In 2014, Matthew Falber founded the Central Park Arch Project to advocate for restoring safety and empathy among the park’s users through design, after a series of crashes between cyclists and pedestrians threatened to pit the park’s users against each other. We talk with Falber about the concepts underlying Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s original plan for the park, and how uncovering and restoring the park’s original arches can return the space to a model of well-planned, inclusive circulation.
What originally drew you to Central Park?
I started out giving tours of Central Park and many other places in New York City. I’ve fallen in love with New York as a city. You look at all of the intricate parts that come together, and all of the people that live here, and all the things that people are doing — the many moving pieces, each of them interlocking and different. I am fascinated by that. Our city, both as a place where people live, and where they dream, helps facilitate all these moving relationships.
You talk about Central Park being a place to love, but also a place where people are killed. What made you start thinking about this?
In 2014, there were some very troubling things happening in Central Park. There were two fatal crashes between cyclists and pedestrians, and those were just the two that resulted in death. A number of other people were injured in the park that year — in collisions, sometimes between pedestrians and cyclists, sometimes between pedestrians and rollerbladers, sometimes between bicycles and bicycles. And these incidents were happening near crosswalks.
It just so happened that I was reading the New York Times one morning and noticed that a city official was blaming the park’s architects, Olmsted & Vaux. The official said that clearly the original park design was at fault, because too many things had been put close together in high-traffic locations.
I thought that this official was shifting blame, and was also factually incorrect. First of all, the park we have today is different from when it was first designed, due to the way we use it now, and how changes in use have altered the space of the park.
Interestingly enough, one of the original intentions in the design of the park was that pedestrians would never have to cross in front of carriages or people on horseback. That has been undone in many places. We also have areas like Sheep Meadow, where there were once sheep grazing, that are now large tourist draws, attracting tens of thousands of people. And not just tourists — locals, too. It’s a big local hangout. There are the restaurants at Tavern on the Green that weren’t there, the ice-skating rink that becomes an amusement park in the summertime, and Rumsey Playfield, where all those concerts and movies take place. None of these things were originally in the park. So not only was the city official’s statement not true, but as the park was set up in the beginning, there was actually some more thought to it that might have prevented the things that are going on.
What do you see as the original genius of the park, and how might that be brought out again, in a new configuration, to save lives and bring more enjoyment?
Central Park was created as the result of a design competition. One of the ways that Olmsted and Vaux’s plan stood out from others was their treatment of the four roads that cross through the park. These were required elements: all competitors had to include four roads across the park. Olmsted and Vaux looked at Broadway. At that time, people were in danger when they crossed the road, and with no traffic lights, a police escort was necessary to cross Broadway.
Olmsted did not want those transverse roads in the park to become surface dangers requiring police escort, so he and Vaux made a conscious decision to burrow the roads below grade, and build arches over them. Not only was this a good proposal, it was perhaps the first of its kind in the United States. It was so remarkable to the jury reviewing Olmsted and Vaux’s plan that they then encouraged them to extend the design idea to all intersecting roads within the park.
In setting up the infrastructure, Olmsted and Vaux looked very carefully at what modes of transportation people would be using along each road. Where they would be walking, where they would be on horseback, where they would be in carriages, where they would enter and leave the park. That was the aim and the ideal, in the middle of the 19th century, with no motor vehicles around. Nowadays, even as cars have become restricted, they still find their way into the park along the drives.
What we are now doing is retrofitting the park. What was originally a really smart, well-thought-out configuration of roads is being retrofitted to new types of traffic. The challenge is how more than 40 million annual park visitors can safely and enjoyably cross each other’s paths without conflict or collision. Perhaps the best answer to be found comes from unearthing innovations already present at many of the crossings: create crossing routes through arches.
The name of your foundation, the Central Park Arch Project, evokes a time in the park’s history when all these crossings were overlapping and layered, designed to co-exist, as you say, to avoid conflict and collision, and allow simultaneous yet discrete experiences of picturesque landscapes.
You extend the idea of the arch to embody, through good design, the ideal of empathy among park users. What’s really beautiful about the original park can become an innovative strategy to save lives. Give us some examples of arches in the park you see as lost or ignored that we might learn from in considering their return.
Likely the most controversial of the lost arches is the one we can best learn from: Marble Arch. The Central Park Mall, the long, straight, elm-lined promenade in the center of the park, extends north to Bethesda Terrace, which is probably the park’s most well-known arch. At the southern end of this promenade was Marble Arch, designed as a counterpoint.
The Mall there used to dip down under the Central Park Drive loop and cross under Marble Arch, coming up ceremonially on the other side. Right now, there’s a surface crossing at this location, regulated with a traffic light. Motor vehicles, horse carriages, pedicabs, cyclists — and rollerbladers and runners going in both directions — all pass through this intersection along the drive. Meanwhile, lots of people are crossing this intersection on foot, because the park is set up so this is a focal node of routes going north and south. All the pedestrian roads seemingly lead to this intersection.
Marble Arch was deconstructed, collapsed, and buried here by Robert Moses, when, in the 1930’s, he realigned the roads to accommodate motor vehicles traveling at higher speeds through Central Park along the loop. To fully reclaim Marble Arch would be an expensive undertaking, and from what I understand not something that city officials are presently very excited about. But the stress of Marble Arch’s absence is strongly felt in the resulting conflicts and collisions at this crossing. So, even if we don’t reclaim a Marble Arch there, it seems nonetheless like a telling point in the park for us to arrive at a solution — even if it is an arch that goes over the road.
There’s another crossing along the West Drive near the Delacorte Theatre, at 81st Street, the most dangerous intersection. In taking pictures of the intersection, I actually happened to witness two crashes there. In one of them, a cyclist was hit by four rollerbladers coming down the hill.
But this hill was not originally designed for rollerbladers or cyclists, or for the surface intersection: it’s part of Olmsted and Vaux’s design for the Winter Drive. They were masters at setting up the park as a sequence of discrete scenes of narrative landscape, unfolding before you as you traveled through them. They didn’t want you to see the upcoming road all at once. They wanted to surprise you as you went around bends and corners. They made the topography and landscape do this work for them.
So imagine now you’re coming south along West Drive, in a carriage. You were meant to look out at a scene reminiscent of winter, whether it’s summertime or wintertime, and you’re meandering along at a slow pace because you’re being drawn by a horse. And it’s Sunday. The intended experience of this road no longer exists today. Riders and skaters are coming down this bending slope that was meant to be a picturesque Sunday carriage drive at really high speeds, because they don’t want to burn through their brakes and the downhill’s a thrill, and at the very bottom of this long slope, unseen around the bend until the very end, is a crosswalk, purposely designed to have “poor” visibility.
It just so happens that this crosswalk was recently added to the park here, while the originally designed Winterdale Arch crosses under the drive right nearby. We’d like to see pedestrians utilizing Winterdale Arch instead of crossing the drive at the crosswalk. We’d like to see the walking paths in this part of the park amended so that the newer paths that bring people to the crosswalk are removed, bringing people instead under Winterdale Arch.
This innovation, in bringing original thoughtful design back into use, can actually solve the circulation problem that the New York City Department of Transportation and the Parks Department are trying hard and in good faith to solve, with ever more warning signs and striping and lighting resulting in little change in the collision statistics.
There seems to be a prevailing thought among those maintaining Central Park that the thousands of tourists and locals want to reach the drive loop itself so they can walk and bike and skate on it and cross it wherever they want. Those maintaining the park see their challenge as largely to make that current behavior safer through regulation.
The Central Park Conservancy has indicated that they’ve heard our message and agree with it. In fact, right now they have an initiative called Forever Green, for which they are raising $300 million outside of their annual $65 million park budget, just to correct items and places in Central Park in need of attention and repair. One of the stated priorities of this initiative is the arches. Whether changes like the ones I’m describing will be included has not yet been announced. We are already seeing improvements in the southern end of the park near Columbus Circle, for example to Greyshot Arch, where drainage and flooding issues have been ameliorated, making the archway a viable path.
The Central Park Arch Project offers several park walking tours of the arches, and on these tours, I’ve discovered something else: not many parkgoers know about the arches. This is something that Forever Green can help take on in their corrective work — simply to bring the arches back into collective consciousness and habit of mind.
What do you see as the role of Central Park in New York City?
Olmsted and Vaux originally designed the park as a scripted bucolic escape from the city, so, in fact, Central Park exists simultaneously as an escape and as a microcosm. Central Park was designed at a time, if you can imagine, when New York City was dirtier and smellier than it is today. It was also designed at a time when people perhaps got along worse than they do today. What’s remarkable is how, with all the types of people who live side by side in New York City, we manage to get along. Central Park is intricate like the city around it, and within this intricacy it is capable of containing many disparate activities running side by side at all hours. Our priority is to encourage these evolving forms of enjoyment and experience by drawing from Central Park and New York City’s innate strengths.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.