This post will look at examples of urban design found during a weekend that I spent in Manhattan in the fall of 2012. There are three sets of pictures, each indicating an example of effective urban design/management, and one that isn’t.

First, we look at the multi-use paths on either side of the river.

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The first image is from the East 30s in Midtown, with the East River on the right and FDR Drive on the left. The second image is taken in Lower Manhattan at Battery Park, along the Hudson River and Upper Bay. While this picturesque Battery Park scene is what residents and planners would like to see across New York’s waterfront, there are rather large hurdles to overcome. The Battery scene features expansive walkways, benches, lamposts, specialty pavement, and significant greenery. Taken at similar times of the day, the difference in could not be more night-and-day. The first image is the terminal of the East River Esplanade, but very little about it has elements that are appealing. Most importantly, the stacked roadways are the biggest impediment. This, as many have pointed out, cuts off the waterfront from the people. How are users to safely and conveniently access recreation options? What will have to be done to stabilie the pier behind the barbed wire? If such an area remains cut-off, how will security be enforced? How will the public know that they can use the resource?

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This set of images contrasts two Manhattan landmarks: a block of storied (and envied) brownstones versus the ivy wall covering the back of Tudor City (in the East lower 40s, directly opposite the UN headquarters). While both areas are pleasing, the biggest difference is the implication that “somebody lives here”. Though being along a well-trafficked boulevard, the sidewalk in the second image is deserted. An imposing wall cuts off this area from other pedestrian-trafficked areas, and the lack of “places to go” renders this space an empty thoroughfare. Greenery and benches help a bit, but if they are not maintained or used, what use does this serve to the community? The brownstone image, however, makes it very clear that people use that area. Window plants and immaculate landscaping give the impression that somebody does care for the area, and its being surrounded by private homes and businesses enables constant utility of the area.

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These final two images show two different gatherings of large people (near simultaneously), utilizing their respective areas for different purposes and in very different ways. Yet the underlying idea – providing a space for crowds – is indicated through different scenarios to varying degrees of success. The first image is of Little Italy during the Feast of San Gennaro: a popular festival in which streets are closed, vendors are brought to the streets, and decorations are strung across the neighborhood. This enables a sense of community, because crowds are streaming (though not uncomfortably so) through narrow thoroughfares, and interact with the different vendors and activities in the same space. The image below shows Foley Square serving as a site for displaced Occupy Wall Street protestors. Here, the gathering demonstrates the poor ability of the space to function as a gathering place. Broad swathes of concrete with little shade provide little relief from the elements and – while providing maximum room for a maximum amount of people that the space will most likely never see – provides little incentive to stay. Furthermore, because the plaza is surrounded by government buildings, an overbearing security presence provides discomfort for users of the space.

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