Photo by Flickr user Stephen Harlow
Cityscapes has explored shifts in the skyline, new glass condos, and a major park. But the most meaningful pieces of the cityscape are often the spaces between buildings—the tiny details, from fire plugs to streetlights, that give New York its character.
I’m in Toronto right now for the holidays, and while this city often stands in for New York in the movies, the differences in their streetscapes are dramatic, if still subtle. In Toronto, the street signs are white (not green). The taxis aren’t yellow. The buses are red. The streetlights are a lot clunkier than our elegant and iconic NYC “cobra heads.” (I’m serious—this stuff matters.) And most glaring of all (but still easy to miss), in many parts of Toronto the power and telephone lines run above ground, which you almost never see in New York. These details add up to as distinct an experience of a cityscape as any number of new condos or museums.
They last longer than a single building and are more difficult to change—which struck me during Brian Lehrer’s show yesterday, when Paul Goldberger and Stephen Cassell were talking about the “life cycle” of buildings. The “greenness” of a building is determined not only by its energy usage on a day-to-day basis, but also by the energy required to construct it—by how the materials were made and how far they had to travel. As Paul pointed out, “The National Trust for Historic Preservation likes to say that the greenest building of all is the old one that you preserve.” We’re good at this in New York, turning industrial buildings into lofts and offices, office buildings into condos, or mansions into schools.
The life cycle of the streetscape is nearly as long. (Look at old movies for proof.) Which makes it even more surprising how dramatically the streetscape changed during the last boom—as part of a concerted effort by the Bloomberg administration. There are the big moves, like Broadway Boulevard, the Department of Transportation's plan to turn parts of Broadway into pedestrian plazas. But there are also thousands of smaller changes, like new bike lanes marked by green paint, planted traffic medians, and sidewalks widened to take back a full lane of traffic. These were design projects, as intentional as any new museum—and in many ways more enlightened. Their bible is the fascinating “High Performance Infrastructure Guidelines,” published in 2005 by the city’s Department of Design and Construction, in partnership with the non-profit Design Trust for Public Spaces. It provides a pattern book for everything from the permeability of pavement to the position of fire hydrants. It’s an anatomy lesson of the city’s streets.
Next Wednesday on the Brian Lehrer show, Michael van Valkenburgh will talk about his grand design for the 76 acres of Brooklyn Bridge Park, and also those little things that make up the feel of a street—like his firm’s work on the renovation of the Union Square farmer’s market, where they just finished laying the new paving last week.
In the meantime, architect Hugh Hardy trains his video camera on some favorite overlooked details of the cityscape.