Journey to the Center of New York: Can Design “Cure” Our Cities?

Plans for the Delancey Underground, an underground park made possible by fiberoptic technology. Photo courtesy of James Ramsey and Dan Barasch

Walk into the cafeteria at the Googleplex and you are nudged into the “right” choice. Sweets? Color-coded red and placed on the bottom shelf to make them just a bit harder to reach. “Instead of that chocolate bar, sir, wouldn’t you much rather consume this oh-so-conveniently-located apple? It’s good for you! Look, we labelled it green!” [1]

Like the Google cafeteria guides you to take responsibility of your health, Google wants to transform the construction industry to take responsibility of the “health” of its buildings. They have been leveraging for transparency in the content of building materials, so that, like consumers who read what’s in a Snickers bar before eating it, they’ll know the “ingredients” of materials to choose the greenest, what they call “healthiest,” options.[2]

These examples illustrate the trend of “medicalization” in our increasingly health-obsessed society: when ordinary problems (such as construction, productivity, etc.) are defined and understood in medical terms. In their book Imperfect Health, Borasi and Zardini argue that through this process, architecture and design has been mistakenly burdened with the normalizing, moralistic function of “curing” the human body. [3]

While I find the idea that design should “force” healthiness somewhat paternalistic and ultimately limited, I don’t think this “medicalized” language is all bad – especially if we can use it in new and revitalizing ways. Allow me to prescribe two examples: the most popular and the (potentially) most ambitious urban renewal projects in New York City today, the High Line and the Delancey Underground (or the Low Line).

More on “curative” spaces after the break. (Trust me, it’s good for you.)

A Line Grows in Manhattan

Philip A. and Lisa Maria Falcone Flyover, the pathway rises eight feet above the , winding through a canopy of trees, between West 25th and West 27th Street, looking South. ©Iwan Baan

Just listen to this description of the vastly popular High Line, New York City’s #2 tourist attraction, and you can start to understand why this space is so special: “When you walk on it you’re floating among the rooftops [...] but you’re still connected to the street. And the plants – it is a magical garden in the sky and it’s planted to be this linear ribbon that goes for one mile and a half and you can walk on it without coming in contact with a single vehicle. So, it’s a connecter, it’s a wild dynamic landscape like no other.” [4]

It’s what Borasi and Zardini would describe as a typical Green built environment that (1) regenerates the urban environment through the removal of industrial/human contamination and (2) helps shape a healthier human body.  [3] The High Line certainly follows these guidelines: this rail-line once delivered meat to factories in the meat-packing district, but now, repurposed and designed for walking and meandering, prevents the use of “sedentary” modes of transportation (like the train that originally ran on it).

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However, the High Line, departs in some critical ways. First of all, there’s an emphasis upon accessibility that doesn’t force activity or privilege ability – it in fact encourages rest. From the sundeck to the “spurs” (empty frames inspired by the old billboards once attached to the railway), walkers are often encouraged to stop and look out upon the city.

And while repurposed, the original signs of human industry have not been completely removed or forgotten, a fate that would have certainly occurred if the Friends of the High Line organization had not sued the Guiliani administration – multiple times – to stop the wrecking ball.[4] While the first and second phases utilize a unique “paving system that encourages natural growth,” the third and final phase of the project (slated to finish around 2014) will involve no paving at all, but instead an “Interim Walkway”:

“The tracks would remain, the plants would remain, nothing would be modified.  Only the simple walkway would be laid upon the existing to allow  [...people to experience] ‘what’s really cool, which is the context.’” [5]

Interim Walkway at the Western Rail Yards. James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Courtesy City of New York and Friends of the High Line.

Here, we don’t see a tearing down of the old in favor of the new, but rather a harmonizing of living nature with human history, greenery with its context – the city. We also see this in the High Line’s success as a public, meeting space where people connect. Robert Hammond, co-founder of the Friends of the High Line, notes that the High Line is one of the few places in New York you can actually see people holding hands. New Yorkers don’t do that. [6]

As the Planning Commissioner has noted, “Public Spaces [and how they're used are...] how you can measure the health of a city [...] We live in a very dense city and we like that, but you need public spaces as social gathering places [... where people] can merge and blend and feel that energy of city life.” [4]

With that energy has come money: The High Line has raised half a million dollars in revenue for the city and has revitalized the neighborhoods surrounding it, stimulating business and the construction of exciting architecture, like Renzo Piano‘s Satellite Whitney Museum.

This of course is the beauty of the High Line: yes, it’s an enchanting “oasis,” a “respite,” a “New York fairytale,”  but as it ribbons through and around the city, the line interacts with it and its citizens at every turn. It leads us to think of “curative” design in a different way: one that redefines what is undesired space, that provides points of connection for people,  and produces revenue to allow for future growth.

Abandoned Trolley Terminal in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Potential site for the Delancey Underground. Courtesy of James Ramsey and Dan Barasch

Journey to the Center of New York So what happens when you take the idea of the High Line – a man-made landscape that integrates nature into the very city itself – to its radical end? You get the Delancey Underground, a plan to use cutting-edge fiberoptic technology to create a High Line-like space underground.

Affectionally called the Low Line, the park (currently seeking funding) would reclaim a massive abandoned trolley terminal in a Lower East Side Subway station.  Like the High Line, the designers wish to maintain connections to this location’s history by conserving elements of the original infrastructure, such as the old train tracks. Moreover, being a space already connected to New York’s subway system, the park would be intrinsically connected to city life. [7]

However, I’ll admit that at first glance, the technology is … kinda creepy: there will be sunlight (funneled through fiberoptic cables), but no sunburn (no UV Rays); spring, but no winter (perfect, the project proclaims, for year-long public gatherings, rain or shine).

Plans for the Delancey Underground, an underground park made possible by fiberoptic technology. Photo courtesy of James Ramsey and Dan Barasch.

This attempt to recreate nature while completely robbing it of its “dangerous” qualities speaks directly to what Imperfect Health describes: the anxiety-ridden, health-obsessed idea that design could somehow “cure” us from the realities of  our world. But if we listen to how the co-founder of the project, Dan Barasch, describes the difficulties facing them, we begin to see how medicalized discourse can actually help us to rethink “sick” spaces:

“Generations of New Yorkers have really been trained to think about the underground as [...] not a nice place to spend time, right?  [...but ...] the city is full of environments underground; they’re actually quite nice to spend time [...]. So, one example that I think is really fun is the Apple store right near Central Park on 5th avenue. [...] through the innovative use of daylighting technology, they built this glass cube and it draws sunlight underground. People don’t [...] really think about: are there rats, is it safe, am I going to want to spend time down there, because it was designed really beautifully.”

Plans for the Delancey Underground, an underground park made possible by fiberoptic technology. Photo courtesy of James Ramsey and Dan Barasch.

We have been conditioned to consider the underground a “sick” “unsafe” “rat-filled” environment, but this is not an inherent characteristic of subterranean space. As Barasch suggests with the Apple Store, design has the power to restructure how we perceive our environment, allowing us to re-conceptualize the dichotomy of sick/healthy, city/nature. Much like the neglected, once tenement-filled neighborhood this park would call home, the Delancey Underground urges us to reclaim these old, “sick” places as “healthy” and valuable, to see their potential as innovative, “curative” public spaces.

After all, if the High Line can convince New Yorkers to hold hands, then anything is possible.

 

References

[1] Ravitz, Anthony. VERGE Lounge Chat. March 14, 2012. <http://www.greenbiz.com/events/2012/03/verge-2012#program>.

[2] Guevarra, Leslie. “How Google gets the most from its green buildings.” GreenBiz.com. <http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2012/03/12/how-google-gets-most-its-green-building-strategy>

[3] Borasi, Giovanna and Mirko Zardini, eds. Imperfect Health. Lars Mullers Publishers.

[4] “A Conversation about the NYC High Line.” Charlie Rose. PBS. 1:43.  <http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/11996>

[5] Cilento , Karen . “Update: Community Meeting / Friends of the High Line.” ArchDaily. <http://www.archdaily.com/216209>

[6] Minner , Kelly. “Video: Robert Hammond on The High Line.” ArchDaily. <http://www.archdaily.com/149951>

[7] Rosenfield , Karissa. “Delancey Underground a.k.a “The Low Line” ArchDaily. <http://www.archdaily.com/188295>  

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "Journey to the Center of New York: Can Design “Cure” Our Cities?" 22 Mar 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 30 Jul 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=219084>

1 comment

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    Design can persuade us to make choices which are beneficial to our health. But this isn’t about the curative properties of ‘good’ design, it’s more about the negative qualities of apathetic design.

    If I use, pass through, live or work in a space where the designers were more like apathetic planners, it sends a message that makes me want to put less effort into bettering myself. After all, if the designers didn’t really care about how much enjoyment I would get out of a space, they didn’t care about me. And if they don’t care about me, why should I care about myself?

    Putting effort into a space, into a city, and drawing attention and focus towards those spaces does the opposite, if designed to dissuade those negative behaviors. If using the stairs is more pleasant than an elevator then I will walk to my office instead. The message conveyed by anonymous designers who will likely never meet me, who still took the time to think about my experience with a space is a message that says I matter and that I am worth caring about. And suddenly, I have a reason to care *for* myself.

    The curative property comes in caring about a space and the people who use it.

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