As the pandemic ripped through New York City, much like in any other city, most of the urban life has ceased to exist in a traditional way to which people were accustomed. As New York City’s urbanites are continuing to learn on the go on how to adapt to the new mode of living, urbanists, architects, and planners are rethinking how the city might need to change to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic times.
Beyond re-examining the healthcare system, an important area of the pandemic-related design research concerns the adaptation and reconfiguration of the everyday public realms, like parks, workplaces, cultural and social spaces. While in the late summer of 2020, New York City was successful in reducing the transmission of the coronavirus, the threat never fully went away, and new cases spiked in numbers after and into 2021. Urban planners, architects, and city officials are learning and applying lessons from both the negative and positive changes brought about by the pandemic to build a resilient New York of tomorrow.
The Post-Pandemic Street
Social interactions are a major driver in city life. New York’s streets have often brought out the very heart of the city that makes it like no other in the world. To be in line, New York’s transportation plans for moving around safely, efficiently, and sustainably have resulted in some of the most ambitious policies to date.
Nevertheless, New York’s transit use and bicycling mode share have stagnated even before COVID-19, highlighting the problem made urgent by the pandemic even more; therefore New York needs to aim for a higher standard of success at a faster pace. The idea of designing a city where buildings and spaces can be thought of as smaller components of a larger web of networks can extend and enhance the life of the city. New York’s Streets Master Plan legislation passed by the City Council is a step towards this type of ambitious planning so that New York and its diverse neighbourhoods can develop a clear vision for how and where to prioritise bicycling and other modes of transit within the broader network.
Taking this initiative a step further, New York-based architectural firm WXY Architecture has developed an ideal network map, based on Paris’ “15-minute city” idea to form a pedestrianisation strategy for Manhattan. The aim of the map is to serve as a guide to improve quality of life by creating a city where all the necessities of living, working, supplying, caring, learning, and enjoying can be reached within 15 minutes by foot or bike.
Continuity and Multiplicity
Based in New York, the Urban Design Forum is one of the organisations bringing together researchers, thinkers, and designers to debate the defining issues facing today’s cities. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Urban Design Forum launched City Life After Coronavirus, a programme to strategise how urban planning and design can map a road to recovery for New York City.
The proposals to reimagine a city encourage an interdisciplinary approach to recovery. “MultipliCity: Creating Resiliency Through Design” suggests that cities must be designed to fully integrate architecture with the public realm. Multiplying journeys is one of the ways in which pedestrian spaces in cities, in general, become more central, where promenades, trails, malls, processional walks are critical to not only reducing conflict between cars and pedestrians but also to remind that public spaces provide choice, flexibility, connectedness, and comfort. They are enablers for safe socialisation, communication, and showcase of culture.
Public and Private
To that end, there are several realised and undergoing urban and architectural projects in New York that can already be considered successful exemplars for urban city planning. These address the notion of a street and multiplicity and connectedness of journeys that city dwellers can take, as well as the lessons learned from them that can be applied to the post-pandemic city.
One of these projects is the High Line that brought revitalisation and a welcome dose of greenery to the congested city. Reimagining a once decayed place, the High Line has become a symbol of successful rehabilitation and innovative public space design. For a city with a scarcity of green spaces, the High Line serves an even increased importance in the time of the pandemic.
Straddling the High Line will be a new project by Heatherwick Studio called Lantern House. “New York has such a strong, vibrant character, incredible diversity, unique history,” says Mat Cash, partner at Heatherwick Studio. “ The New York street experience is unlike any other and our studio is always thrilled to find ways to amplify that uniqueness in our projects.”
For Lantern House, with each of its towers straddling the High Line with a connecting lobby below, Cash describes a strive to preserve the ground plane to connect and engage with the street. Using the High Line’s supporting pillars to penetrate the new structure, Lantern House embraces the existing architecture, while paying homage to the brownstones and old warehouses of Chelsea through materials and meticulous details. “It needed to feel like it belongs to New York,” explained Cash. “We wanted to provide high ceilings and extraordinary views of the High Line, but also not make the apartments feel like fishbowls and create privacy for the residents.”
As New York is incredibly urbanised, green public spaces are a high commodity, particularly in the pandemic time. One of the few spaces left for development is the Hudson River piers that can be redeveloped to continue the lineage of green space and provide a respite from the intensity of Manhattan.
“We wanted to amplify what was already extraordinary and create a variety of public experiences,” says Cash about another one of Heatherwick Studio’s projects — Little Island park at Pier 55 in Chelsea that is currently nearing its completion. With the help of the two bridges that lead to the island and offer views from the water back into Manhattan, the feeling of transitioning somewhere that is separate from the city is undeniable. The unique topography of the park enables visitors to discover and meander through the park, while also creating an armature for public functions from performance spaces, to picnic areas, to playgrounds.
“On a city level, re-localisation has become quite important, as people are still not allowed to travel,” highlights Cash. “With the emphasis on local togetherness, of belonging to a local community, the importance of parks and green spaces has risen.” Indeed, places and local placemaking matter more now than ever and the pandemic has served as the catalyst to re-emphasise that truth. In a city like New York, this ultimately means considering what placemaking means in the new normal and re-examining design strategies that impact our quality of life and the sense of belonging to the city we inhabit.