August 3, 2010
by Murrye Bernard Assoc. AIA LEED AP

Event: New York City Streets: Top-Down, Bottom-Up
Location: Center for Architecture, 07.28.10
Speakers: Janette Sadik-Khan — Commissioner, NYC Department of Transportation; Elizabeth Berger — President, Alliance for Downtown New York; Tim Tompkins — President, Times Square Alliance; Noah Budnick — Deputy Director, Transportation Alternatives; Joan Byron — Director, Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative, Pratt Center for Community Development; Thomas Yu — Co-Chair, Chinatown Working Group
Respondents: Rob Eisenstat, AIA — Assistant Chief Architect, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; Tom Wright — Executive Vice President, Regional Plan Association; Randall Morton, AIA — Partner, Cooper, Robertson & Partners
Moderator: Walter Hook — Executive Director, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy
Organizer: Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in collaboration with AIANY

TimesSquare

“Cool Water” by Molly Dilworth in Times Square.

Courtesy NYC Department of Transportation

People love public spaces, but balancing them with the demands of NYC’s streets is challenging. Thanks to the work of the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) and other organizations, the streets are becoming greener and more conducive to lingering.

DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan discussed pilot projects, including new urban plazas in Herald Square and Madison Square and closing Broadway through Times Square. Though these projects greatly improve the streetscape, they are not expensive. “You can do a lot with a paint can and brush,” she said, and, in some cases, simply providing seating makes all the difference. Tim Tompkins of the Times Square Alliance agreed. Last summer, after the new pedestrian plaza opened, he ordered cheap lawn chairs to offer a moment of respite within chaos. That move drew even lifelong New Yorkers to the tourist mecca.

In Lower Manhattan, Elizabeth Berger sought big ideas. Twelve design firms were invited by the Downtown Alliance to re-imagine the area dubbed “Greenwich South,” though smaller-scale efforts such as the transformation of Water Street into an active pedestrian thoroughfare may be realistically achieved within a few years. Joan Byron of Pratt’s Center for Community Development advocates the removal of the Sheridan Expressway to reconnect the Hunts Point neighborhood with the Bronx and make room for mixed-income housing.

Developer Thomas Yu discussed Chinatown’s love/hate relationship with its infamous buses. Though he believes that they provide an “economic lifeline,” they also create noise and pollution that is unpleasant for pedestrians navigating Chinatown’s already crowded streets. Noah Budnick of Transportation Alternatives suggested that NYC’s general speed limit be lowered to 20 mph, a speed at which pedestrians have a 40% higher chance of surviving a collision than the current 30 mph limit.

As a result of the ideas and advocacy from these interrelated organizations, the streets of NYC are becoming more pedestrian-friendly. However, these varied strategies prove that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for such a diverse city.

Murrye Bernard, LEED AP, is a freelance architectural writer and a contributing editor to e-Oculus.

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