Wednesday, January 12, 2011

If you build it...

When I'm not exploring the city on foot or having coffee with other Hudsonians who know the city much better than I do, I often find myself studying aerial views of Hudson on Google or Bing. I'm usually trying to make sense out of aspects of the city I don't yet understand, to identify hidden patterns, or to find ways to make Hudson a physically, experientially, and socially more coherent place. The mishmashed street geometries at the eastern corner of the street grid (are there sensible ways to realign them?), the truck route (any alternatives not yet identified?), the Promenade (can it be extended north-south?), and a million other things spill through my mind, only occasionally leaving me with greater clarity than when I started.
The other day I found myself studying the Second Ward, looking for physical factors that contribute to the social isolation of its residents. A few were easy to identify: It has more vacant lots and more random open space than are found in the rest of the Hudson grid, making for a less comfortable milieu for strolling, hanging out, and having casual social encounters. Too, the buildings sit farther back from the sidewalk and are much lower, taller, or longer than the Hudson norm. Such physical differences in low income neighborhoods tend to stigmatize their residents, increasing their sense of alienation from other city residents.

High-rise buildings are especially problematic, as it is harder for their residents to participate in the social life of the city than it is for residents of four-story-and-under buildings. Above the fourth floor or so, it is difficult to recognize a familiar face on the street or to call out a warning to a child endangered by a passing vehicle. One's visual field tends to be oriented away from the immediate street environment and more toward the distant cityscape and landscape.

Social interaction in high rise buildings is also limited by their internal corridors. No doubt there are valuable friendships and social interdependencies within Bliss Tower, but such relationships tend to arise despite the physical environment, not because of it. The biggest problem with corridor buildings is that their residents are either completely inside their apartments or completely outside them; there's no in-between. A solid fire door on a blank-walled corridor eliminates gradations between in and out, between the private world of the home and the public world of passersby. This reduces the opportunities people have to meet each other. The single woman in 7A hoping to "accidentally on purpose" bump into the handsome guy living in 7G, or the elderly woman looking for a friendly greeting from the maintenance man won't even know when they have come and gone. Such might not sound like a big deal, but it becomes a big deal for those living with it day after day. By comparison, apartments in buildings with porches and stoops and that open directly to the street offer many more opportunities for their residents to casually interact with neighbors and strangers.

As I further considered the Second Ward's isolation problem, I looked at the city's structured public spaces. Structured spaces have built edges on two or more sides, and are usually located on or next to a highly used pathway. Thurston Park on lower Warren Street is an example, and a similar one lies adjacent to Mexican Radio. The Seventh Street Park and the Courthouse Green are much larger examples, and the buildings that enclose them are across the street. Such spaces are valuable for fostering social interaction; they are the spaces people go to to take a break from work, eat an ice cream cone, feed the pigeons, or people watch. They are also the spaces people incidentally pass through, all of which fosters the casual encounters that build familiarity and knit a community together. Soft public spaces (such as Promenade Park, Waterfront Park, and the Cemetery) are also important to cities but they tend to be located more on the periphery of neighborhoods or districts and to support somewhat different social purposes.
A structured public space: Thurston Park on lower Warren Street
If my informal survey is accurate, Hudson's structured public spaces consist of the four mentioned above, plus the Parc Foundation park. As you can see below, all five spaces are south of Columbia Street, and three of them are south of Warren Street. There are no structured public spaces in the northernmost area of the city, where the Second Ward is located. (I couldn't find a ward map, otherwise I would have shown the ward boundaries.)
Structured public spaces (in red) are important for fostering casual social interaction.
This suggested to me a somewhat different approach to weaving the lives of Second Ward residents into the life of the city, particularly if Bliss Tower is eventually replaced by low-rise development as is often discussed: We shouldn't only be looking for ways to bring Second Ward residents toward Warren Street and the rest of Hudson, important though this is; we need to create reasons for the rest of Hudson to go to the Second Ward. Indeed, there are only dead-end streets beyond the Second Ward, which means many city residents almost never pass through it incidentally. But imagine a new structured public space in the Second Ward with a few mom and pop storefronts along the edges, some benches for the elderly to sit on, some shade trees, and all the neighborhood kids coming and going.

I would sure go there to people watch.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the comment on my blog! I really love you guys' book! I find it so relaxing, and very fun to read! It's a good feeling to know a little bit more about the fashion world than being able to name this or that designer. Understanding fabrics, keys in styling, and designer's perspectives makes a novice feel like a fashionista!

    As far as this post, architectural differences do have such an impact on how we socialize... But you really dug deeper, and opened my mind to things I wouldn't have thought about! Really cool! I see you started your blog around the same time as me! Newbies! :)

    I have a question for you, would it to be much to ask if you would consider doing a giveaway with me? I really do love the book, and I feel that it is an essential item for my readers, as they, like I, want to know more about fashion design and styling! I could get a copy of your book, and if you're willing, you could sign the copy and I could give it away to one of my lucky readers!

    This would be a great way to give exposure to your book, and your blog! I could let all of my readers know that you have a blog they should check out as well! Please let me know if you are/aren't interested. Thanks again!

    Sorry for such a long comment lol!