Learning from Manhattan's Urban Imperfections
by Michael Huston
This essay first appeared on CNU's Public Square in November 2019. You can see the original version here.
“New York is the perfect model of a city, not the model of a perfect city”
Lewis Mumford, 1979
The above quote is featured on a wall in the Museum of the City of New York, which I visited on a recent trip to our most unequivocally urban city, at least in the U.S. Later, as I walked down 5th Avenue, Mumford's keen observation got me thinking about the way the city thrives despite its imperfections. Of course, New York City, and specifically Manhattan, does many things right from an urban planning perspective, including a well-connected street network, extensive transit system, grand parks and civic institutions, and a mixture of uses – just to name a few. However, it is curious to note that in at least these five ways the planning (and sometimes re-planning) of the city’s oldest borough has gone against the prevailing notions about how to make good cities. In this article, we explore a few of these planning imperfections and what we can learn from them.
IT’S NOT ALL STOOPS AND STOREFRONTS!
Some of the varied ways that buildings meet the sidewalk when there is no storefront or stoop. While these may not be ideal conditions, they are prevalent, even in high density areas.(Photos: Left, by Daniel E. Morales, middle/right by M. Huston)
I suspect that when most urbanists think of Manhattan Streets, they conjure images of nearly continuous storefronts bustling with commercial activity which give way to tree-lined residential streets with elegant brownstone stoops – or at least I do! But this image of a perfect mixture of uses and continuous “activated” streetscape is a myth. Despite a density in Manhattan of over 100 units per acre, one still finds a surprising amount of un-activated sidewalk-level building frontages that feature walls with modest windows (or even blank walls), and narrow strips of landscaping at the building’s edge. This condition occurs even in some of the densest areas and busiest corridors. This reality check shows us that even at very high densities, there is only so much “good stuff,” i.e., ground-level retail, that can be supported by the market – a market which, as we know, is shrinking. However, it also shows that urban vitality can be maintained even when some frontages are less than ideal. In the end, the overall density of the city and the transit/pedestrian oriented transportation system help to overcome any shortcomings in the building frontage design.
Lesson #1: Despite the prevalence of un-activated frontages in Manhattan, it is still best to animate the ground floor and provide the “eyes on the street” that are so necessary for a vibrant community. While a retail storefront may be the prefered condition, be realistic about the commercial market and consider allowing other uses for the ground floor when retail cannot be supported by the market. Design buildings to anticipate changes in use, especially at the ground level. Regardless of the use, the blank wall at sidewalk level should be avoided at all costs!
TOO MANY ONE-WAY STREETS!
Examples of two one-way conditions in Manhattan. The one-way street on the left has one goal in mind, to move cars as fast as possible.Such streets - while efficient from a traffic point of view - are hostile to the pedestrian.On the right, a more benign use of the one-way street.Here, the bicycle lane, which arguably is not needed for a quiet residential street, helps reduce the apparent width of the travel lane while still allowing larger vehicles, such as fire trucks, to navigate the street. (Photos, left, by D. Morales, right, by M. Huston)
The prevailing consensus among urbanists is that two-way streets are preferable to one-way streets. Some of the arguments are that two-way streets slow traffic by creating more friction, are more navigable and flexible, and better support storefront commercial activity. It is therefore surprising to find so many one-way streets in a city that prides itself on its system of multimodal transportation. No doubt the city is now making great strides in reversing the auto-centric nature of Manhattan’s streets with the recent 14th Street busway conversion and the pedestrian retrofit of Times Square.
The preponderance of one-way streets was imposed on Manhattan as it was in many other American cities as they made way for the mid-century automobile explosion and prioritized traffic movement at the expense of the pedestrian and city inhabitants (who wants to sit at a café or open a bedroom window within twenty feet of a speeding car?). However, as shown in the images, not all one-way streets are as bad as others. A narrow residential one-way street with ample sidewalks, bike lane and on-street parking is less problematic than the multi-lane drag strip that invades Manhattan and many other cities.
Lesson #2: Two-way streets are preferable to one-way streets. One-way streets should only be considered as a last resort where limited right-of-way must be allocated and balanced with ample sidewalks, bike lanes and on-street parking.
Left, this tower-in-a-park in the middle of Chelsea works because it is the exception, not the rule, and because the open space has been amenitized as a public park. Right, just a block away to the north, the open space has been converted to surface parking, which unfortunately, is a far more frequent use of the open space. (Photos: Left by Fei Chin; right, from Google Earth Street View)
Fortunately, Le Corbusier’s idealized urban planning scheme of isolated towers separated by open greenspace came along after Manhattan was largely developed. Still, those well-intentioned planners and architects did manage to sneak in quite a few “towers-in-the-parks” here and there during the urban renewal era of the 50’s and 60’s. When the resulting open space is used for its intended purpose - as a real park - it can provide a welcome respite from the continuous street wall, but only when it is surrounded by good urbanism. All too often however, the superfluous greenspace is converted to surface parking, or fenced off from public access.
Lesson #3: Towers-in-the-Park are a bad idea - although sometimes they accidentally work when they are the exception and not the rule. Typically, this type of development fails to form a cohesive community as too much extraneous open space degrades the street wall, removes eyes from the street and too often gets repurposed for parking. Instead, it’s better to incorporate well-defined open space in the form of pedestrian-oriented streets, plazas, squares and parks.
THOSE BLOCKS ARE TOO LONG!
Left, a well-known long east-west block in Midtown Manhattan. Right, a pedestrian passage used to break the long block in Midtown (photos: left by M. Huston; right by D. Morales)
To facilitate walkability, most urban planners favor small city blocks to improve pedestrian connectivity. Generally, this means blocks of less than four hundred feet in any one dimension with a perimeter dimension less than a quarter mile (5-minute walk). However, many city blocks in Manhattan exceed these metrics. Blame the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 which extended the Manhattan grid up to 155th Street. In the plan, east-west blocks between 5th Avenue and 11th Avenue have block faces in the 600-ft range, topping out at about 900-ft between 5th and 6th Avenues! The explanation for the long blocks running east-west is that they assumed there would be more traffic between the rivers than going north-south. While the long blocks don’t seem to hinder pedestrian movement to a great deal (credit the rigid grid), my own experience is that these east-west blocks do feel uncomfortably long.
Lesson #4: While some have argued that Manhattan got it just about right, most urbanists agree that smaller blocks are preferred over large, long, blocks which inhibit connectivity. As an alternative to vehicular streets, pedestrian passages can be used intermittently with vehicular streets to break up long blocks.
LET’S NOT FORGET, NO ALLEYS!
Some of the ways that garbage and debris intrude on the sidewalk experience because of the lack of alleys. (photos by D. Morales)
This is perhaps the most obvious planning imperfection that has been pointed out many times before. Once again, the blame lies with the 1811 plan which sought to maximize real estate value. Today, city-dwellers pay the price for this planning misstep when they must step around heaps of debris and contend with delivery trucks that have nowhere else to stop but the middle of the street. One may not wish to calculate the lost real estate value had the alleys been incorporated, but it would have added to the overall quality of life, which in turn, creates its own value.
Lesson #5: Alleys would have increased the operating efficiency of the city and provided unobstructed, cleaner sidewalks.
HONERABLE MENTION: NO PARKING!
I include this last “imperfection” – which I would argue is not an imperfection at all – just to remind us of the impact that parking - and the lack of it - has on the transportation choices we make. In the end, the dearth of parking may be one of the major contributing factors of Manhattan's ability to sustain its urbanity. And to clarify, it’s not that there is no parking in Manhattan, there’s just very little of it and it’s expensive and inconvenient. I surmise that most people in Manhattan use transit not because they are die-hard urbanists and/or environmentalist, but because they could never find a parking space once they get there! Although some subway geeks like me love the experience, I surmise that most people (i.e, those that have transportation choices) turn to transit only when it is more convenient that other forms of transportation. This was brought home in a Weekend Update report on Saturday Night Live where anchor Michael Che said something to the effect of, “We New Yorkers don’t take public transit because we like to, we take it because we have to!”
Lesson: let’s get real about what it takes to make transit work. People will utilize transit when cities manage to tip the scales and make it more convenient than driving one’s own car. Reducing the supply of free and cheap parking is one way to tip the scales. As long as transportation by private automobile is subsidized by ever widening thoroughfares and free parking, very few are going to opt to take the bus/streetcar/subway.
Thanks to my New York-based friends and colleagues that advised on all things Manhattan and supplied many of the photos here.