Who’s up for election?
While every election is an opportunity to chart a course for the future of the city, New Yorkers heading to the polls in 2021 are facing a truly extraordinary moment.
Nearly every elected official in New York City government will reach term limits this year: The mayor, comptroller, and public advocate’s seats are all up for grabs, along with four of the five borough presidents and 35 of 51 City Council members. Whoever steps into those roles in January 2022 will grapple with crucial issues like climate change, the right to housing, improving public health, and the fight for open space, along with the city’s recovery—economic as well as spiritual—from the coronavirus pandemic.
In short, this may be the most important election in New York City’s history.
To understand why this is such a momentous occasion, it helps to understand which positions are up for grabs. The biggest of those races will be for the mayor of New York City, who will replace Bill de Blasio when his term ends. The mayor is New York’s chief executive, tasked with overseeing various city agencies, crafting policy initiatives, hashing out budgets, and (more informally) acting as the city’s biggest champion.
If the mayor is the city’s CEO, then the comptroller is its CFO; he or she doesn’t quite hold the city’s purse strings, but instead keeps an eye on its finances and makes recommendations to the mayor and City Council accordingly. The comptroller can also look into whether or not city agencies are spending their money effectively.
Borough presidents are not as involved in setting policy. They can make recommendations to the mayor and the City Council (which is especially important when it comes to things like land use or new development), but the position is largely about advocating on behalf of each borough’s residents. As the publication City & State puts it, the borough president’s office is a “significant bully pulpit,” and a role where voters often choose “the person who they believe will most vigorously advocate for their interests.”
The public advocate—a position that didn’t exist before 1989—plays a similar role, albeit on behalf of all New Yorkers. He or she is a watchdog both for city agencies and services used by New Yorkers (the public advocate created NYC’s worst landlords list, for example), and has the power to sponsor legislation in the City Council. Most importantly, the public advocate is next in the line of succession should anything happen to the mayor.
Finally, there are 51 City Council members, each of whom represents a specific district (often covering more than one neighborhood) within the five boroughs. As the city’s legislative body, the council is responsible for debating and voting on proposed laws—and council members are often the most responsive to constituents’ needs and requests. Council members also serve on committees that monitor essential NYC services like housing, transportation, resiliency, civil and human rights, health, higher education, and more. The City Council regularly hosts public meetings where constituents can make their voices heard on issues that are important to them.
While each of these elected officials performs a different role within city government, they all serve essentially the same purpose: to make New York City a more equitable, livable place for all of its residents. Elected officials have the power to set policy priorities and enact laws; decide what does (and does not) go into the city’s annual budget; determine how land within the five boroughs is used; and advocate on behalf of New Yorkers at the state and federal level.
This is why this election is so crucial, but the work of making New York a better place to live will not stop on November 2, 2021. Once these new elected officials take office at the beginning of 2022, the real work—holding them accountable, and ensuring that New Yorkers’ interests are being represented—will begin.
What’s at stake?
The next 12 months may be some of the most momentous in New York City’s history, with a confluence of events—including the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and an election with the potential to reshape the political landscape—creating major opportunities for change.
The November 2021 election will lead to an unprecedented amount of turnover in city government: In addition to the mayor, 40 elected officials will reach term limits, including four borough presidents and 34 City Council members. The number of open positions creates a singular opportunity for change in the five boroughs, and the incoming civic leaders will have the potential to remake the political landscape.
This transformation comes at a pivotal point in the city’s history. Even before COVID-19, New York was grappling with issues concerning the built environment that have far-reaching implications for the future of the city. These issues are also interconnected: How New Yorkers use public space—how they get around, green infrastructure, and the balance between cars and other forms of transit—is tied to the city’s efforts to fight climate change. Ensuring that all New Yorkers have equal access to things like affordable housing, public transit, and neighborhood amenities is crucial for improving public health. These also matter at all scales, from an individual street to the city at large.
But the coronavirus pandemic has shifted the conversation surrounding these issues. The urgency with which they must be addressed hasn’t changed, but the city’s ability to do so given the economic impacts of the crisis—by some estimates, NYC will lose $9.6 billion in revenue in the next fiscal year because of it—is now up in the air. And while the pandemic has led to many devastating losses throughout the five boroughs, it may also give elected officials an opening to find new, creative solutions to old problems.
To help make sense of the future of New York’s built environment and the role the 2021 election will play, the Center for Architecture and MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab (CDDL) have teamed up for Visualizing New York: 2021, an exhibition that will use data visualizations to explain these pivotal topics, and provide New Yorkers with the information they need going into one of the most important election seasons of the past few decades.
The digital exhibition, a collaboration between CDDL (led by Sarah Williams, the design lab’s director) and the Center for Architecture, will include context on four topics: climate change, the right to housing, the future of the public realm, and public health. Within each of those, data visualizations will unpack how these issues play out at all levels: on our streets, in our neighborhoods, within buildings, and throughout the city at large.
The exhibition will also serve as a platform for New Yorkers to make their voices heard: CDDL and the Center for Architecture will give visitors the opportunity to weigh in on the changes they want to see in their neighborhoods, particularly given the outcome of the 2021 election. Thought-provoking questions (such as “What does a healthy city look like?” or “The right to housing is…”) invite city residents to consider what they want for New York’s future, while the rest of the exhibition will explain how they can help realize that vision.