Trying to judge the success of the created city.
Neighborhoods built up all at once change little physically over the years as a rule...[Residents] regret that the neighborhood has changed. Yet the fact is, physically it has changed remarkably little. People's feelings about it, rather, have changed. The neighborhood shows a strange inability to update itself, enliven itself, repair itself, or to be sought after, out of choice, by a new generation. It is dead. Actually it was dead from birth, but nobody noticed this much until the corpse began to smell." -Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
A truly functional city, the type of city one imagines when one says the very word, is a deeply complicated system. It is an intricate balance of people, places, and uses. Too much or too little of any one type of structure in one place, be it housing or commerce or industry or any other myriad of functions, and the system is damaged, sometimes even to the point of destruction. And even that is not enough to consider, for not all “uses” can be neatly categorized, nor do like uses necessarily have the same needs or create the same effects on their surroundings. A city is not necessarily fragile, though at times it certainly can seem so, but rather it is almost (or, if Ms. Jacobs is to be believed, almost truly) impossible to create full-fledged urbanity ex nihilo.
In one way of thinking, we are relatively lucky: rarely is it the case that one has the opportunity, or the need, to build a fully functional city from scratch. There is almost always some built environment from which to start, and much of what Jacobs is arguing against is a school of urban planning that advocates ripping cities down in order to rebuild them. But of course, there must be exceptions to this rule. Sometimes, for example, new forms of transportation or new land acquisitions mean that formerly non-urban spaces can be developed into cities. Sometimes, one may agree with the planners that Jacobs was arguing against, and much like James Kunstler, believe that an area functions so poorly that it must
be demolished if one desires to create urbanity. And, although it is a bit of a truism, all cities must begin some place at some time, with certain people taking certain specific actions. It is in these scenarios that the difficulties of planning and building a functional urban neighborhood come to the fore.
A prime example of the pitfalls and successes of such an endeavour is Batter Park City. Located in lower Manhattan mere blocks from some of the most expensive commercial real estate in the world, Battery Park City literally did not exist prior to the 1970's. At that time, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, for reasons too complex to delve into here, decided to level a number of blocks west of Wall St. and south of City Hall in order to create a massive complex of buildings, the World Trade Center. This was no simple undertaking: even forgetting the existing structures on the site (including the Singer Building, the tallest building ever to be purposefully demolished), the land on which they desired to build was fill; a (somewhat) deliberate accretion of muddy soil which had widened to coast of Manhattan Island. This type of land was far too wet and unstable to build structures on the scale desired, so a waterproof foundation extending all the way down to solid bedrock had to be constructed, displacing millions of cubic feet of land.
This posed a problem: what is one to do with millions of tons of earth? The Port Authority's solution was not only ingenious, but in many ways was a bold and hubristic as the rest of their plan: they would build a sea wall out into the Hudson River and use the fill to literally create new land. Not only did this solve the landfill disposal problem, it gave the Authority new land it could lease and/or sell to help repay the massive construction costs of the project. In terms of city planning, this was a sort of perfect storm: not only was there to be literally new land in the heart of a major city, but the owners, being a government agency and thus not driven by profit motive alone, had not only complete control of the territory but the desire, if at times misguided, to improve the city upon which they were working. A grand experiment, one that would test the combined knowledge of its planners and of the nature of urban planning in general, was at hand.
Before proceeding further, it would probably be well to stop and identify some of the factors which contribute to a successful urban environment. Though there are many differing viewpoints on what that entails, any conception, this one included, should be heavily based on the work of Jane Jacobs. First, an urban environment must have multiple uses. An area solely composed of houses, of offices, of entertainment or cultural institutions, or any other imaginable single use will be, by its very nature, limited: people will only be on the street at certain times when that particular function is in use. The rest of the day, a single use area will be empty, much like the empty ghost town of a central business district after working hours. In the same vein, a city's streetscape is of immense importance. Not only does it provide the primary public space for urban denizens, but it helps create the multitude of interactions which give city life its special, vibrant qualities. The more stores, activities, and spaces a street offers, the number of these possible interactions is quickly multiplied, and the number of possible nexuses for community formation is increased. As well, the presence of shopkeepers, pedestrians, workers, and the like increases the number of eyes on the street, increasing safety and potentially aiding community. To this end, the architecture of these public spaces must exist in significant part on a human scale, and must be inviting, pleasant, and take into account human needs. Finally, but of no less importance, the best cityscape must ensure a variety of uses and of users, for these varied interactions further multiply the vibrancy of the city. In particular, this means having different types of spaces at different price points, for individuals and businesses alike have neither the same means nor the same requirements for existence.
At a first glance, Battery Park City, at least on paper, seems like it has gotten a great deal right. While always primarily designed as a residential district, it has commerce as well, not only from the massive former World Trade Center nearby but its own office complex, the World Financial Center. Streets were not arranged in superblocks or designed for the automobile, rather they are small and continue the grid of Manhattan. Taking advantage of its newly created waterfront, Battery Park City has a massive amount of parkland; not only beautiful in its own right, but creating pedestrian passages which theoretically should put the experience of the human visitor first. In theory, this combination of residences, offices, and parkland should create all day pedestrian traffic, enough to support shops and a streetlife comparable to anywhere in the city. Finally, each building was given to a different architect, both in order to avoid visual monotony and as another attempt to recreate the complexity and nuance of a functional city from scratch. On paper, the design seems ideal.
The reality of the development is far more murky. One of the first impressions of any visitor is that, though it is ostensibly an extension of the existing city, Battery Park City is cut off from its environs by the six-lane, divided highway that is West Street. A major link connecting the West Side to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, there is no time of day or night that this street is not laden with traffic. In the past ten or so years, engineering and design projects have tried to soften the impact of West Street by utilizing things like trees, plants, and bike paths, to separate the mass of traffic from potential pedestrians. Though a noble effort, one which may bear fruit in the near future, at the moment this is no Hausmann-style, Parisian boulevard full of people and shops, it is a highway fenced in by very tall buildings. While it is possible to cross West Street at ground level, traffic is such that it can take eternity to get a much needed walk signal, forcing pedestrians to wait next to traffic. This problem is so strong that much of the pedestrian traffic is encouraged to use bridges to get across, a kludge of a solution which, while somewhat effective, only increases the amount of effort it takes to travel to or from Battery Park City, further adding to the sense of disconnection the neighborhood has with the rest of the city.
Above: A view of West St., a pedestrian bridge over West St. Click for larger views.
This is not to say that some level of separation is the worst thing possible for a neighborhood. On a certain level, it provides a level of exclusivity, boundary, and privacy that some people highly value. This was especially true when one considers the previous World Trade Center site which lay across the street, a development which in a multitude ways was the antithesis of all the planning ideas discussed above. However even today, with the World Trade Center site being redesigned, and through streets being restored wherever possible, a proposal to put West Street underground through Battery Park City was strongly opposed by a number of residents, effectively killing the proposal. The reason most usually given for the opposition was the amount of disruption that would be caused during the three or four years of road construction. If that reason is accurate, it seems to embody incredibly poor long-term thinking, as over decades the residential development of Battery Park City and the commercial development of the financial mecca to the West could join to create a deeply functional urban environment.
Once one has crossed West Street and is in Battery Park City proper, the parkland and waterfront seems to enact an almost intractable pull. T-shaped streets, argued so strongly for by James Kunstler, are anchored by pieces of public art, acting as a visual focal point and drawing a walker towards the water. Lovingly designed and sumptuously built, the park extends all the way from the Battery north, along the Hudson, to Chambers Street, at the end of the created land. Throughout it echoes some of the very best of park design: it widens and contracts, going through differently designed regions, not only always keeping the viewer interested but providing various types of parkland suited for different uses, all available within a short walk. A great example of this is the northern end of the park: a large, open green meadow extends almost all the way from the building line to the water, providing an undefined space for almost any vernacular activity from picnicking to frisbee. At the same time, along the inner side of this open space, a more structured environment exists, providing sequestered, quiet seating, playground areas, and spaces for other more specifically defined activities. The result of all this, combined with the spectacular setting with its views of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty, is a park which is well trafficked all year long, from the depths of winter to the height of summer, and has probably been the greatest design success of the entire project.
Above: A view of the north end of the park, A T-Shaped Street. Click for larger views.
At the same time, all this life and activity cannot cover for the simple fact that Battery Park City has very little streetlife to speak of. This is fundamentally attributable to one thing: the paucity of street level retail locations. As such, the main thoroughfares, though well landscaped, shaded, and decorated with street furniture, are nearly barren of pedestrian life. Why would one care to walk down a street that provides little of interest for them to see, do, or experience? Indeed, for great expanses, the only street level businesses that one comes across are underground parking garages, hardly a type of business that fosters urban interaction. The only places one comes across groups of people, outside the parkland, are in front of the widely dispersed delis and other small retail establishments. This is problematic from more than an urban design viewpoint; the lack of shops means that there is often a relatively significant walk for residents looking for basic amenities, particularly if a stop at more than one store is in order. Indeed, there is only a one block section of traditional urban stores in the entire development. In addition, the relatively high rent and paucity of shop locations means there can be no street-level economy save for the absolute necessities: walking, one finds no bookstores, no coffee shops, few restaurants, and only a handful of deli/convenience stores, a single grocery store, and a handful of pharmacies and banks. It is almost as if, confronted with a fear of empty shopfronts, the designers decided it would be better to limit commercial space and rely on the park to generate pedestrian traffic and urbanity. Battery Park City is built to a density which could support all nature of businesses large and small, and yet one is almost always nearly alone walking along its primary streets.
Above: Two views of North End Avenue, the major street of Battery Park City showing a lack of street life. Notice the building under construction, hopefully to include more street level retail.; Bottom: the only true block of urban shops in the development. Click for larger views.
Theoretically, the retail trades and streetlife should be helped by the presence of the World Financial Center, which provides legions of employees at the very same time of day, the working hours, that a residential area is most quiet. Designed by famous architect César Pelli, the World Financial Center is a sculptural masterpiece. The primary design of its three towers, each with a different top, was to act as a set of foothills to the massive towers behind them. The changes of texture and material on the sides of the building not only made the buildings more visually interesting, but was a strong counterpoint to the steel and glass of the former World Trade Center. Unfortunately, all this sculptural beauty was steeped in previous era of urban design where appearance from a distance was considered to an almost unhealthy degree, with little or no thought of the interactions of the buildings with the street and pedestrians.
The World Financial Center is essentially an enclosed, internalized center that seems to actively encourage office workers to stay inside and pedestrians to stay out. Each tower is connected by an above ground walkway, and one of the numerous bridges leading over West Street deposits people directly in the lobby of the complex, obviating the need for an office worker to ever set foot on the streets of Battery Park City itself. The ground level entrances continue this theme: on West Street, the buildings are set back from the street by purely decorative, pedestrian-unfriendly green space, and the side facing the residential neighborhood presents nothing but the occasional gold-plated, seemingly impervious entryway. Worse still, the interior of the World Financial Center contains what is, for all intents and purposes, a mall, full of very expensive stores which are only open during the hours that workers would be in the buildings, and residents of the neighborhood would be elsewhere. Even the famous Wintergarden, itself a wonderful interior space, is essentially a recreation of the outside park inside, meaning no one need ever actually venture out of the complex. Though a handful of stores have tried to face the park, trying to recreate a streetscape on the outside, it is clear that these entrances are disused. The Wintergarden itself appears as a glass wall with no easily visible entryway, and if one was not already aware that the interior is meant to be public space, the thought to enter would never come to mind.
Above: A view of the Wintergarden and plaza, An overhead bridge connecting the World Financial Center buildings, A street level entrance to the World Financial Center, A street level view of the World Financial Center from South End Avenue. Click for larger views.
Even the park land around the buildings is perhaps the worst of the entire development: cold and sterile, and built out of maintenance-free stone, it is full of uncomfortable, empty benches and wide expanses of paved territory, more resembling the 'brick graveyard' of Boston's Government Center than the rest of one of New York's most intriguing parks. Though the World Financial Center should be a boon to the urban plant of Battery Park City, adding more people at different times of the day, from the street it appears as little more than another set of blank, impenetrable buildings to be ignored.
Above: The empty plaza and attempted park-side storefronts of the World Financial Center. Click for a larger view.
On the topic of architecture, one of the more under-appreciated sections of Jacobs's Death and Life of Great American Cities
was the emphasis on the importance of the different ages and styles of buildings that make up a neighborhood. Without this variety, the types of business and residents that makes a city thrive cannot be accommodated, for not all businesses and residents have the same means or the same requirements. A used book store cannot pay the same rent as a luxury boutique; a light industrial firm cannot utilize the same type of space as an office; an artist might desire a high ceiling and low rent whereas a wealthy resident might want many rooms on a single floor with excellent views in a newly built building. Traditionally, cities have met this need via the accumulation of various ages of buildings. An older industrial building on a side street might suit the aforementioned artists or bookstore quite well, whereas a new high-rise apartment around the corner might suit the needs of a boutique and high-end resident. The fact that these structures exist near one another is one of the things that gives cities such a dynamic power, for by bringing many people, places, and industries into contact, new interactions and possibilities can form. In addition, not only can a variety of buildings be more visually pleasant than repetition, but it can aid in both the navigation of and improve the street experience of urban denizens.
An ex nihilo development like Battery Park City, however, doesn't have the luxury of a melange of existing buildings with which to work with. Port Authority planners, having seen the failures of similar mega-residential projects such as New York's own Roosevelt Island, decided to hand each building to a different architect in an attempt to ensure that there were differences in style and structure, to create a more diverse and visually interesting neighborhood. The main problem with this approach was simple: if all buildings were built at the same time, they would be valued significantly the same, meaning that in order to generate a return on investment, only businesses and residents who could afford like payments could be included. In practice, this meant that there would only be high-end housing, and that a small, low margin business such as a used bookstore would have to do an almost impossible volume of business to afford rent.
Visually, the effect of the selection of many architects has demonstrated its own form of unintended consequence. During the 1920's, many independent builders all over the United States created buildings with various "modern looking" touches, often seemingly inspired by a mixture of classical forms and of Art Nouveau. At the time, the style not only lacked a name, but was fundamentally not viewed as coherent style at all. Rather, it was simply the popular desires of buyers and builders, a form of vernacular architecture and construction somewhat along the lines of J.B. Jackson. It was only later that the term Art Deco arose to describe the style of buildings built in this era. To some degree, the architecture of Battery Park City (and much modern, urban housing) seems to follow this same trend. Although each building follows its own design and has its own distinctive touches (touches that, since we are contemporary with the style of the buildings, we are very much in tune with), they follow similar shapes and patterns: varying metal protrusions set against various faux-masonry sections with distinct windows, consciously playing with visual textures and putting gleaming, almost formless glass in contrast with older, more established styles. When one steps back from the buildings and takes them in as a whole, though they are clearly different, they begin to very closely resemble one another. In effect, it means the neighborhood is locked into a single architectural style, and though in the author's opinion, the buildings are currently quite attractive, future tastes might shift and leave not only a single building, but an entire neighborhood, seeming hopelessly out of date. Indeed, some of the older building in the southern part of Battery Park City itself, built in a more 1980's-style, almost brutalist fashion, already look very dated.
Above: The landscape of Battery Park City. Notice how, though each building is different, they share much in common; A view of some of the oldest residential units, done in a style popular at the time, signs showing the single-class nature of Battery Park City. Click for larger views.
At the same time, it is hard to say whether any of this stylistic or class-based uniformity could have been avoided. After all, this was literally newly land created; there was no history, no existing footprint with which to work. One might posit the idea of only building upon, for example, half of the building lots, leaving the balance to be developed at some point in the future, but a region of vacant lots is almost certainly worse for urbanity than almost any amount of homogeneity. One could attempt to build housing for different economic groups, but not only the cost of the land, needed to help recoup the massive construction costs, but its massive assessed value means it would be very difficult financially to build anything but for like economic classes. This does not even consider the fact that much of the base costs of construction are likely to be broadly similar at any particular time, regardless of level of ostentation or luxury. Jacobs's solution, to subsidize the rent of those who cannot afford to live in a neighborhood, is a good first effort, and has been tried with some degree of success in many an urban development, but it does nothing to alleviate other usage or business concerns. In regards to business as well, there is no reason to suspect that, had more retail space been included, it would have been leased at anything but premium rates, severely limiting the types of stores which could inhabit them.
At the end of the day, some thirty thirty years after the construction of Battery Park City began, we are left with the question: does this created space work as an urban environment? The answer is a frustrating yes and no. Battery Park City avoided the egregious sins of past developments, such as superblocks, dehumanizing buildings, automotive-minded development, and poor pedestrian spaces. Through careful planning, a neighborhood was created that is walkable and attractive, mixing private use with ample public space. Carefully sculpting a park, utilizing the beauty of the harbor, and mixing architects has created a place that is an aesthetically pleasant place to be, and, in terms of rents collected and the value of property sold, has been very successful indeed.
Conspicuously, however, Battery Park City is missing a crucial ingredient: street life. While the waterfront park pulls in many pedestrians and residents, the streets only blocks away are as barren as the street level windows of the buildings that line them. The World Financial Center's street level design plays a part in this, as does its internal mall, potentially siphoning off pedestrians from surrounding streets. Yet a large part of this deficiency is the direct result of a design deficiency: very few buildings have any place for street level activity. It is a puzzling decision, for the vast majority of urban planning literature published since Jane Jacobs's legendary treatise has spent an immense amount of time on the importance of street life. Perhaps, as previously mentioned, the developers were fearful of empty storefronts. Another strong possibility is simply the failure of planning in regards to urban complexity. Sitting down as an engineer, it is possible to imagine calculating the number of grocery stores, drug stores, libraries, and anything else that a city may need, then simply laying them out in the proper amounts. Urban planners going back to Ebeneezer Howard have worked with this mindset, the idea that a space can be neatly planned down to the smallest unit, that if one has this many people, that many jobs, this many stores, etc., a functional city must arise. The reality of urban life is that it is messy: new uses arise and old ones fall, businesses are founded and become defunct, land owners are slow to adjust their prices, and a whole host of other factors that can never be fully enumerated or fully planned for may and will occur. Cities need what planners once to referred to as “waste,” space for different activities to rise and fall with time, for it is impossible to predict the future of a complex system with anything approaching certainty. Much like a biological organism, cities need both time and space to evolve.
And that is exactly what Battery Park City is doing: evolving and changing to meet the needs of its current, and its potential future, residents. If there is any sign of successful urban planning, it is a neighborhood taking root over time. Slowly and steadily, Battery Park City seems to be fulfilling that role. The park draws many pedestrians, in effect providing a jump start of traffic and street life that otherwise may not exist. New buildings are still being built on the few remaining large parcels of land. Smaller, previously empty green plots are slowly being repurposed for more productive uses, such as business and restaurants. Some larger buildings are undergoing renovations to bring shops to street level, a development which could dramatically improve the area. There is no doubt that some larger structural changes to many buildings, in particular the World Financial Center, will be necessary to fully urbanize the area, but these are projects that can be ongoing. Though the plan to lower West Street has been nixed, if the landscaping of the street can be even remotely successful, it could help tie the development to the rest of Manhattan, and hopefully act as a conduit of vitality both to and from Battery Park City and the new World Trade Center development. There are no guarantees for the future of the neighborhood; its reliance on a single architectural idiom, the similar age of its buildings, and the financially circumscribed nature of its residents could come back to haunt it. But at the same time, if a vibrant community can continue to develop, the process of reuse and constant rebuilding could ensure a vibrant neighborhood in perpetuity.
Above: Repurposing of former empty space to a restaurant. Click for a larger view.
Battery Park City demonstrates the successes and failures of planning and creating a city from scratch. Put simply, there is no way to build a fully functional city quickly on such a large scale and density. It simply takes time for the variety of urban functions to develop, for pathways to be formed, for community to arise, and for a city to be built. Perhaps, on a smaller scale, using the more plastic and less capital intensive materials of wood and brick, neighborhoods might develop more quickly, however that is only conjecture. The reality is that, in some times, at some places, the market demands density quickly, and planners and designers must be able to meet the demand while still attempting to create a functioning city. It is easy to point at certain design elements, such as the lack of enough retail space, and imagine a perfectly formed settlement dropping from the sky. While the mistakes themselves are real enough, no development can ever be perfect. The realities of making various builders, government agencies, and planners happy means compromises must be made. Even in a world of absolute control, one cannot plan for every possible occurrence; not only do businesses, institutions, and residents need time to rise and fall, but there is no telling what parts of the complexity of urban life any theoretical conception may be missing. Battery Park City is not perfect, but it is a good start, and with continual change, development, and the occasional guiding hand of planner and designers, it can continue it's path towards being a truly successful urban neighborhood.
All pictures (C) 2011 Blair Lorenzo and released under a Creative Commons license, see http://subwayfox.net/ for details.