Urban Planning

The Two Extremes of Subway Planning

by Don Friedman on September 13, 2017

An accidental but informative juxtaposition: planning to make the entire city a one-fare zone in 1920 by building a lot of new subway lines and the decay of subway development after World War II. The Second Avenue subway is, of course, a symbol of the change in fortune: it was first planned in 1920 but the first segment only opened this year.

New Yorkers obsess about the subways for a simple reason: they are what make the city possible in its current form. Manhattan is too dense and receives too many commuters during the day for any other form of transportation to work. Without the subways we’d need more roads and parking, and more bridges and tunnels across the Hudson*, East, and Harlem rivers. We’d need to reduce the density of Manhattan overall and redistribute the people and businesses outward from the center. In short, we’d need to make New York less like New York and more like other U.S. cities. That’s not the end of the world, but it certainly would be a loss.

If we crassly set aside the fact that subways are far cleaner to operate**, and free up the streets for people and bikes, and don’t require deconstruction the city; if we look at subways from purely a money-making perspective for society as a whole, they allow the vast wealth-creating and wealth-defining apex forest of skyscrapers to cover half of Manhattan. In other words, this is a topic where ecological concerns are aligned with real-estate concerns. That’s as extreme a pairing as the two articles linked to above.


* Yes, I know that the NYC subways don’t go across the Hudson to New Jersey. But if we didn’t have the subways to allow people coming in to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Penn Station to get around the city, fewer people would commute in by train and bus.

** The amount of energy used is far cleaner to produce as electricity, even fossil-fuel-created electricity, than in internal-combustion engines. The amount of energy needed for moving a train is far less than that needed to move the equivalent number of people in cars.

Code Intersectionality

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There’s been some discussion in the last couple of weeks on the topic of Belgian Block paving – usually and somewhat incorrectly referred to as cobblestones – being impassable for people with mobility issues. A solution exists for this particular problem, which is to provide smoother pavement at crosswalks. This allows people in wheelchairs or […]

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Rail For The Future

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The Regional Plan Association has a really good suggestion – a plan, one might even say – for running a new mass transit rail line from southern Brooklyn through central Queens to the south and east Bronx. It is potentially much cheaper per mile than other projects, like the Second Avenue Subway, because it uses […]

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Mental Mapping

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This article from the Architectural League on avoidance mapping is interesting in itself – it has a lot to say about what different people feel is important in their local environment – but it’s also interesting in what it has to say accidentally about how people see those environments. Some of the people interviewed have […]

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July 12, 2017

It’s hard to overstate the rapidity of New York’s growth in the nineteenth century. Just the bare facts of the census – Manhattan had 60,000 people in 1800 and 1,850,000 in 1900 – are astonishing. When you add in the construction required to provide housing, workplaces, and all the other functions of a city, it’s […]

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Why Green Roofs Are Not A Fad

June 21, 2017

People have known about the heat island effect for some time, where the concrete, asphalt, stone, and brick of buildings and streets absorb more heat than a natural landscape would, where black roofs absorb heat, where human activity generates heat, and the relatively lesser amount of vegetation means that the natural cooling from plant respiration […]

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The Best Form Of Adaptation

June 13, 2017

Former Sperry Gyroscope Factory, now offices: Here’s a decent read on industrial innovation and incubation: Brooklyn’s Industrial Revolution. It’s got a nice description of some reuse of industrial buildings by potentially interesting businesses. The article doesn’t discuss the topic of adaptive reuse but it has, by absence, something to say on that topic. I’ve talked […]

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Biodegrading Garbage

June 8, 2017

Animal waste processing plant, Barren Island, Brooklyn: Modern plans for composting and turning waste to energy have a lot of precedence. Before there was an airport at Floyd Bennet Field, that scrap of land was Barren Island, which processed so many animal carcasses that the adjacent water was named Dead Horse Bay. The problems we […]

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The Logical Conclusion

June 4, 2017

Ever since I first heard the phrase “kit of parts” applied to buildings, I’ve envisioned something like this. I want one.

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Correcting An Old Mistake

May 10, 2017

The modern idea of zoning began with the planned city movement around the beginning of the twentieth century. Planners were intent on improving living conditions and were convinced that the way to do this was to reduce density. Based on the information available to them, they were not wrong. The picture above shows a block […]

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