By Barry Benepe
In the earlier part of this series, I pointed out how our former Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan advanced the design and use of streets to make them more pedestrian friendly. An excellent example was the reclaiming of the east side of Broadway above 17th Street for cafe tables and green plantings. In this segment we will experience streets as a fundamental aspect of urban design and settings for architecture.
When the Commissioners established the 1811 Manhattan grid, they did much more than direct traffic. They established the constraints under which buildings would be built with side yards, rear yards and front yards from which they would obtain light and air. In addition they would be laying out the gravitational grid to carry away the liquid and solid wastes generated by these buildings and providing the drinking and washing water used by them along with communication lines, electric, gas and steam power.
The final and most expressive power of the street is in the architecture which shapes them. Speaking at “Streetscapes For Wellness,” sponsored by the Fine Arts Federation of NY on December 2, Erick Gregory, a member of the NYC Planning Commission said, “The interaction of buildings with streets is where we can do more planting.” Josh Langham, a member of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene added, “Being outside in the open is the only option for personal interaction with others.” The strongest example of this is the no longer existing Park Avenue, which in 1922 was truly a park, without steel walls of parked motor vehicles. May it one day revert to its one-time beauty.
Streets along rivers, free of parked cars, clearly define the water edge. Battery Park City and the Hudson River Park both powerfully express the river edge of the city. These are most powerfully expressed where Paris borders the Seine River where waterfront cafes abound and pedestrians lounge on the pavements, like minnows lying on the side of a sleeping whale. Freed of the free parking by private motor vehicles, public streets are safer to cross allowing clear views of on-coming motor vehicles. Vehicle speed can be slowed by curving streets as is done by NYCDOT in their Shared Streets designs.
Our streets of the future will turn back the clock to undo the rubbing out of the city’s natural forms. We will leave the peace and tranquility of our indoor homes for the peace and tranquility of our outdoor living rooms, where we will enjoy an informal association with others in a quiet landscaped environment, part street and part park (It is interesting that Frederick Law Olmsted, the co-designer with Calvert Vaux of Central Park, claims to have originated the word “park” to describe their Greensward). Free of parked cars, our outdoor public spaces will be free to flow seamlessly into each other.
As Janette Sadik-Khan summarized our challenge, “When I think of what streets will look like in the next two decades, I hope that the differences will be visible in the way that space is used, with more people walking on more attractive sidewalks landscaped with trees and greenery . . . ”