Friday, March 09, 2012

Planning for Pedestrians

The other day I received an advance copy of Straphanger, a book by Taras Grescoe about "saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile." Just a few days before that I had picked up a discard book at the CCNY library, The Pedestrian Revolution by Simon Breines and William J. Dean from 1974. Needless to say I've been on a little bit of a transportation kick as I read through these books. In particular the latter made me consider Queens West, a development built on formerly industrial land next to the East River, as the book illustrated an alternative future for the site.

queenswest2.jpg

The above aerial from Google Earth shows the Queens West Development today, or at least fairly recently; Phase 2 will happen (is underway?) in that gray patch at middle right. The neighborhood sits directly across from the United Nations (out of frame at top) and the southern tip of Roosevelt Island (top right in the photo, the future home of the FDR Four Freedoms Park by Louis I. Kahn). The continuation of the street grid, the waterfront park, and the high-rise residential towers on podiums combine to make the development a Queens version of Battery Park City. On numerous visits to the area -- my daughter likes the playgrounds there much more than in our neck of Long Island City/Astoria -- it always seems sterile, empty, and much more homogenous than the rest of the borough. Would it be any different if the below plan by Pomerance & Breines were implemented?

queenswest1.jpg
[East Point, a pedestrian district proposed for Queens | from The Pedestrian Revolution]

At first glance I'd say "no." The same mix of high rises atop or astride bases -- rendered in the style of Paul Rudolph or other contemporaries -- appears to be the same sort of placemaking as the current development, if centered a little bit north of Queens West (it's center of gravity is the canal inlet visible on the right side of the top aerial). But Breines' description from the book elucidates the potential differences:
Residents would arrive by subway, bus, ferry, or cars to be parked in garages at the periphery of the district. Goods and services would be brought to East Point from the landward side via a finger system of vehicular streets which dead-end short of the waterfront area. The spaces between the fingers, the marina and the waterfront park are pedestrian areas. An existing lagoon is retained to create a modern-day Piazza San Marco. [my emphasis]
While the notion of a modern-day Piazza San Marco on the Queens side of the East River is borderline delusional, the car-free zones that make up most of the district echo Roosevelt Island's 1969 masterplan, which "divided the island into three residential communities and forbade the use of automobiles on the island." As realized, the latter uses a large parking structure near the access bridge from Queens to corral the cars; a people mover shuttles residents up and down the island. So Breines was using an immediate precedent in his proposal. It is something that makes sense on Roosevelt Island, which has one main street along its skinny spine, but not this part of Queens where most people would probably not venture, 20  minutes to Midtown or not.

It's interesting to see how the desire for pedestrian streets has not waned over the years -- it's stronger than ever, witness Times Square -- but its form has changed. Be it in cities like Copenhagen or New York City, pedestrian streets are inserted after the fact rather than planned. (Of course, I'll admit we have less land to be planning pedestrian districts like above, but big plans are still happening in NYC and other cities.) Design happens in either case, but in the former scenario the life of a street in all its diversity is observed; therefore planners can determine what streets should be pedestrianized, rather than making that decision beforehand and failing, because the life and density required to sustain it aren't there. East Point/Queens West is not an ideal candidate, whatever the scenario/reality. Other part of Queens (Flushing, Jamaica) would probably benefit from pedestrian streets, something the city is hopefully considering after the pilot projects in Times Square and Herald Square.

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