How New York Lost Its Sidewalks

Streetsfilms launches a new series they're calling "Fixing the Great Mistake", which documents how the city lost its pedestrian space in favor of autocentricity.
Full Story: Fixing the Great Mistake



Is sidewalk renewal the only way to create needed public space?

While it is very welcome to hear a focus on restoring sidewalk spaces, New York is not the same city it was in the time of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Important as they were, I think that we need to move beyond the philosophies of these two figures and redefine public spaces in light of NYC's contemporary history. Sidewalks are only part of the solution and possibly not even the most important part of it.

The Metropolitan region has grown dramatically since Moses and Jacobs last tussled. Densities have increased in many areas, often creating street corridors that, are in constant shadow, poorly vegetated, and yet filled to the brim with foot traffic. Meanwhile, as the film suggests, NYC has become almost singularly dependent on truck traffic for goods and services and many commute via automobile because transit has not kept pace with development in the outer boroughs and suburbs.

Meanwhile at the neighborhood scale, many places in the outer Boroughs remain in their traditional 19th century configurations where sidewalks can have that sense of family life. However, in other areas, gentrification, new high rises, and their tendency to force out lower income populations challenge the notion of a fully accessible public realm. Also, their scale diminishes the utility of the sidewalks themselves as gathering spaces. Why would anyone want to hang out in the shadow of 20-40 story tower on a cold January day next to a dying tree?!

In this contemporary context, we should be asking what do sidewalks mean today? In many places their usage is different than the romantic notions of the 19th century rowhouse street with stickball or the semi-covered markets of the lower East side. Yes, they remain places of social gathering and business, but turning back the clock by widening sidewalks and installing bicycle lanes may not be the only solution to New York's future. We still depend heavily on automobiles and realistically, only so much space can be reclaimed from them. Even when it is, it does not always result in a great space, because too much of the context has changed.

Rather, sidewalks seem to be only a part of the city's public space future. The recent experiment in Times Square and the ongoing vibrancy of Union Square remind us of the need for larger spaces that are fluid and flexible. What New York sorely lacks is some form of the Plaza, or large, open planned multi-directional public spaces that directly engage businesses, storefronts and institutions. The Times Square Beach is such a success because it removes the car but creates no other barriers, such as street trees(which would function poorly in that context). Likewise, on the north and west side of Union Square that sheet of asphalt if surrounded by density and is redefined every day by its users, whether a farmer's market, or artists or skateboarders, etc. and importantly it is large enough to allow in the sun and the sky.

In closing, it seems that condemning ourselves and our grandparents for having embraced the automobile has limited utility. It keeps us focused on a past vision of a lifestyle and an urban culture that may no longer apply. Whether or not we like it, the automobile remains an important component of transportation and high rise density continues to transform our urban landscape. Consequently, the discussion about public spaces needs to go beyond the fight between sidewalk and roadway and expand into all of the potential urban forms, precedents, and future ideas about how to create a public realm. Highline Park anybody?

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