when the work is democratized, the city has the greatest hope for success.

Later on, Daris Sollohub, NJIT associate professor, raised the point that Newark's gigabit connection is three times faster than outside of Manhattan's Google building. He questioned how Newark residents and budding entrepreneurs can take advantage of the high speed fiber optic network.

Seth Wainer, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey senior strategic planner, asked participants to consider the average person's disposable income when proposing residential buildings.

He advised architects to consider infrastructure investments that can be designed into buildings to bring the residents the cheapest possible internet speed. Lowering the price tag creates new equity pathways, he said.

Allison Ladd, Housing and Economic Development acting director, voiced the need for free Wi-Fi across the city. While Newark recently unveiled a free, public Wi-Fi network on Ferry Street called "Ironbound Wi-Fi," Ladd said the playing field needed to be leveled across the city.

"I don't think half the residents in the city recognize what type of fiber optic we truly have," said Tai Cooper, a former aid to Mayor Ras J. Baraka and now a vice president of policy and communications for New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Cooper said it is crucial to engage residents' curiosity to foster a demand across the city.

Panelists also discussed the city's mobility patterns and how they may change as transportation evolves.

"You have to be mindful of how people are using transit and how they are moving around your city, that’s an important piece," Ladd said. "Some of the parking lots will be maintained because we’re going to need them, others will be developed because we also need that too. They’re really in key parts in our city that are next to transit."

"If the most valuable pieces of land, if the greatest open space for us to do creative, equitable place making sits in private hands, then we have to re-evaluate the role of private ownership of those parking lots," Troutt said. "It constrains us from doing what we desperately need to do."

Finally, panelists shifted into a discussion about climate change and its effect on Newark.

Ladd encouraged awareness of the city's topography. For instance, the East Ward and Ironbound are lower and can flood faster than other parts of the city. 

Troutt said the role of community boards is to offer localized democracy and disseminate information for decision making.

"So the voices of people who are most impacted actually enter the much larger discourse about where we place these various climate impacting necessities of public life in a more equitable distribution across the landscape," Troutt said.