Public space in NY-LON – a tale of two cities

Friday 2 March 2012

© Agnese Sanvito

New York and London are making great – if differing – strides in the provision of new public space, but the fight to restrain the motor vehicle must be on-going.

The view emerged from the first in a series of special simultaneous seminars arranged by NLA and supported by KPF this week in which architects, landscape designers and public officials on either side of the Atlantic discussed how their respective cities were developing.

From London, the mayor’s advisor on public realm Daniel Moylan explained that initiatives such as Exhibition Road, now a shared space for traffic, cyclists and pedestrians, was just one of a series of public space schemes under Boris Johnson’s mayoralty, set to continue with a new public square at Euston Circus. Moylan added that he was trying to encourage a greater use of shared space in London for its ‘numerous advantages’, rather than pedestrianisation, ‘an agenda of the past.’ Edward Jones, architect of the Exhibition Road scheme, said that while it was an ‘experiment’ rather than a prescription for all of London, the scheme had proved that having a ‘champion’ such as Moylan was crucial.

New York public space commissioner Andy Wiley-Schwartz showed how Broadway and Times Square have been transformed into hugely popular pedestrian areas through swift intervention and getting the public on board – and by ‘having a big party’ to signal its completion. One of the key battles was to persuade New Yorkers that the ‘energy’ of the city lay in its people, not in motor cars, he said. In other areas of the city, the tactic had been to let neighbourhoods and businesses take control to transform their areas: ‘Cities are much better at creating opportunities than creating spaces’, he said. The High Line, meanwhile, has provided a beautiful retreat for New Yorkers, overcoming a battle chiefly with property owners to allow for a vital and flexible amenity space. ‘Our design approach was to grow something new from something old’, said associate at James Corner Field Operations Elizabeth Fain LaBombard, pointing out features of the High Line created with the intention of slowing people down. An initiative to provide a new East River Promenade – outlined by SHoP architect Dana Getman – is underway, a scheme in Lower Manhattan which allows for views out across the Hudson and a respite beneath the FDR freeway.

Back in London, assistant director of environmental enhancement at the City of London Victor Callister said that the Square Mile was working to undo some of the damage done after the war, when ‘streets became roads’. ‘We’re in the process of undoing a lot of that post-war development’, he said, ‘healing’ and creating new spaces out of carriageway. The City is creating pocket parks and areas for outdoor recreation, including new green spaces around St Paul’s.

But during a period given over to questions Atkins public space technical director Peter Heath said that while he was impressed at the amount of good on both sides of the pond, it was perhaps still not enough – one of the key challenges is in securing money for smaller projects. 

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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