Many of New York’s best known places fall short as public destinations. People may crowd Times Square’s sidewalks before seeing a show, for instance, but few relish the experience. Imagine the difference if the multitude of attractions in Times Square were connected by a cohesive pedestrian environment. New York is filled with such opportunities–major districts and corridors that could greatly enrich the city for residents and visitors. Improving these crucial places is a critical step towards implementing a public space agenda for the city.
PPS is, in partnership with Transportation Alternatives, spearheading the NYC Streets Renaissance Campaign to bring common sense improvements to neighborhood streets. Read more about it here.
Of all the streets in Manhattan, Broadway has the most inherent potential, especially where it cuts across the grid of Manhattan and forms irregular intersections. From 218th Street to the Battery, opportunities abound to create a series of great destinations. Consider this partial list of important intersections, attractions, institutions and amenities along the way:
- 165th Street and Columbia Presbyterian Hospital
- 125th Street
- 110th Street and Columbia University
- 72nd Street at the IRT express station
- 66th Street and Lincoln Center
- 59th Street/Columbus Circle
- 42nd Street/Times Square
- 34th Street/Herald Square
- 23rd Street/Madison Square
- 14th Street/Union Square
- Below 14th Street, where a new world of opportunity opens up as the street grid becomes more irregular.
All of these places could be made into great public squares, with the re-designed Broadway serving as a pedestrian-oriented link between them. Improved pedestrian connections, special street-level transit service (such as low-floor buses), and beautifully designed bus stops would dramatically change the perception of what should be the greatest street in Manhattan. Even locations that already have their own identity as public spaces could improve exponentially. Times Square, for instance, is currently the most crowded and pedestrian-hostile destination in North America, which the New York City DOT still views as the exclusive domain of the auto. Meanwhile, London has restricted auto access within an area twice the size of Times Square, turning Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, and Trafalgar Square into the world’s premier entertainment district. Broadway is New York’s single best chance to match or exceed what London and other global cities are doing to improve the public realm.
The corollary to Broadway is Fifth Avenue. Together, Manhattan’s most prominent corridors could simultaneously re-emerge as city-defining streets, connecting nearly every one of Manhattan’s neighborhoods to an island-spanning network of great squares and linear public spaces.
Fifth Avenue could regain its pre-eminence as America’s great shopping street if the emphasis on through-traffic were greatly reduced. From 125th Street, down past the world-class collection of museums alongside Central Park, to 59th Street and Grand Army Plaza, this dismal and over-trafficked stretch could become a great boulevard and walking experience, home to a breathtaking array of destinations. Simply reducing the travel lanes by one and widening the sidewalks on both sides, adding attractive bus stops and amenities interspersed with small kiosks for food and drink, is a logical first step. Going further, the entrances to the park could become large plazas, with two-way bus service (redesigned as a low floor/easily-accessible shuttle with priority over other forms of travel) removing a lane of traffic. These steps would transform this part of Fifth Avenue into a treasured public space commensurate with its great institutions.
From 59th Street to 34th Street, where traffic is currently at its most aggressive, Fifth Avenue should be re-imagined as a shopping boulevard, a pedestrian-oriented zone where vehicles are secondary to the walking experience and retail environment. Two-way traffic should be re-instated to allow buses and taxis to pick people up going both ways, which is how Fifth Avenue operated in its prime. These steps would completely transform New Yorkers’ conception of Fifth Avenue as a public space. Where it is now perceived as a few short, somewhat isolated segments, the new Fifth Avenue would be known as a recognizable whole, a complete street running from Harlem to Washington Square Park with distinct sectors linked by their shared identity as places to be enjoyed on foot.
Although Times Square’s bright billboards and neon lights endow it with a strikingly visual sense of place, visitors on foot quickly realize that all the magnetism lies above the ground floor. Building entrances are compromised by security measures, the quality and mix of retail is poor, and the sidewalks are incredibly congested. Traffic lights are timed for vehicles, forcing pedestrians to crowd uncomfortably at every intersection. Once the initial impact fades away, Times Square lacks a critical quality shared by every successful public space: It doesn’t make you want to go back.
Compare New York’s biggest entertainment district to London’s and you’ll get a sense of what the city is missing out on. Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, and Covent Gardens form a ring of pedestrian-oriented public space in central London that extends deep into the adjoining streets and alleys. In short, traffic has been tamed to benefit street life. Times Square, in contrast, is all traffic, with heavy auto congestion on every street. Whatever thrill visitors experience at the glittering spectacle of the place is overwhelmed by the anxiety of being squeezed into narrow, constricted sidewalks.
However, as long as rents and occupancies remain high and the streets remain safe, the situation in Times Square will not be perceived as a crisis. Instead, the quality of life in the district will simply continue to deteriorate as pedestrian crowding worsens and ground floor retail and entrances slowly become less inviting. The City must dramatically raise expectations for Times Square and reposition it in the minds of New Yorkers. Traffic counts must be superseded by the pedestrian experience of visitors and office workers. Times Square must cease to be a place you simply pass through and gawk at, and become a true district with a series of destinations valued by tourists and New Yorkers alike.
The first step should be to constrain traffic inside the Times Square boundary. Giving pedestrians more freedom of movement will enable even the most jaded Times Square office worker to enjoy the crowds again. What’s more, defining Times Square as a pedestrian-oriented environment will enlarge the perception of the area beyond the “bowtie” formed by the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Broadway. Rather than the well-known image of the overly congested “crossroads of the world,” the next Times Square will be thought of as a true district, pleasantly crowded yet expansive–good enough to rival the center of London or any other global city.
Though it has grown to become one of the top urban squares in America, Union Square still has a long way to go before matching the caliber of the world’s best, such as Krakow’s Rynek Glowny or Plaza Hidalgo in Mexico City. For pedestrians on the north, east, and south edges of Union Square, the streets are so traffic-heavy that the public space recedes into the background. The southeast corner, where a profusion of car-oriented street design has isolated the whole area, is particularly bad. Elsewhere, the pavilion structure on the north end is a pedestrian obstacle between the park and the paved surface that hosts the popular Greenmarket. And while the park’s dog run and playgrounds are well-used, Union Square does not capitalize on what may be its chief asset: the central lawn. This could be its most important gathering space, feeding off the activity in the park’s surrounding edges and corners. Currently, however, there are few entry points and it is not fulfilling this role.
Reducing the negative impact of Union Square’s edge streets (already accomplished on the west side) would strengthen its connections to the surrounding neighborhood and add immensely to the overall activity of the area. In particular, transforming Broadway into a great boulevard, as discussed above, would have a very positive effect on the north side, creating a more cohesive pedestrian environment leading into the Greenmarket site. Coupled with making the existing pavilion structure easier for people on foot to pass through, this would create a much more identifiable “market plaza” flowing seamlessly into the interior park. Like other New York markets, Union Square’s Greenmarket is a wonderful use of public space that is ready to evolve a step further (see Nine Ways to Transform New York into a City of Great Places). By adding a greater variety of vendors drawn from the local community to the current mix of sellers, or holding different types of markets (book markets or repair markets, for example) on non-Greenmarket days, this neighborhood institution can expand its influence and keep the north side of Union Square alive with activity every day of every week, all through the year.
Other major Broadway intersections (72nd Street, 59th Street, Times Square, Herald Square) have benefited from at least some effort to improve streets for pedestrians. Not Lincoln Center. Here at 66th Street, Broadway consists of eight southbound lanes of traffic. There are few amenities to make the area comfortable for pedestrians and little activity to entice them.
Lincoln Center itself is a one-dimensional development. The layout of the renowned performing arts venue caters mostly to the clientele who drive in from the West Side Highway and make use of the facility’s abundant parking. The monolithic architecture and insular plan limit the relationship between its great institutions–including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and the New York Philharmonic–and the surrounding neighborhood. An overhaul of the campus is in the works, which may address some of these shortcomings. Expanding its public space programming and improving the pedestrian environment of adjacent streets will do even more to integrate Lincoln Center into the public realm.
Although Lincoln Center’s central public space, Josie Robertson Plaza, occasionally hosts successful events (such as dance lessons), more regular programming and arts-related public activities would bring in additional constituencies. Furthermore, there is a huge untapped audience for the arts that Lincoln Center seldom draws from–pedestrians. In the immediate vicinity of the campus, adding more public amenities would encourage walkers to linger and acquaint themselves with what’s going on. The sections of Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue south of Lincoln Center are also in drastic need of an overhaul. Amsterdam is simply too wide, but could easily become a great street much like nearby Columbus Avenue. And Broadway from Lincoln Center to Columbus Circle would benefit enormously from a widened, walkable center median, akin to Barcelona’s Ramblas, full of street vendors and seating. Enhancing these pedestrian connections is perhaps the most effective way to make Lincoln Center the public destination it deserves to be.
Battery Park City
Without a doubt, Battery Park City’s strength is its management, which is a true model for public spaces everywhere. The design is full of weaknesses, however, that management can at best camouflage. Recent additions like Teardrop Park and the Irish Hunger Memorial have exacerbated the district’s problems.
The main public space, a plaza linked to the esplanade and the indoor Winter Garden, is active at times thanks to the mix of office and residential space, the ferry service across the Hudson, and some ground floor retail. However, the retail level, obscured behind formal architectural facades that leave many visitors unaware of its presence, doesn’t really connect to the public space. Outdoor restaurant seating somewhat compensates for this shortcoming, but there is no real diversity of use. Real public seating is limited, and there’s simply not much to engage people besides taking a stroll.
The southern residential area, while pleasant, suffers from a similar lack of genuine urban variety. This section of the esplanade has little commercial activity, with pieces of public art placed at intervals off to the side. It includes a landscaped path lined with rocks and trees that fails to accommodate basic human needs, like finding a comfortable place to sit and take in the salty air. As an experience the whole stretch is merely a nice walk. Initial steps toward making it a more sociable public space might include aligning the public art directly along the esplanade to create small nodes of activity, or complementing the “natural” area with a major focal point, such as a seasonal café with public seating.
Overall, Battery Park City does not compare favorably to similar developments in other cities, such as Circular Quay in Sydney, Granville Island in Vancouver, and Stockholm Harbor, which combine an extraordinary variety of activity that can only come together at the waterfront. The energizing messiness that permeates so much of New York–and would work so well in a waterfront setting–is instead kept at bay here. Battery Park City could evolve into a diverse and exciting place, but first many of the development’s underlying assumptions will have to change.
Few streets carry the weight and reputation of a neighborhood the way 125th Street does. The economic, social and spiritual wealth of Harlem has historically been assessed by walking down 125th Street and taking its measure. At different times, it has been regarded as a symbol of the neighborhood’s decline, and as evidence of a meteoric comeback.
Even if you’ve been down 125th Street a hundred times before, the experience is a powerful one. Today, its wealth of historic buildings, performance venues, and independently-owned stores stand alongside national retail outlets of more recent vintage. The street is infused with Harlem’s rich cultural life, and, in a more prosaic vein, it benefits from frequent public bus service. The foundation is present for what could be one of the world’s best streets.
Despite those strengths, 125th Street is far from a great public space. During rush hour, traffic fills the street, making it difficult for people to cross safely and creating noise and pollution that further degrade the pedestrian environment. The problem persists at non-rush hour times, when pedestrians are threatened by vehicles speeding down the freed-up roadway and making quick turns. Curb cuts and gaps in sidewalk retail caused by auto-oriented development further interfere with street continuity and walkability. As a result, the real energy and attraction of 125th Street is mostly bottled up inside the restaurants, clubs, theaters, and other local businesses for which it is famous, seldom spilling forth into the public realm.
The challenge now is to optimize the assets of 125th Street as it navigates a period of substantial growth and change. Pedestrian needs must be better served, the street environment enlivened, and new businesses incubated, all while retaining the authenticity and small-scale appeal of the city’s most recognizable African American neighborhood. Then 125th Street will be a public space befitting its historic significance.
Allen and Pike Streets
Together, Allen and Pike Streets form a single thoroughfare from Houston Street to the East River. Allen and Pike were supposed to become an airy boulevard after the elevated train that ran overhead was put underground in the 1930s. Seven decades later, however, the street is still a scar slicing through the heart of the Lower East Side.
The pavement, fencing, benches and drainage are wrecked, but the problem is not just a matter of maintenance. The geometry of the boulevard presently consists of one lane of parking, three lanes of traffic, a narrow median, another three lanes of traffic, and another lane of parking. In other words, the median is sandwiched in the middle of a major arterial roadway. Although the road is a designated cycling route and a major path down to the waterfront, even the median’s intended users–pedestrians and bicyclists–avoid it.
This is not just any road, either. Along with East Broadway, which it intersects, Allen and Pike form a central corridor of the “new Chinatown,” welcoming the next wave of Chinese immigrants to New York. Plans are moving forward to build new housing along its entire length and a “China Town Hall” at its central juncture near Canal Street. Many important neighborhood institutions care deeply about Allen and Pike Streets and have already invested in reviving them.
To succeed, the Allen/Pike boulevard must emerge as a real destination. The proposed China Town Hall, which will house the neighborhood’s social service agencies, is a start. Adding a public plaza in front of the building would create space for local organizations to showcase their missions and do even more to create a sense of place. With new housing on the way, it is especially imperative to connect the neighborhood to the waterfront. Re-imagining Allen and Pike with details such as sidewalk art, articulated lampposts, banners, interpretive panels, and other elements to celebrate the neighborhood’s rich cultural history could finally make walking a pleasure.
Financially, Madison Avenue is a huge success. Commercial tenants from 57th Street to 97th Street–a nearly continuous row of small stores–pay some of the highest rents in the world, and on some blocks second story shops add to the already exceptional variety of retail offerings. While most of these establishments cater to a very wealthy clientele, window shopping costs nothing and is a time-honored pursuit of New Yorkers of every class. But the pleasure of gazing at things you can’t afford is lost when traffic roars by and jars you from the reverie. Comparable high-end shopping streets in Paris, London, Los Angeles, and Palm Beach have a much greater sense of theater (and even democracy) because they give people a proper stage. Simply varying sidewalk widths on Madison Avenue and expanding sidewalks on cross streets would coax many more residents and visitors to perform in this particular street ballet, dramatically enhancing a major New York asset.