NYC Future Could Hold Green Space for All

Event: Public Architecture Conversation Series: NYC Department of City Planning
Location: Center for Architecture, 02.28.08
Speakers: Alexandros Washburn, AIA — Chief Urban Designer, NYC Department of City Planning & Partner/Principal, W Architecture and Landscape Architecture
Moderators: Michael Plottel, AIA, & Anna Torriani, AIA — Co-chairs, AIANY Public Architecture Committee
Organizers: AIANY Public Architecture Committee

The urban design discussion in NYC has long been dominated by two figures in the city’s history — Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Now, Alexandros Washburn, AIA, Chief Urban Planner at the NYC Department of City Planning, believes there is a third important individual whose vision of the city may provide insight for the future: Frederick Law Olmsted. At its core, Olmsted’s vision of a city included a common green space accessible to all citizens, providing a respite from the city’s intensity.

Washburn argues that urban design, good or bad, provides the most effective teaching tool for those who will shape our cities. Successful urban design maintains cultural diversity in gentrifying neighborhoods whose development is spurred by re-zoning projects. While his presentation emphasized pedestrian planning, the public realm, and a variety of uses, the audience pointed out a contradiction in the recent Department of City Planning’s re-zoning efforts that include the waterfront from Long Island City to Williamsburg, West Side Rail Yards, and Atlantic Yards.

Although these three projects include provisions for affordable housing and potential jobs, the scale of the developments as determined by the zoning appear to be too large for the neighborhoods in which they lie. New zoning along the water’s edge seems to create a wall between the waterfront and the community. Of particular concern were the gentrification and spate of new developments in Williamsburg and Harlem, with fears that the homogenization brought on by increasingly expensive apartments spells doom for the diverse character of these communities.

However, there are projects that respond to the community’s environment. The firm Washburn used to lead, W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, is close to completing Harlem Piers on the Hudson River, for example, that takes an ecological approach to the design of piers. Natural systems determined the piers’ forms and allow the waterfront to function in multiple ways, including water access for the neighborhood.

Perhaps NYC should demand more than a thin strip of green along the water’s edge from developers in charge of newly designated R8 lots. Re-built piers with water access, green roofs and urban farms, and expanded bicycle routes with bicycle sharing programs are possible solutions. PlaNYC could use the persuasive power of zoning to achieve its goals.