After disembarking from the cruise ship and all its excesses, I spent a couple of days in Brooklyn, four days in Vermont and New Hampshire, and then returned to the East Village in Manhattan for four days of the Walk 21 Conference at NYU.
You might be asking yourself, Spring? Isn’t it Fall? And yes you would be right. But before you accuse me of getting my seasons horribly muddled, let me explain. When I arrived, there was the sense that something new was afoot in New York City. That the long, frigid, and hostile winter of relentless and dehumanising domination of motor traffic in our public spaces was slowly beginning to thaw. The warming climate itself contributing to a reawakening of the appreciation of pubic space, and with it, a new possibility of self-propelled transport through the densest urban environment in the richest nation on Earth.
Instead of cursing the ‘snow’ all around, (as my inner cynic urges me to do), I decided to spend some time taking a closer look at the ‘green shoots’ where New York has decided that- oi vey- perhaps it went overboard in accommodating motor vehicles and that there may be social (and economic) value in remaking sterile asphalt dead zones into thriving social spaces. There’s been a lot written about what New York City has been doing over the last couple years, so I won’t belabour the point, but it was really exciting to see firsthand.
All along Broadway, the NYC Dept. of Transportation (DOT) has transformed former motor space using an inexpensive surface treatment of pebbledash and green paint to reclaim former car territory. Beach chairs and tables are interspersed with new plants and trees. Amazing how effective this is. It shows how well trained we are most of the time, yielding space to cars just because it’s asphalt colored and has white and yellow lines on it. Drivers also behave well in this new order- very rarely do their tires seem to stray onto these new areas, even when not protected by bollards. Good drivers- you get a pat on the head, and a biscuit!
The pedestrianisation of Times Square has perhaps received more coverage than any of the other improvements and somehow the city managed to make the new space just as gaudy as the flashing billboards surrounding the square. Using the same design as used along Broadway- except the large dots are red instead of green, the effect is appropriately amusement park themed.
This same formula has been followed in a number of NYC neighbourhoods, generating quite an international buzz, which Mayor Bloomberg and the NYC DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, as well as the campaign groups Transportation Alternatives and the Limewire mogul Mark Gorton funded Livable Streets Initiative can take appropriate degrees of credit. Really though, it was the people of New York- the grassroots- who demanded action, and once it began, resoundingly voted with their feet. According to the DOT, as soon as the chairs were installed, there was a rush of people who came to sit in them. Citizens enjoying the new public space: reading, chatting, drawing, or just watching the world go by. Clearly New Yorkers have been deprived of adequate open space for too long and a huge latent demand has built up, beginning to be satisfied by the courageous and timely transport planning at the DOT. Healthy Cities- 1 Carmageddon- 0
Ninth Avenue Bike Lanes
The 9th Ave. bike lanes are another example of where New York is re-allocating space from cars to green modes of transportation. Though I didn’t get a chance to ride them, I did observe how they work and they have indeed transformed the look and feel of this formerly motor dominated street. They’ve prioritised cycling, made crossings shorter for pedestrians, and softened the streetscape with new plantings. I was skeptical of how left turning cars would interact with cyclists, but this seems to have been addressed through the use of dedicated signal phases, as has been done- after much lobbying- in San Francisco where Masonic crosses the Panhandle Path.
The High Line
Another reclamation of public space- in this case from abandoned railroad to pedestrian- has occurred in the Chelsea district, where an elevated rail line has begun a transformation into a walking path and native species oasis. It really is great to see this project come to fruition. When I worked for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in San Francisco at the beginning of the decade, I received a call one morning. “Hi this is Ed Norton, and I’m interested in getting involved in the High Line project in New York.” I said, ‘Oh hi.’ He said, “Yeah this is Edward Norton the actor…” I said (totally ignorant of who he was), ‘ok well you can contact our east coast office at this number….” Sorry Ed- I hadn’t seen Fight Club yet and didn’t know who you were. Anyway, thanks for your support of the project. No doubt the involvement of celebrities like you was instrumental in making the project happen.
As part of the project NYC Parks in cooperation with the Friends of the High Line have built what appears to be an amphitheater with wooden benches where people can sit and gaze at the traffic going by below. Not exactly thrilling, unless you are an urban studies nerd like me, though it seems to be a popular place to sit and relax.
Further on, there are wooden benches that were built to roll sideways on the old rails until they realized that people could get their fingers pinched. So they fixed the wheels in place. Oh health and safety, don’t we love thy inconsistent application? Do they know the thousands of metal boxes rolling around the city can result in worse things than pinched fingers? Perhaps they could apply the same treatment to them as well. Denver boots all around!
The plan is to extend the conversion of the High Line, creating a mile and a half traffic free walking artery above the noise, danger and fumes of the street. A glimpse of what the streets below could become one day…