In 1969, architect and urban planner Ulrich Franzen articulated, through the film above, a bold vision to reclaim Manhattan’s congested streets as open space free from cars and trucks. Forty years later, our sense of urgency about the ecological imperative of transforming how we transport goods, information and people from place to place has increased, but the terms of the debate about how to accommodate the various competing uses of our streets have not changed much. Road-based, limited-occupancy vehicles still provide the most flexible and often most comfortable routes around the city. And as much as we may like to think otherwise, bicycles and subways are only part of the answer. Critics who pit cars against people often seem to forget that people drive cars, buy the products trailer trucks deliver and produce the waste that garbage trucks remove.
These days, the policy prescriptions that aim to limit city-dwellers’ reliance on cars tend to take the form of disincentives and prohibitions, such as congestion pricing or restrictive parking. While recent design initiatives in New York City, most visibly the Department of Transportation’s appropriation of street space for quiet zones or bicycle lanes, represent pro-active steps in a positive direction, rarely do they address how best to service the city through deliveries and removal. Building a new physical superstructure that would serve to segregate uses – as Franzen’s film argues – at first glance seems to be as unfashionable a grand projet as housing the poor in “towers in the park” or ramming expressways through vibrant neighborhoods. The challenges such large public works engendered did much to discredit the planning profession in the 1960s and 70s and pushed urbanism away from large-scale physical design and towards local, social-scientifically informed and policy-oriented interventions. Only in the last few years has there been a resurgence of the big vision in urban planning and design. Perhaps the new stimulus plan just approved in Washington will provoke – in reaction if not in implementation – a serious reconsideration of our country’s thus far inconsistent and uncoordinated approach to infrastructure, energy and transportation.
In this light, Franzen’s film has much to teach us. The challenges facing our cities are not new, and yet our historical memory is very short, particularly about radical propositions that went untested and unbuilt. This is not to suggest that we try to implement the plan expressed in this film wholesale, but rather that we learn from past arguments that simultaneously propose new infrastructural forms while advocating for sharing resources through use-on-demand systems. The boldness of Franzen’s vision and forms belies the intricacy of his thinking, the subtle interplay between street and city, between retrofitting and building anew, between applying design expertise and consulting citizens’ priorities, and lastly between two urban concepts that are uttered so often that they have almost lost their meaning: sustainability and infrastructure.