For a young urban planner striking out on her first blog site about all things planning, design, and community outreach – to fashion her first entry about her first visit to New York City is pretty fascinating. Therefore I dedicate this first blog to my husband who God placed in my life to make this dream of visiting New York come true. Having talked about going to New York as a milestone 30th birthday trip, I missed the mark because of poor planning. But here I am one year later arriving at LaGuardia Airport; so thank you honey for this gift, and giving me a wonderful experience to write about. Because New York is so major it commands a major blog! Therefore this first series is split into chapters. I hope you enjoy each one. New York Sate State of Mind Part 1
“Neeeeww Yoooorrrk, concrete jungle where dreams are made of!!”
Flying into the city of New York was euphoric. As we flew over the tip of Manhattan Island My husband and I sang the anthem made famous by Jay Z and Alicia Keys. My husband having been to New York two times before me knew what awaited him upon landing; but I didn’t. The city looked so serene from the plane - not like how TV or movies have portrayed it to be – a “jungle”, untamed and wild and devouring anyone who is unfamiliar with its terrain. It actually looked very intentional and welcoming! Every skyscraper, every bridge, and port seemed to be strategically placed by design. So would I find a jungle beneath the skyscraper ‘cover’, or would this first time New York tourist find a more, manageable terrain? I was clamoring to find out.
The Lay of the Land…
First order of business – figure out the terrain.
The island of Manhattan is approximately 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles wide. Our hotel was situated in Times Square (the infamous Sean John billboard with P Diddy was outside of our window). Throughout the trip, being in this central location helped us find our bearings on a map; so for you would be first time NYC tourists, I would recommend staying in Times Square because its easy to locate when lost or asking for directions. Then during your next visit stay somewhere off the beaten path out of the way of all the other first timers in Times Square.
Thanks to the New York Planning Department website I would quickly learn that Manhattan is divided into four distinct areas - Uptown (moving north toward Harlem), West and East Sides (which is divided by Central Park in the middle), and Downtown (moving south towards the Financial District and the site of the World Trade Center). If you want to get more nuanced, you can begin to call out neighborhoods and districts – Flat Iron District, Soho, Meatpacking District, Greenwich Village and others, or upper and lower east and west sides.
Next order of business - learn the grid system as it keeps the island easy to navigate either by foot or by car. Broadway is the only angled street on the grid and when it crosses other streets, it makes for odd concrete waste lands – but the city has done a great job at repurposing these areas into squares and parks, which I’ll get to later in Part 2. The grid is made up of avenues and streets. Avenues take you north and south, while the streets take you east and west - that tip is credited to the double decker bus tour my husband and I took on our second day. When there is heavy traffic on the grid, you get “grid lock” – another insight I stole from our tour guide. So far the terrain seems pretty manageable thanks to a well functioning grid system and walkable streets.
Walk, walk, and walk some more…
Our first full day in New York, we took a cab and traveled south from Times Square to a Soho eatery for breakfast. On the way we noticed the frantic pace in which everyone was walking. Everyone and I mean EVERYONE looked like they had 5 minutes to be on time to an appointment. It was fascinating. It made me think however, “Come on New York, everyone cant possibly be in that much of a hurry.” So I hypothesized that everyone has trained themselves to walk at a fast passed cadence, keeping up with the flow of pedestrian traffic.
For you suburbanites out there (me being one myself) picture the expressway in your town, and picture a car driving 55 miles an hour, in the 70 mile per hour passing lane, in rush hour traffic. Yea, exactly - move it or lose it buddy. Pedestrian traffic on the streets of New York is no different. If you walk slowly you will get run over. Therefore how can so many people walk the streets of New York at any given time at such a frantic pace? Well let’s talk about the concept of walkability.
Planners often talk about walkability but what the heck does that mean? Well it means that my husband and I could walk 44 blocks from the southern tip of the island to Times Square without getting bored because of the great store fronts. It means that we could walk side by side without bumping into one another or other people (although my husband would argue that there wasn’t enough room for my annoying shopping bags that kept hitting him in the arm every few blocks). In short, there were very WIDE sidewalks and interesting streets.
In some locations sidewalks looked to be as wide as 32 feet (without measuring, I estimated that the four concrete segments in the sidewalk were 8 feet in width). Keeping with the “expressway” analogy, a 32 foot sidewalk in New York has several travel lanes. Let’s start with the Storefront Lane. This lane is for people window shopping or pausing to read a restaurant menu. The storefront lane could also accommodate outdoor dining, or in our case, a husband waiting for his wife to come out of retail establishments. Then you have the two travel lanes or pedestrian passing lanes. This is for the ‘I’ve got to be somewhere in 5 minutes” pedestrians. You better keep up in these lanes, pay attention, and navigate. Then there is the curb side lane – this is for hailing a cab or shopping the street vendors. Oh and where are the utilities you ask, underground my friend, underground.
The most important lane in my opinion is the ‘storefront lane’. This is what adds interest to the ‘pedestrian commute’. Storefronts with window displays, sale signs, featured dishes, and fresh baked goods, helped our 44 block walk seem like only 5. I could’ve walked the entire island because at every turn there was another interesting sight. As eyes are the windows into a person’s soul, New York storefronts are the windows into a neighborhood’s soul and character. Similar to eye contact with another human being, a street with active storefronts can help breed a sense of trust and safety for a first time visitor to a large city. A storefront can help serve as measure of walkability and interest.
Visual interest along a street is very important. Even in the days when New York’s train system consisted of elevated lines (elevated lines were removed from major corridors in Manhattan in the 1980’s) second story retail windows were designed to be larger so passengers on the trains could see the goods for sale. Those second floor windows are still in use today for those tourists on the double decker buses. Okay, not really – but the windows are still in use today even without the elevated rail lines. The point is that walkability is mostly about making a street interesting for a pedestrian so they always choose to walk over riding in a car.
The second most important section are the ‘travel lanes’. In New York people have clearly chosen to privilege walking over driving and for obvious reasons (cost of premium land and therefore a lack of parking and great transit). But because they are not driving they have to get there by foot – and fast! Sidewalks need to be wide and ready to handle heavy foot traffic. If not, you’ll end up with angry pedestrians because they cannot move about efficiently during peak times of travel – suburbanites, does this sound familiar? Instead of road rage – you get…sidewalk rage!
Therefore, in honor of the New York pedestrians who have carved out their importance in the city, I wish to adopt a Complete Sidewalks philosophy! Similar to the Complete Streets philosophy that encourages moving all types of travelers (car, bus, bike, pedestrians), I think that every sidewalk should accommodate all the ‘travel’ lanes needed for pedestrians to move about efficiently. While distinguishing various zones for a sidewalk is common practice for many urban planners, some of our peers in government and engineering forget that pedestrians are important! Travel to a place where driving is the second mode of transportation and propose a 5 foot sidewalk – you’ll definitely get the “what were you thinking” response. We need to begin thinking that just how we travel by car to get from point A to B – pedestrians are doing the same. Walking is not just for recreation, it is a travel mode.
So will that complete sidewalks philosophies catch on with our cohorts? Eh, I’m not sure. But what I do know for sure is that walking the terrain of this urban jungle was pretty enjoyable - and easy! A gridded street system, lovely store fronts, and accommodating sidewalks made the 42 block walk very delightful; so much so that our walking excursion was the best part of the trip. Not only did we do some great shopping, but we also lingered in beautiful and intriguing squares and parks. So I would recommend to any NYC tourist whether it’s your first, second, or third time – walk, walk and walk some more! Start in the storefront lane, and ease your way into the travel lanes. While the faster pace may take some getting used too, walking the streets of New York is well worth the risk. Because if you’re in a car, you might miss something interesting at the next turn.
Next time – New York State of Mind Part 2 “Parks, Plazas, Pocket Parks – Oh MY!”