The Woodstock of Street Design

The Woodstock of Street Design

The city has transformed parts of 9th Avenue into a haven for cyclists and pedestrians.
Courtesy NYC DOT

Traditionally, most New Yorkers’ attitudes toward their city’s streets could be summed up by the proverb “familiarity breeds contempt,” according to Deputy Mayor for Operations Ed Skyler. “They only noticed the streets to complain about potholes,” he said. But Skyler and company have been working hard to change that in recent months by creating a growing number of no-car zones, including a prime piece of Times Square roadway that closed to traffic last weekend.

While car-free Broadway has grabbed headlines, the city took another major step toward reinventing streets on May 20, with the release of New York’s first Street Design Manual, a “playbook” of guidelines for creating new streets and retrofitting old ones. The joint product of ten different city agencies, it offers guidance on everything from paving materials to the ideal width of bike lanes on different types of thoroughfares. Although it does not mandate policy change directly, the manual will become the new standard for the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Public Design Commission when they review proposed projects.

A view of the new Times Square from one of the many towers overlooking it. But this is not the only plans the city has for its streets, as outlined in the manual.

Skyler was on hand for the official launch of the manual on Wednesday at the Municipal Art Society, along with DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Parks and Recreation commissioner Adrian Benepe, Design and Construction commissioner David Burney, and a large crowd of planners, engineers, and designers. Excitement ran high among both the speakers and the crowd, not just for the manual itself but for what it represents: New York’s determination to conceive of greener, more people-friendly streets, and an unprecedented interagency collaboration toward that end. “This is like the Woodstock of urbanism!” laughed Benepe.

Although the Street Design Manual delves into the finer points of paving and planting, all those details are in the service of a few underlying principles. One of the most prominent is to further PlaNYC’s goal of making New York a sustainable city by 2030. “When you realize 26 percent of the city’s surface area is sidewalk and street, there are enormous opportunities there,” Burney told the crowd. And although environmental considerations are less of a rarity in street design guides now than they were a decade ago, the New York manual is exceptional for weaving those concepts throughout the guidelines rather than shunting them off into a separate section. The description of every design feature includes suggestions for “Sustainability Opportunities,” such as planting trees in medians or paving sidewalks with porous materials.

The manual is clearly committed to being in the vanguard of street design, venturing beyond the tried-and-true standards into more experimental waters. “When there are things that we don’t know work in New York, we have them in there as pilots,” said Andy Wiley-Schwartz, Assistant Commissioner of the Division of Planning and Sustainability and one of the guide’s primary authors. That includes speed cushions (speed bumps with gaps that allow emergency vehicles to pass through at full speed), and separated busways (currently enjoying success in Quito, Ecuador).

A sizable crowd turned up for the unveiling of the manual at the Municipal Art Society last Wednesday.
Julia Galef

It’s also a champion for pedestrians. The guide is packed with strategies for making intersections more pedestrian-friendly, and for reclaiming street space by widening sidewalks, adding corner and mid-block extensions, and narrowing streets. Its authors are especially protective of the public realm, criticizing streets that try to use design to discourage public access: “For example, private streets along waterfronts should not significantly differ from public streets in their appearance,” they warn.

There remain a few blind spots in the guide, notably a lack of discussion about how the community fits into the planning process. Filling in that part of the picture will be crucial, both in ensuring these principles get implemented, and in making New York an inspiring role model for other cities to follow. But as Sadik-Khan emphasized at the launch, “This is just the beginning.” She encouraged feedback for future incarnations of the Street Design Manual, and added: “Knowing this crowd, I’m sure you’ve got plenty.”