Gehl to New York: Lose the Cars

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Friday, November 14, 2008
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When the Danish urban-design guru Jan Gehl visited New York a few years ago, he was struck by how little the city had changed since the 1970s—“as if Robert Moses had only just walked out the door!” But since that visit, as Gehl recalled last night at the Center for Architecture, New York has made a surprising about-face on matters of public space, embracing the ideals of his late friend (and Moses nemesis) Jane Jacobs.

Gehl was holding forth in a town-hall-style meeting with New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who has played no small role in challenging the dominance of the automobile in New York, and who hired Gehl Architects last year to study the quality of public life on the city’s streets. She and Gehl articulated their shared vision for keeping New York globally competitive by making its streets some of the best in the world. “We can’t afford to slip into a Yogi Berra situation,” said Sadik-Khan, “where New York becomes so crowded that nobody goes there anymore!”

Unfortunately, Gehl continued, New York still bears deep scars of Moses’ long reign. His team’s findings (in a report distributed on eco-friendly USB drives, naturally) highlighted telltale signals of poor-quality street life: pedestrian crowding, low frequencies of stationary activities, and low proportions of children and elderly on the sidewalks. Partly to blame are a sad dearth of sidewalk cafes, along with far too much scaffolding and too many shuttered facades. (The stretch of Broadway from Columbus Circle to Houston Street—one of the busiest in the city—has only six curbside cafes, and scaffolding obscures 30 percent of its buildings.) Gehl’s team also deplored the fact that many public spaces don’t link to their surrounding streets and buildings, but instead require a deliberate trip—often across traffic—to reach them.

Still, Gehl expressed unhesitating enthusiasm about the city’s potential. “You are absolutely lucky here!” he exclaimed. “You have such wide streets. So you can have nice comfortable wide sidewalks, street trees, bike lanes. Maybe even,” he allowed with a grin, “also some lanes for the cars.”

And what about the economic crisis? Can we really afford to pour money into prettifying our streets at a time like this? Streetscapes, it turns out, may be just the right focus for urban investment at the moment. “It is very cost-effective for us to make these changes,” Sadik-Khan emphasized. That’s partly because many DOT projects can be achieved at relatively minimal cost—but also because, as Gehl’s research has shown time and again, pedestrian-friendly streets boost nearby property values and deliver more customers to local businesses.

So how far is New York prepared to go toward pedestrian nirvana? When one audience member asked if the city had given any thought to closing off Broadway to cars entirely, there was a smattering of applause—and then came Sadik-Khan’s reply, which more or less translated to fuhgeddaboudit.

All the same, it was impossible not to feel a touch of exhilaration at the city’s new trajectory. “I am quite sure that in her heaven,” as Gehl told the crowd, “Jane Jacobs is looking down and thinking, ‘Finally, my city is on the right track!’”

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