Gov. Andrew Cuomo and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson called for making New York City streets safer for pedestrians and social distancing while we all stay close to home. Mayor de Blasio responded with a program to open more space for pedestrians on one street per borough.
We can do more. We should use this time when traffic is light to work on ideas for safer, quieter, and more pleasant streets for pedestrians and cyclists now and in the future. During this COVID-19 crisis, we can implement ideas that are great for the long-term health of the city. Specifically, let’s make some of our quiet side-streets primarily for cyclists and walkers.
A space is only a place if people want to be there. The chicane shown above is for traffic calming, not placemaking. Putting that another way, it’s a product of traffic engineering, not a piece of urban design.
I understand this design is a step towards something better, which is slower, safer streets in New York City. I support that, but there’s no reason it can’t be a better place for people than it is. This is supposed to be a shared-space street, and there are better ways to get to that goal.
We know from social science and neuroscience studies that both our conscious and unconscious thoughts gravitate to beauty and seek to avoid ugliness. Our conscious minds might think the “flexible delineator posts” make sense and don’t look too bad, but our unconscious self is repelled. It sees the cheap plastic sticks and other cues that mark the space as a place for machines, and it knows that’s a dangerous place for humans.
The easiest way to make a place for people on a straight street is to line everything up: the buildings, the sidewalks, the trees, the roadway, and even the paint (if there is paint—see below). Continue reading →
AVs will be programmed to stop immediately if a pedestrian steps in front of them to cross the street—and we all know that given the opportunity, New Yorkers will do that all day. That would make Manhattan traffic move even more slowly than it does now.
Companies that have invested billions of dollars in self-driving cars will do their best to stop that. There is already talk of facial-recognition software to identify the pedestrian troublemakers interrupting traffic. Pedestrians and motor vehicles will be even more strictly segregated than they are now. This goes against one of the most popular trends in street use today, which is a movement towards what is known as “shared space.”
Google, Uber, and the Road Ahead
Big Tech + Big Finance = Organized Motordom 2.0
Coming Soon To A Street Near You
Philip [Johnson] was always a perfect gentleman of the old school. But once I saw his wit and grace take an almost grandfatherly form.
It was at the end of a splendid fall day that I had spent with him at New Canaan, reporting an article I was writing for Vanity Fair. My wife and children arrived to pick me up. As he came out of the Glass House to greet them, casting long shadows in the golden, late afternoon sun, my then-four-year-old daughter surveyed the Empyrean scene and its ancient, white, wizard-ish lord.
He welcomed her, and she looked up at him and earnestly asked, “Were you here when the world first started?”
“At last,” he replied, taking her two little hands in his, “someone who ‘understands’ me.”
TWO VERY DIFFERENT DEVELOPMENTS from the early 1980s are important landmarks in the recent history of urban design and street design. Battery Park City, a ninety-two-acre extension of Manhattan in the Hudson River that was built on landfill from the construction site of the World Trade Center, has office towers, mid-rise and high-rise apartment buildings, and stores. Seaside, Florida, an eighty-acre development on the Florida panhandle, is a resort built in the form of a town. What the two places have in common is that their streets were designed with many of the placemaking principles outlined in this book. Both projects were a radical departure from the conventional practice of the time. The histories of both demonstrate how auto-centric regulations across the country hinder the making of good streets.
It wasn’t that people didn’t understand the principles; by the early 1980s, they had been talked about and praised for at least two decades. Jane Jacobs wrote the enormously popular The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, Bernard Rudofsky published Streets for People1 (also very popular) in 1969, and William H. “Holly” Whyte had been publishing his influential studies of how people use urban space since the late 1960s.2 Despite professional acceptance of the theories, however, most of the sprawl in America was built after the publication of Death and Life. Many planners endorsed these works, but the American Planning Association and its members continued to promote regulations based on an auto-centric separation of uses, with road standards established by the engineering profession’s anti-urban functional Classification system. “The pseudoscience of planning,” Jacobs wrote, “seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and to ignore empiric success.3Continue reading →
Urbanism takes time. Fifty years might pass before the last streets, parks, or buildings drawn in a master plan are completed. Or, during those fifty years, there might be two new master plans. Most of us involved in urban design will be dead before any of our plans are fully built out.
The Seaside plan was drawn in 1981. When Progressive Architecture visited in 1984, forty buildings had gone up, which is less than 10 percent of the final number.5 As we write this in 2013, there are still a few lots that haven’t been built on, and the downtown is less than half complete. Continue reading →
The debate continues over how to make New York City’s streets less crowded, safer and better for people as well as cars. Some, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, call for congestion pricing in Manhattan, although so far the New York State Legislature has not allowed that. Mayor Bill de Blasio and groups such as Transportation Alternatives promote Vision Zero, aiming for zero traffic deaths in New York City by 2024.
It’s worth looking at European cities, which have led the movement to make city streets that are as good for public life as they are for driving. In recent months, I’ve visited four of the cities with the most innovative street designs: London, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Continue reading →
TOM WOLFE died last week. Here’s a story about a kind thing he did for me over 25 years ago.
I was in the lobby at the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, where I had been invited to speak at an architecture conference. The keynote speakers were Tom Wolfe and James Howard Kunstler, but Jim had to cancel, and he recommended that they invite me to speak in his place.
When I got there, it was clear that they were wary. I was young, they didn’t know me, and this was a big day for them.
I was standing at the registration desk, feeling awkward, when Tom Wolfe walked in.
“Hi Tom,” I said, “Do you remember me?”
“JOHN MASSENGALE,” he said, in a large stage voice, “the man who taught me everything I know about architecture.”
A LONG TIME AGO, I turned on “All Things Considered” just in time to hear someone talking about suburban sprawl. He spoke for about a minute, succinctly saying things I was thinking about but had not said as well or concisely.
“We have been speaking with James Howard Kunstler, who lives in Saratoga Springs, New York,” the announcer said, and I called information to get his phone number (which shows how long ago this was).
I called him. He answered, and I started to introduce myself.
“Take your amnesia pills, John,” he said. “You’re in the book.”
New York City’s Historic Districts and Landmarks Are Under Siege
Have you noticed how many ideas and movements from the 1960s are back in a big way? Feminism. The civil rights movement. Streets for People, which was the title of a book Bernard Rudofsky wrote in 1969. New York’s own Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 and protested the demolition of Penn Station in 1963. In 1965, New York City passed its historic Landmarks Preservation Act and created the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Continue reading →