Cycleways, green street projects, and case studies: Morag MacGregor, Student Travel Award recipient, checks in on green infrastructure in the Big Apple.

    Highline, NYC © Morag MacGregor

    After visiting Portland I flew to New York to see the effect the more recent strategic plan PlaNYC has been having on the city. PlanNYC is a comprehensive agenda covering storm water management, green infrastructure, air quality and carbon emissions. The driving political force behind the strategy was Mayor Bloomberg and it was first introduced in 2007. It aims to brace New York for its predicted 1 million extra residents by 2030 and improve quality of life for existing citizens.

    One key outcome which PlaNYC has clearly achieved is promoting cycling in the city. Since its inception, PlaNYC has been responsible for the addition of 314 miles of bike lanes in New York. There has been a rapid increase in the number of cyclists, with bike use quadrupling since 2004. This investment in cycle infrastructure has also paved the way for Citibike, North America’s largest  bike share system. While in New York, I tried out the some of the cycle network, and found it easy to use and surprisingly unintimidating. In places I saw bike lanes running along the pavement with parked cars separating cyclists from the main traffic. I thought this was a simple, effective adaption increasing safety for cyclists. The progress New York has made in such a short time towards becoming a cycle friendly city shows how, even in highly congested environments, the invitation to cycle needs only to be extended for people to alter their habits.

    As part of the PlaNYC, 257 green street projects have also been implemented. These small-scale adaptions include the planting of street trees and the introduction of swales thoughout the city. These have been effective in a similar way to the examples of sustainable urban drainage I saw in Portland, making small improvements to individual streets and gradually strengthening the city’s urban realm. The street my hostel was located on actually had benefited from a completed green street project.

    As part of the aim for all New York residents to live within a 10 minute walk of a park by 2030, over 300 acres of new parkland has been created as part of PlaNYC. This includes the expansion of the Hudson River Park. This waterfront park runs along 550 acres of the western edge of Manhattan Island. It makes great use of its waterfront aspect and links Battery Park to Riverside Park with a high quality cycle route running along the waterway. The extension of this park under PlaNYC has included the development of the historic piers which have become skate parks, basket ball pitches and in one case, the home of the trapeze school of New York. They also facilitate interaction with the water with free kayaking and rowing opportunities situated at the piers.

    Another waterfront park which has seen serious investment as a result of PlaNYC is the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Speaking to local residents, I was told about how this used to be a very rough area. It has been transformed into a well-used greenspace which hosts exceptional views over Manhattan and provides a wide range of activities. The park also features constructed natural coastline environments, including salt marshes. These act as protective buffers during storms and floods, as well as providing important habitats for coastal species. Something which really struck me about this park was the way it aimed to provide for every desirable outdoor activity, with high quality barbecue areas as well as quiet areas and provision for play and sport. In cities as dense as New York parks have to provide everything residents need from outdoor space, as they are unlikely to have their own. The play spaces at the Brooklyn Bridge Park were also very impressive. They were divided into small ‘rooms’ with names such as Waterlab, Swing Valley,  Sandbox Village and Marsh Garden. They were all thoughtfully designed, facilitated creative play and looked extremely fun. Signs on the gates of each space stated ‘Adults must be accompanied by Children’ which I thought was a sensible twist on traditional restrictions on where children can go. I respected the sign and admired the spaces from the perimeter.

    Although I visited some really high quality spaces which have come about as a result of the PlaNYC initiative, I was not equally impressed with all that I saw. Teardrop Park is a site which I had found inspiring as a case study. This public park sits amongst residential buildings near the world trade centre. It’s key focal point is a dramatic wall constructed to represent layers of sedimentary rock with a tunnel running through it, a nod to the tunnels created by Frederick Law Olmsted in Central Park. Although I found the feature wall to be as impressive as I imagined, I was slightly disappointed by the spaces adjacent to it and the way in which the park felt cut off from its surroundings. The space had the feeling of being a semi-private area and was uninhabited on both my visits. This posed a sharp contrast with the other highly used sites I had visited. Considering the park was created using $17 million of public money I did not see this as ideal.

    Although the creation of the Highline was a planning consideration before the publication of PlaNYC, it would of not of been possible without the funding and political will power which this initiative provided. I was understandably excited to visit the Highline. This elevated park is undeniably the pin-up for landscape architecture in the 21st century. Having seen so many pictures of it, it was a really enjoyable experience walking the length of the park, admiring the views and the naturalistic planting first hand. I really enjoyed the way that the design form is laid out throughout the site is different creative ways. Although the popularity of the Highline did not surprise me, I was somewhat taken aback by the sheer number of people there at any one time. In some slight way perhaps the Highline is a victim of its own success. Small green fences have had to be erected around the edge of planting areas, ruining the smooth transition from paving to planting in order to prevent trampling. Advice I would give anyone planning on visiting it would be to go after dark. The site is much quieter, the views are more dramatic and a well designed lighting plan shows the planting off to its best advantage.

    The gentrification occurring around and due to the Highline is almost fearsome to behold. Parts of the park were covered where towering edifices were being constructed at very close proximity on either side. Shops, bars and restaurants are all cashing in on the Highline market, with names like ‘Off the Highline’ while posters proclaim apartments for rent ‘On the Highline’ at ludicrous prices. There is, of course, a long history of urban parks kick-starting regeneration, but due to the sheer popularity of the Highline it has been particularly rapid here and has caused a certain level of backlash in the local area.

    I was lucky enough to be in New York for the opening of the third and final phase of the Highline. The first section of the final phase features similar design elements to the earlier phases, with the development of the bench design to create picnic tables and xylophones. There is a much greater provision for play, with sections of rail hosting interactive signals and a section of the structure cut away to reveal girders and beams creating a playspace for children to explore. The new section is true to the original design language but has been evolved to offer a slightly different experience.

    The second section of the final phase, however,  was what really interested me. This section is temporary and will eventually have to make way for the highly designed approach running though the rest of the park. For now, the end of the Highline has been given a minimal treatment, a walkway has been created, but half the space has been left as-is, with the original rail and gravel exposed. The only addition that has been made to this area is artwork by Argentine artist Adrián Villar Rojas which sit seamlessly within the self-seeded vegetation. These have been designed to erode and to be colonised as time passes. This approach perfectly exhibits the earlier form of the Highline which so inspired people to fight to protect it. I think by phasing the development of the park in this way, the designers have allowed visitors to interact with the Highline’s journey, enriching their understanding and experience of it as a place.

    It is difficult to argue that PlaNYC has not made New York a sustainable place. It has enabled serious investment in high quality open spaces and is fulfilling its commitment to meet the local challenges of climate change. Despite its obvious attraction, New York currently rates poorly for quality for life. However, if political willpower remains behind this commitment to sustainability, New York City may yet become the precedent for sustainable urban living.

    I have always found the use of case studies to be an invaluable educational tool both in university and in practice. The opportunity to visit some of the case studies which I found most inspiring has given me a much richer understanding of these places and how they became what they are. I want to extend a heartfelt thanks to the Artas-ua.info Institute for granting me this opportunity, and would like to encourage other students to consider applying for the Student Travel Award in the future.

    About the author: Morag MacGregor is one of three recipients of this year’s Student Travel Awards. Find out more about the Student Travel Awards in the Student section. 

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