The Reorganized Street

Mayor Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan have created quite a lot of buzz today with their announcement of the pilot program “Green Light for Midtown.” The idea is that both automobile traffic flow and pedestrian safety (and sanity) can be improved, and public and green space can be increased, through two targeted street improvements at Times and Herald Squares that would remove vehicular traffic along Broadway between 42nd and 47th Streets, and 33rd through 35th Streets.

Over here at the Omnibus we can’t help but compare last week’s feature, Ulrich Franzen’s Street, and its engaging, if unfeasible, vision for a complete restructuring of the streets of Manhattan, with this seemingly smart, easily implementable plan to improve the safety and experience of pedestrians and drivers alike. The thing is, they both boil down to the same point: in Franzen’s words, “the reorganization of the streets can become the great strategy for urban rebirth.” The reorganized street. Though Franzen suggests reorganizing the streets on a wildly ambitious scale, his fundamental argument can be reduced to precisely this kind of intervention. They aren’t tearing apart the existing city and redesigning it from scratch. They are taking a problematic area – and what a problematic area it is. I don’t care if you are a pedestrian, a cyclist, or a driver, a resident, a business traveler, or a tourist, these areas are congested and hazardous – analyzing how it can be made better, and adjusting it to make it work for all involved parties. If the DOT’s studies are correct, and this will improve life for drivers and businesses as well as pedestrians, it will be an incredible and laudable endeavor that could dramatically change the way New Yorkers view their streets. Cheers to the city for testing this out. I wish you the best of luck. And while I’m at it, thanks to Ulrich Franzen for his bold, far-reaching visions – though I must admit I’m pleased that “Green Light for Midtown” doesn’t include a roofed-over, air-conditioned shopping mall spanning Broadway. We should all think big, and use our inspiration to tackle what’s at hand.

I find myself in Times or Herald Squares infrequently at best, but now I look forward to not dreading the times that I am. The narrator of Street concludes: “Ulrich Franzen believes that the vast street gridiron now choking the life of the people can now be reorganized to liberate it.” Hear hear.

Read details of the “Green Light for Midtown” plan at nyc.gov.

Varick Shute is the project manager of Urban Omnibus. She grew up in Manhattan and currently lives in Brooklyn.



2 Responses to “The Reorganized Street”

  1. Benjamin says:

    It is amazing that it has taken this long to implement a plan that seems to make so much sense for all involved!

    Now for the rest of Broadway– how fantastic it would be to have a pedestrian and bicycle corridor running the length of Manhattan. During last August’s all-to-brief “Summer Streets” experiment that closed Park and 4th Avenues to automotive traffic, I was struck by how many NYC residents brought bikes out of the woodwork, and how many of them would likely commute on two wheels if they had a safe, quick corridor to do so in the middle of Manhattan. Here’s our chance!

  2. David Smiley says:

    The recent proposal to pedestrianize parts of Broadway is a remarkable turning of the wheels of history. In the 20s and 30s architects and planners found, like the transportation analysts cited in recent news coverage, that the scourge of traffic movement was the intersection – turning traffic slowed down cars and pedestrians. Every generation since then has proposed either to create a raised pedestrian walkway – a few overpasses or an entire network (such as H. W. Corbett’s triple-decker proposal of the mid-20s) – or to close entire streets from vehicles, giving pedestrians a break, a chance to shop and better “channelizing” the moving vehicles on other routes. In 1948, Simon Breines, winner of the League’s Brunner Award in the mid-40s, proposed closing Fifth Avenue to cars to create a “pedestrian island” and showed how mid-block loading and u-turn zones could work. Ever active, Breines wrote in 1970 that the City should have a “Department of Pedestrian Engineering” to address safety and movement. At about the same time, Van Ginkel Associates proposed to close off Madison Avenue and the northern end of Times Square, providing safe and happy zones for pedestrians. These proposals appeared distinctly pragmatic compared to the Franzen proposal of 1969 which, despite the logic portrayed in his wonderful film, surreally joined on-the-ground planning issues with megastructural intervention (such reconciliations being an ironic tendency of the megastructure, as Reyner Banham pointed out). And the pedestrian malls that sprouted across the country in the 60s and 70s, only to be torn up a decade or two later, should give us pause – sometimes the car is part of the show. In any case, the funny thing about pedestrianization planning is that the renderings often look oh-so festival marketplace and, dare I say it, so suburban. But before anyone screams bias, I might also point out that the pedestrian zone was also integral to a Modernist vision – that superblocks and other techniques of managing the urban system depended on a smooth separation of movement types. So take your pick, suburban or Modernist, or some mongrel combination still capable (we hope) of producing a pleasing texture. So we’ll see how the 19th century plan accommodates a 20th century idea now applied to a 21st century set of users.

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