Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pedestrians Take to the Streets

On Sunday, city crews closed sections of Broadway in Times Square (from 42nd to 47th Streets) and Herald Square by Macy's (from 33rd to 35th Streets). In a New York Times article by Nicolai Ouroussoff, and an accompanying slide show, we see the dramatic change that occurs when cars give way to people on foot, but we also read about how much work still needs to be done to make these actually well-designed spaces in the city.

While I have experienced last year's improvements of the 34th-42nd Street and Madison Square Park stretches of Broadway (lifeless or lively depending on weather and time of day), I've yet to walk these new pedestrian promenades. Nevertheless their repetition of last year's combination of safety bollards, tables and chairs, and (maybe) some surface aggregate and paint is a rudimentary response to a long-term vision for making parts of the city more amenable to pedestrians. It's clear from photos that the city's urban designers need to step up to make the design of these pedestrian areas reflect the intentions behind the car-closing.

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[Broadway in Times Square Saturday and Monday | image source]

Much of the decision to create these pedestrian zones comes from the input of Denmark's Jan Gehl. As Ouroussoff points out, the success of Copenhagen's pedestrian areas took a long time and was a pull-and-take effort where closings were tested over time. The same appears to be happening in Manhattan, but the city must realize that the design of the street will play a part in the success of the closings, as will be what abuts the street, its frontage. In my opinion these stretches of Broadway are not the best test cases, chosen most likely for being tourist locales and therefore making impressions on visitors. It lacks the intimate scale and fine-grain retail of Stone Street or the continuity of just about any east-west street. The breaking up of the pedestrian zone by cross-town traffic that Ouroussoff mentions reminds me of the ubiquitous summer street fairs, hardly a great precedent for a pedestrian takeover of what truly belongs to them, but a worthy comparison.

The street fairs illustrate the importance of scale and frontage in a pedestrian zone. Typically occupying the wide north-south avenues, the street fairs delineate a smaller space down the center of the street, in the placement of the repeated bays of tents where the backs of the tents "front" the sidewalk, ironically making this typical pedestrian zone empty. And by fronting the new pedestrian zone in the center with food, music, wares the space is activated. The temporary fairs clearly indicate how scale and frontage activate pedestrian life, but they leave little to be desired in terms of design and the crass commercialism of the enterprises. I think narrow east-west streets would be great candidates in Manhattan for pedestrian zones, becoming public spaces more like parks than like retail malls, catering to residents instead of tourists, fronted by stoops not Duane Reades. And let's not forget there's plenty of areas in the other boroughs worthy of car-free streets.

2 comments:

  1. I would have to agree with you in saying that the street closures in New York will have trouble catching on as a long term policy. I think much of the reason is not only the mindset of most New Yorkers to the importance of cars but also the scale of the buildings in the city. It seems to me that the buildings do not create much of a sense of belonging because many of the buildings are more imposing than anything else. This is not to say that all the areas are not nice to walk in (as we can clearly see in your photos) but I think that the frontage of the buildings has a lot to do with how people receive the pedestrian areas.

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  2. I think they will catch on once they are properly designed. The buildings may be imposing currently because there isn't a human scale to a lot of the streets. Fast traffic and tall buildings make people feel uncomfortable, however, if you add some trees, benches, planters, take out the cars and perhaps install some cafe kiosks and street vendors those same city streets will be much more comfortable. New Yorkers and the rest of Americans (and everyone throughout the world I guess) will soon realize that the importance of the automobile is a self driven fantasy. They are incredibly unpractical for a city. If NY instigated the car tax and gas prices rise again and some streets are converted into pedestrian parks people will see the advantage to using public transportation, biking, and walking.

    -Lucas Gray
    www.talkitect.com

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