Tuesday, August 26, 2014

History is a guide, not a master

    Proposal by Cathryn Dwyre and Hudson Development Corp.
The proposal to revamp the Seventh Street Park has produced a predictable polarization in Hudson. On one side are those desiring a full, historically accurate restoration and on the other are the supporters of a more contemporary design—either the current proposal or some other.

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.
At her recent public presentation, Ms. Dwyre described the original layout of the park as a "default" nineteenth century solution. While perhaps taken by preservationists as a backhanded slap, her statement is not inaccurate. The park's configuration of two orthogonal pathways with a fountain at their intersection has been used many times. It is not unpleasant, and has worked elsewhere. But it does appear it was employed here without consideration of local conditions. A brief analysis of the park's pathways suggests the design falls well short of deserving an ironclad endorsement from Hudson's preservationists.

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.
At left I've shown the park with diagonal pathways. The result is much more accommodating of how most people will actually encounter and traverse the park. It doesn't solve the problem of the fountain lying on axis with the alley, but it does suggest the park layout can be changed and improved while still respecting the symmetry and formality presumably valued by Hudson's preservationists and traditionalists. (Although this is not to call this a solution; there are far more factors to investigate and synthesize than I can take on here.)

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.


  1. Interesting what a simple change brings to light. I get that it's not really about the traffic patterns as much as it is about a more useful approach to design issues like this, and maybe depolarizing the process somewhat. My biggest issue with this whole park to-do has been how quick many were to pick a side, as if there were only two options. We weren't ten minutes into the public discussion at the last meeting before someone tried to get everyone to vote on restoring it as-was or full, modern redo. Isn't there usually something more honest to be found in the range between two extremes?
    Nonetheless, interesting point on foot traffic and how that can change and/or dictate functional future planning.

  2. Very interesting points. This is my experience precisely, although I hadn't put my finger on it. The impediments to natural access to the park (where I would typically be inclined to enter it) are the curbstones, which of course direct me as pedestrian (don't enter here! no, no; bad pedestrian!) to a different access point (you are now authorized to enter; good pedestrian!). So it feels off-putting. And then to walk in and have to maneuver the terrible condition of the asphalt just compounds the problem. And then … there's all the negative signage, right at the approved access point. Different discussion.

    1. People experience public spaces through the very kinds of cues you describe. However, many are not consciously aware of it. The other day, I noticed that the diagonal asphalt path leading from the 7th and Warren corner into the park has a curb of stones embedded in it at a diagonal. Someone walking this path is apt to feel she is "doing it wrong," because a curb more generally is understood as a boundary between two different types or scales of travel.

      Similarly, the curves that link the paths near the fountain are too small in radius. When you sight down a potential line of travel, you subconsciously note that the turn is more abrupt than feels natural. Such poor cues lead many folks to simply go around the park rather than walk through it.

  3. This proposal for diagonal pathways makes great sense. If this was the only issue at hand I would applaud the change full heartedly.
    However words like "leveling the park" and calling mature shade trees as "killer trees" stops all compromise dead in its tracks.
    I am one of those in full support to restoring the Venus fountain.
    This IS a historic town. Its this that attracts ppl here. Urban Renewal did enough leveling . What has been 'lost' has not made this town better, only poorer for the loss.
    So yes improvements can be beneficial but "dont throw the baby out with the bathwater."

    1. I think we could use fewer trees. Less canopy. The dense upper story of vegetation is another off-putting aspect of the park. It's a little too dark and closed-in. People naturally feel safer where they can see and quickly access open space than they do when they're deep in a dense forest situation (not that all forest situations are bad; it's just that humans have a natural fear response to them).

      "Modern Humans prefer savannah type landscapes where we evolved because early hominids evolved in savannah habitat often by lakes (Leakey 1980), typified by spatial openness, scattered trees or small groupings of trees, relatively uniform grassy ground surfaces. Savannah provided higher food sources than rainforest, fewer phobic inducing creatures such as snakes and spiders, more open viewing for predators." http://www.andymcgeeney.com/feeling-attracted-to-nature-is-human-nature/

      I'm interested to hear some experts' views on the above.

    2. Hudson is very lacking in trees, so I was initially disturbed by the proposal to remove them from the park. But when I looked more closely, I could see that the existing trees are too dense and dark. I do believe this is one of many things that makes the park off-putting to many. Trees that offer a dappling of light and shade are much more pleasant. This doesn't in itself mean we should get rid of them; we need to have much more dialogue on what the park should be.

  4. The best thing we could do for the park would be to get rid of that convenience store / gas station on the north side and either create more park space there or build something decent.

    1. I agree--this is the worst aspect of the park. But more park space on the gas station site isn't the answer; what is needed is a stronger built edge at this location, as already works well along the perimeter of the rest of the park. I have a few hair-brained ideas to this end... I will attempt to illustrate them soon.

  5. I completely agree with Vince.
    One the fountain is back and walkways
    are fixed and/or moved the property value around
    the park will increase. The gas station will soon
    be priced out and a building will take its place