Sunday, June 6, 2010

On Broadway, Tactical Urbanism

Sadik-Kahn is at it again. Given the recent announcement of the new temporary design of Times Square and apropos of the traffic chapter in the Infrastructural City, it seems a good time to discuss Broadway again. The Times Square project is the flagship move in a major NYC DOT effort to convert important public spaces in the city from vehicle use to pedestrian plazas. These build on pilot projects from 2008 and include the controversial moves at Union Square, Grand Army Plaza, and Prospect Park West and are discussed at length by the sycophants over on streetsblog (of which I am one). As inexpensive “hacks”, tactical interventions producing great effects, we here at FASLANYC greatly admire them, especially as they are part of larger, innovative strategies. However, landscape/architecture designers are about to sink their smarmy little paws into the effort to make the changes permanent and so it seems a good time to try and gain some perspective. We offer an overview, focusing on Times Square and Broadway, with lots of links and a little snark.
[Times Square at Broadway and 7th Avenue, back in "the day"]

ON February 11th Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik Khan announced that the temporary plazas on Broadway at Times Square and Herald Square will be made permanent. The announcement is provocative and the ambition admirable. The question is, how extensive will this initiative be? Is this a clarion call to New Yorkers and Americans at large to rethink their roads and cities or merely the creation of another frothy and bombastic Times Square curiosity?

The temporary plazas are part of a well-publicized DOT initiative in 2009 called "Green Light for Midtown" which proposed closing sections of Broadway to create pedestrian spaces in the interest of “opening up streets and avenues in Midtown by reconnecting the street grid on 6th and 7th Avenues and giving space to pedestrians on Broadway”. Concurrently with the temporary plazas, the Broadway corridor between 23rd Street and 59th Street was modified to create a separated bikeway. These measures have their basis in the forward-looking plaNYC of the Bloomberg administration which calls for the construction of "diverse and sustainable world class streets" contributing to a more equitable and diverse city.
[the temporary plaza at 23rd Street and Broadway (in early spring)is one of 
the pilot projects, a precursor to the plazas proliferating across the city]

During the past winter the pilot projects at Times and Herald Square were evaluated by the Department of Transportation and city officials. These evaluations reflected increases in pedestrian use and safety, user satisfaction, contented business owners, along with marginal improvements in traffic flows. Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Sadik-Khan held these up as conclusive evidence of the success of the pedestrian plazas. In particular, the improvements in pedestrian safety were stunning; this despite the increased numbers of pedestrians using the space. Midtown Manhattan is highly contested terrain, and an objective reading of the results suggests that while the changes are equitable for each mode of transport and use evaluated, it is not a panacea and favors pedestrians and business owners above drivers and taxi cabs.

The history of Midtown famously began with the Commissioner’s "Gridiron" Plan of 1811. This plan platted the remaining expanse of the island beyond downtown and today Manhattan is remarkably true to this vision save two major exceptions: Central Park and Broadway. At the time of this plan Broadway was one of the major north-south roads in New York City. In lower Manhattan it follows the grids and of the urban fabric, yet in Midtown it slices across the grid that was so carefully and ruthlessly platted in 1811. This is a vestige of the old Bloomingdale Road which, unlike the island's other roads, hills, swamps, and streams, proved too important to discard or realign.

When Broadway was integrated into the grid, large six-way intersections were created where Broadway crossed the north-south avenues in Midtown. The legacy of this conflict is major public open spaces approximately every ten blocks: Union Square at 14th Street, Madison Square Park at 23rd Street, Herald Square at 34th Street, Times Square at 46th Street, and Columbus Circle at 59th Street. It is only an anomaly in Midtown. South of 14th Street -the area of town not subjected to the gridiron layout- Broadway bends and turns with the old city streets. In the Upper West Side, it begins running parallel to the other avenues.
[Broadway slices across the grid,
creating plazas and new patterns of use
at every avenue]

1904 was a big year for Times Square. In October the first subway line in New York City, the Interborough Rapid Transit, began rumbling underneath to much acclaim. Earlier that year the New York Times moved to 42nd Street, convincing Mayor McClellan to change the name of the square there from Longacre Square to Times Square. This served to clearly signal that Midtown had arrived as a new center in the burgeoning metropolis. The symbolic importance of Broadway grew with Midtown during the 20th Century. In addition to carrying a major subway line below and connecting many of the iconic places in New York from City Hall to Central Park, Broadway also became the "Canyon of Heroes" for celebrating city sports championships and dignitaries, the "Great White Way" with a world-famous theater district, and the setting for the iconic commercial holiday parades. It was also a mess.

During this time Broadway had come to symbolize the American metropolis in many ways: it was the print media mecca during the newspaper age, the center of retail during department stores’ heyday and the setting for entertainment shows during the broadcast era. When New York City fell on hard times in the 1970's, the de facto red light district around Times Square was the symbol of the avarice and fear that defined that era. And when the tourism industry experienced exponential growth in recent decades, it was Times Square that was the shiniest beacon. It became synonymous with thronging crowds, seas of yellow taxis, and obscene and spectacular commercial displays delighting and offending all comers.
[needing no introduction]

[the requisite shot glorifying shitty aspects of urban
life, Times Square was the city's red light district
during the 1970's]

In addition to serving as a cultural microcosm, the street was dangerous and thoroughly dominated by cars. The “N” line, formerly the BMT (Brooklyn Mass Transit), had been extended underneath Broadway all the way to 42nd Street at Times Square in 1918. This train filled the street with pedestrians at each of the major intersections all along its length. Overcrowded sidewalks with a heavy mix of residents and tourists were not only unpleasant but unsafe. In testament to the various dangers of the city’s streets, a safety study from 1998 wryly states that “the chances of being killed by someone in a car in this city are now far greater than getting killed by a stranger with a weapon”.

PlaNYC was put forth by the Bloomberg administration in 2007 offering a progressive plan for the management and development of the city looking ahead to 2030. Regarding transportation congestion plaNYC states:

The city’s quality of life and economic prosperity depend on a transportation system that can meet demand. That means we must use our streets more efficiently if we are to absorb millions of new residents, workers, and tourists.

To achieve this goal, we will expand proven strategies to smooth traffic flows; and we will encourage commuters to shift from their cars onto an improved transit system, while providing better service for those who choose to continue to drive. [p.88]

Green Light for Midtown, along with the failed proposal for congestion pricing, was among the first and most visible initiatives toward this end. In announcing the project, Commissioner Sadik Khan cited the reasons for the project as “traffic lights with up to 66% more green time, significant travel time improvements on Sixth and Seventh Avenues, safer and simpler crossings for pedestrians, and faster bus speeds for 70,000 daily riders.” It is important to note the political savvy shown here by couching the justifications for the project in rhetoric focusing on improved traffic flows and safety (but mostly, improved traffic). With the success of Green Light for Midtown, it is worth considering: what are the precedents and previous visions for Broadway that might inform its possible futures, and could these changes to Times Square signal a larger national shift as they have historically?

A recent precedent was created in 2007 by the Times Square Alliance. The Alliance, a non profit organization working to “improve and promote Times Square”, hired five design teams of some renown to provide “practical yet creative approaches to the [sic] public space problems in Times Square”. Indicative of the halcyon days of 2007, these proposals all featured fancy new patterns on the ground plane and ostentatious vertical objects. At the epicenter of bombastic iconography each of these proposals slathered on another layer of decadence.

The unfortunate consistency of the proposals resulted in the development of two topline recommendations for improving Times Square: 1) implement improvements that reinforce Times Square’s- and New York’s- identity as a unique, iconic space and 2) make the ground plane multi-functional so that the pedestrian, vehicular, broadcast and event demands can be managed more efficiently. The recommendation and the accompanying goals are all useful and straightforward. Unfortunately, none of the projects proposed closing the street to traffic beyond specific programmed events, and none of them looked beyond Times Square to make connections any further up or down Broadway.
[utterly bombastic, West 8's proposal is fantastically Times Square.  You may
like it or not, but it is very "Times Square".  It is not, however, very
substantial.  We find little difference in this an another giant LED screen hung
from a building facade...]

[unbelievably hideous and inane, Weisz and Joest's offering was actually not
the worst.  Two others relied solely on lighting for effect.  Given that there is
already so much light emanating from Times Square that a giant shaft of light
can be seen shooting into space from across the River, we doubt the efficacy
of such proposals]

[Ken Smith's offering was typically whimsical and bizarre.  Ehh, more design
we don't need]

Another relevant precedent located just down the street did consider remaking Broadway for pedestrians. Union Square, located between 14th and 17th Streets, derives its name from the “union” of 4th Avenue and Broadway as laid out in the Plan of 1811. It is the southern gateway to Midtown. The size and form of Union Square has changed greatly over the years, most recently with the renovations begun in 1984 by the City Department of Parks and Recreation and still being completed today. In these changes, the size of the park was nearly doubled and great expanses of road along Broadway dedicated to traffic and parking were turned over to pedestrian use.

At Union Square the newly expanded north and western ends, recently completed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, now house the Union Square Greenmarket four days a week and provide additional pedestrian space to users. The steps at the southern edge of the park, expanded and aligned with city sidewalks, are one of the great social spaces in all the city, integrating the energy of visitors with the quotidian rhythms of the surrounding residents and students (granted, it’s more of a commercial playpen than a demonstration ground for labor unions, but such are the times).

There are many differences in the conversion of Broadway at Union Square and the proposed plazas at Times Square; the constituencies and user groups are different and the volumes of people vary. In addition, the physical size of the open spaces and vertical scale of the surrounding buildings is different. Most significantly, the closure of Broadway at Union Square happened over an extensive period of time. Nonetheless, the scale and variety of spaces, the materials and the visible involvement and input of local constituents all offer lessons to be gleaned from this vital public space. And the spaces are closely linked- one can easily walk, bike, take a subway or a cab from Times or Herald Square down Broadway to Union Square. Any new pedestrian plazas should be considered in relationship and sequence with Union Square and the other plazas on Broadway.
[the expansive paving at the northern edge of Union Square is no longer. 
Now a plaza and street trees accomodate the green market and pedestrians
and will soon be complimented by a bike lane]

[The southern edge of Times Square in 1984]

Lastly, the temporary plazas created as part of Green Light for Midtown should also be carefully considered for their successes and shortcomings as they are made permanent. Other than the bold move of closing the street to traffic, the intervention was limited to a palette of asphalt paint, movable seating and tables, benches, and small ornamental plantings. There is something still very road about them, and that is a good thing. The survey responses to the area were overwhelmingly positive; 74% of employees in the area were satisfied with Times Square as opposed to 43% before the projects, and 74% of New Yorkers agreed that Times Square improved over last year. Additionally, the pedestrian volumes increased in the new plazas as well as in many of the blocks between them, and outdoor uses were more diverse. Given the density and diversity of uses in the area the design decision to focus on accommodating, not attracting, was the key to their success.

However, there are some shortcomings due to the ad-hoc nature of the interventions that need to be rethought. These include the chaotic language of appropriation and aggression created by closing the streets with DOT bollards, markers and barriers. These elements are mixed with antiquated landscape elements such as suburban garden-style plantings with park benches interspersed to create a language that is a bit absurd, if interesting. In addition, the cyclist- pedestrian relationship seems adversarial. Currently there are striped lanes and curbs connecting the plazas which suggest separation and right of way, but these transition dangerously into no-ride zones which cause confusion and frustration for cyclists and pedestrians. This relationship will have to be more closely studied and thought out.

The Future
The work to be done in coming months and years is challenging and filled with promise. With the construction of permanent plazas at Times Square and Herald Square, New Yorkers have a chance to rebuild Broadway as the Great Green Way. Beginning with Union Square as the gateway to Midtown and continuing with major plazas marching up to the southern edge of Central Park, Broadway stands to be remade as a new type of street built with the kind of vision that created the Plan of 1811, the subway system, and Central Park. It will require learning from past street models and consideration of how they will function throughout the day and seasons for all the diversity of users and ecologies. The ability to advocate bold new initiatives using rhetoric consistent with current cultural expectations will be needed in this most contested of spaces in our polyglot metropolis. With ingenuity, intelligence, humility and cooperation, Broadway can build on its history as the City’s symbolic thoroughfare. It can become the dynamic diverse system of movement through Midtown that signals a remaking of America’s streets.

[The new temporary design for the plaza by artist Molly Dilworth.  The blue is 
meant to contrast the predominant red tones of the facades found in 
Times Square.  Ehh, ok]

The new temporary design chosen for Times Square, by Brooklyn artist Molly Dilworth, will be in place this July and will stay through 2011. It is not particularly inspired, relying on conceptual metaphors stretched too far to be compelling (it’s blue, water’s blue unless you are talking about the water in any of the rivers, harbors or oceans of New York, and this somehow speaks to urban heat island effects. It's forms are a NASA heat maps of the island enlarged and superimposed on the Square.  Oh, and Manhattan is an island, a hot one. Get it? But now it will be a bit less hot because of the metaphorical river running through it. Whatever). Rather than some esoteric metaphorical combination of NASA heat maps superimposed on the square, we are more concerned about the edges, especially the transition from the vehicular road to pedestrian road handled.  But check it out for yourself; the blue is a nice choice.

We’re hoping that the designers chosen from DDC’s stable of high-profile starchitects to design the permanent plaza will find a way to deal with the palimpsest of geology, infrastructure, utilities, and cultural metaphor that is Times Square and to position it in a larger vision of what our streets and public life can be.


  1. As I see the slight difference, City Repair is about building community from which small improvement projects flow while tactical urbanism is about identifying small improvement projects from which community growth flows.
    Tactical Urbanism

  2. Thank you for such a well written article. It’s full of insightful information and entertaining descriptions. Your point of view is the best among many.
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