|Proposal by Cathryn Dwyre and Hudson Development Corp.|
Responsibility for this polarization lies at the feet of both camps. The contemporists have not done enough homework or engaged the design process publicly enough to justify the sweeping changes put forth by designer Cathryn Dwyre. And many preservationists have insisted on a full and literal restoration of the original park plan without considering the possibility that there might be a better way. I will focus in this post on one particular set of flaws in the original park layout; in the coming weeks I hope to explore other issues related to the past, current, and future design of the park.
|View of original Seventh Street Park looking northeast.|
The park was organized by two orthogonal pathways with
a fountain located symmetrically at their intersection.
Park pathways, properly understood, are continuations of larger systems of pedestrian movement. This is in large part because parks are activated as much or more by incidental or casual users as by deliberate users. In other words, a park's designer has a primary responsibility to encourage use by those who encounter it by chance as well as by those who make a conscious decision to go there. When incidental users are successfully engaged, a baseline of activity is assured, making the park safer and more enjoyable for all.
|Bird's eye view of the original park design. The park's internal|
pathways do not relate to the natural pedestrian street crossing
locations, shown in white.
When a park is set into a street grid in the manner of the Seventh Street Park, the majority of users, incidental as well as deliberate, will arrive at a corner. From there, they will tend to move diagonally. This gives the deliberate user the most immediate route into the park and the casual user the most direct route through it. (In truth, designers visit "tricks" upon both groups to divert them from a perfectly efficient path; a discussion for another time.)
The historical park plan (above left) ignores these realities of human behavior and urban context. The entrance points are located at mid-block rather than at the corners, and the pathways run orthogonally rather than diagonally. The best-case outcome of this is undesirable wear patterns in the grass; the worst case is that pedestrians dangerously cross streets at mid-block when approaching and leaving the park. Somewhere in the middle of the best-worst scale, perhaps, is that the park simply isn't as good and inspiring a place as it could be.
The existing pathway that runs across the short dimension of the park does allow for some degree of natural pedestrian access, as it is an extension of Prison Alley. But this advertises a different problem: the Venus fountain lies on axis with a back alley instead of with a major street or important building. Those interested in the more essential values and goals of traditional city planning, and who do not insist on preservation for preservation's sake, would recognize this as a nineteenth century faux pas.
|Bird's eye view showing diagonal pathways, as a response to the|
larger, natural patterns of pedestrian movement in the neighborhood.
Of course, many in the preservation camp will poo-poo any proposed changes simply because they aren't "historic." This amounts to an argument that history is right simply because it got there first. Such history-centric individuals belong in the same category of non-thinkers as those who deem something of value simply because it's new and different. (Designers of the PARC Foundation Park in Hudson, take note.) A thinking person—someone open to the best of the past, present, and future—knows that history has gotten things right and wrong—not only in the usually cited arenas of politics, war, and civil rights, but also in architecture and city planning.