I recently had the pleasure of traveling back to the East Coast and exploring a few major cities I had not visited since becoming an urban enthusiast. Being a public space aficionado, I of course made it a point to investigate as many public spaces as possible. Starting in Pittsburgh, I made my way by train to New York City and Philadelphia, before embarking on a cross-country train ride back to Portland (with a quick stop in Chicago). I visited some spaces new and old, and was delighted to see such infamous improvements for myself.
I recently wrote about Pittsburgh and its comparison to Portland, but admittedly had not visited it in recent memory. It certainly has been in the urban-related news lately and I was happy to visit and observe the changes taking place for myself.
The city is organized around a river and nestled in a valley, similar to Portland, but in a more intimate way. Trees still line the river and small islands and it’s easy to find yourself suddenly on a twisting road in the middle of a forest despite clearly being within the city. One of the biggest differences, of course, is the abundance of brick homes all in a row throughout the various neighborhoods. Alleys abound with pre-WWII garages placed in the back – some in surprisingly good condition. Corner stores occasionally exist in these predominantly residential neighborhoods, and two-lane twisty streets bordered with parked cars eventually lead to miniature downtowns filled with restaurants and small shops.
Unfortunately, there are still some hangups. Busses go from the neighborhoods to universities and the center city, but train lines are not as expansive as they could be. By and large the city is still dominated by the automobile. It’s the quickest way to get around, even with navigation issues caused by turning radii and loose grid patterns. The downtown district is also similar in some ways to Portland – the business district is seemingly devoid of housing and activity past a certain time creating a cold “modern” feeling where the rivers meet. Pittsburgh is rough around the edges, but its brick exterior still shines, and I’m excited to see where the city is at in five years, especially in terms of public transportation and separated bicycle facilities.
New York City, NY
After Pittsburgh I made my way to New York for the first time in ten years. With urbanist eyes I was eager to explore the recent improvements in public space and alternative transportation. If I had a public space bucket list I could cross off one of the items as I walked the length of the High Line, ending on the perfect note – sunset in the city.
Paralleling this trip, I also made it a point to walk the length of Broadway and experience the newly reclaimed public spaces made by none other than Jan Gehl himself. I caught the original Marimekko umbrellas in a food cart area, but Times Square was under construction in some places as it transitioned to the permanent version of these “temporary” improvements. While it will be nice to not have a grade change from the sidewalk to the original road, I’ll have to wait and see what the end result will look like. As of now, I appreciated the brightly colored pavement in contrast with the gothic architecture. It would be a shame to see such (dare I say) European improvements dulled down to just another cold surface in the city.
Though I am ashamed to admit it, I did not get a chance to ride a Citibike through said improvements, but I did walk through a few areas with the green-painted buffered bike lanes. Admittedly, my observations were short, but happily I did not witness the gross occupation of the lanes by vehicles – mostly due to the massive buffers. At least where the small plazas are present, the lanes are completely bordered by pedestrian space (though the edges did tend to attract a bit of debris).
Overall, one of my favorite features of these areas was actually the planters. Coming in various sizes, the formula was simple – a defining buffer hearty enough not to get tipped over or moved, a barrier for a possible stray automobile, and a pleasant addition to the pedestrian experience. New York is not devoid of trees of course, but along the major roads the most canopy-like environment you experience tends to be the scaffolding. While it doesn’t replace a tree, the additional greenery is a welcome piece of the public space whole. In areas with seating, the umbrellas also help create more of a “room” in what is technicaly (formerly) the middle of the street.
Another public space I had the privilege of visiting was Bryant Park. This of course holds special meaning to me as most of my work has been based on the research done by William H. Whyte – including the famous alterations done to this very park. What once was a derelict, overgrown space more often frequented by drug dealers than sun bathers, now is a thriving public space in the heart of Manhattan complete with attendant, permanent ping-pong tables, chess corners, and green space galore.
I was delighted to find the kind of activity that movable chairs are so apt to attract, though I was saddened by my untimely arrival as the center green was being transitioned to the winter ice rink. The holiday market (something which I have never witnessed!) was also still in transition. All things considered, however, I was still (inwardly) very impressed with what I saw and ended the self-guided tour in what was perhaps the best public restroom I’ve ever been in.
While my stop in Philadelphia was brief, I deliberately wanted to investigate that which was so thoroughly recently investigated by the University City District: The Porch in front of the 30th Street Station. The space was impressive in person – a full 33 parking spaces had been removed to create a vibrant space to eat lunch, wait for the train, or just relax in a thoroughly sit-friendly public space. And if you wanted to really relax, there are even reclined chairs as well! I was sadly not there long enough to observe the behavior, but I can say the research seems to do it justice and the space looks like an excellent addition to the University District.
I didn’t make it to all of the spaces I intended to, but the highlights (the High Line?) were all in all fantastic, and I look forward to visiting again soon. Stay tuned for more detailed examinations of the High Line park and results from my PARK(ing) Day research!