By Barry Benepe
Part I: Suffering the Grid
Manhattan is uniquely blessed or cursed, depending on your point of view. The rigid uniform rectangular street system was designed to maximize building development on the undulating landscape without thought for its natural topography, water courses, water bodies (including both the North and East Rivers, which Ann Buttenwieser aptly referred to as the “wide arms of the sea” that embrace the island of Mannahattan’s farms, architecture, historic landscape, roads, piers and working shoreline, and transition to the surrounding region).
While this grid was adopted in the Commissioners Map of 1811, it was preceded by the Bernard Ratzer Map of 1776, the Peter Rushton Maverick Map of 1796, the Delaney Family Grid, the Mangin-Goerck Plan of 1803, and the 1807 Commissioners Map—none of which were officially adopted. The streets and avenues simply ended at the shoreline with no consideration of parks and recreation, public buildings, churches, commerce, factories, warehouses, industry, or rail lines. This was head-in-the-sand planning motivated by short-term financial expediency rather than long-term forethought. The simplicity of using the Cartesian coordinates of a school child reciting the alphabet and counting from one to three hundred may have appealed to the Swiss architect Le Corbusier (When the Cathedrals Were White), but effaced the features that made the city unique.
To Frederick Law Olmsted, architect-in-chief of Central Park as well as landscape planner for Harvard University, Stanford University, and the city of Buffalo where “he showed how the burgeoning American industrial city could be made livable” (A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybczynski), “The grid had the dumb utility of a mason’s sieve and annulled the possibility to make architectural monuments” (The Greatest Grid presentation by the Museum of the City of New York). Olmsted added, when he was appointed along with architect Calvert Vaux to design Central Park in 1858, “The time will come when New York will be built up, when all the grading and filling will be done, when picturesquely varied rock foundations of the island will have been converted into the foundations for rows of monotonous straight streets and piles of erect, angular buildings.” The authors of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. concluded that he “had a sense of the necessity for a balanced relationship between man and the natural world.”
Of course, Olmstead was wrong and right. We did build our masterpieces—such as Rockefeller Center, Tudor City, London Terrace, the Public Library, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. John the Divine, Columbia University, and many fine small parks and squares—despite the confines of the grid, simply by combining the 25 by 100-foot house lots. We’ve greened the grid with thousands of trees and are beginning to make the streets themselves into beautiful and useful spaces; but he was right about our spending huge sums to level the streets. Central Park alone required Olmsted to move over four million cubic yards of earth and stone. So much for retaining natural features. An opportunity was lost by not continuing the north edge of the park along the Harlem Meer and joining it with the Harlem River; however, opportunities to relate to the natural landscape were not lost north of 155th Street where the grid stopped.
Part II: Greening the Grid
As the commissioners laid out lands north of 155th Street they imbibed the lessons of Frederick Law Olmsted in relating to the contours, ridges, valleys, and shorelines. Avenues were placed in the valleys, parks were placed on the crests. My friend, mentor, and employer Robert C. Weinberg worked for Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who wanted an automobile highway to leap from the crests of the hills across Spuyten Duyvil to Marble Hill in the Bronx. Weinberg insisted that the bridge flank the hills, not surmount them. (He was fired by Moses for his intransigence.) Similarly, Frank Lloyd Wright said that a house should rest on the brow of a hill, not its crown. Thus, the roads above 155th Street laced through the valleys while the hilltops were graced with such parks as Fort Washington, Fort Tryon, Inwood Hills, and Highbridge.
Meanwhile, downtown, Van Ginkel Associates proposed a “woonerf” (street diversion) for 48th Street, a technique that both makes the street more attractive and safer by slowing down motor vehicles and providing more casual places for pedestrians to walk, cross roadways, sit and relax.
More recently, Janette Sadik-Khan was transforming the hard-surfaced grid into more pedestrian-friendly walking surfaces. In her book Street Fight she states, “Cities must adopt a more inclusive and humane approach to reshaping the urban realm and rebuilding it quickly to human scale.” A large section of Broadway north of Times Square was pedestrianized at great benefit to drivers, walkers and abutting businesses.
Outdoor alfresco seating for light meals across from the Union Square Greenmarket was provided with painted pavement, planters, and cafe tables and chairs. Creating these welcoming spaces, Commissioner Sadik-Khan exclaimed, “By following the footsteps and tracing an outline of the way people use the street today, we could uncover the design of the city we will want to live in tomorrow. These streets of tomorrow can be outlined today in paint.
Yes, “paint.” At comparatively low cost, paint has provided not only safer bicycling lanes, pedestrian crossings, reserved truck deliveries and emergency stopping, but space for pop-up parks and cafes. Free private automobile storage on public spaces—virtual walls of steel which are a major cause of congestion and pedestrian collisions—will be a luxury of the past.
The former commissioner concluded, “When I think what streets will look like in the next two decades, I hope the differences will be visible in the way that space is used, with more people waking on more attractive sidewalks landscaped with trees and greenery, riding bikes in safe well-designed lanes, or riding on state-of-the-art bus rapid transit lines that crisscross the city,”
Our streets are our most directly accessible outdoor living space, and extensions of our private indoor ones. They should be designed with the same care.