Urban Greening Ideas Are Infectious, Union Square Park Case In Point

The image to the left is surely evocative for different people in different ways. I cannot see it without flashbacks to what that same spot looked and smelled and sounded like in 1987. It was a peculiar moment in time; I’ll leave it at that. This rendering reaches me just after seeing images of Penn Station’s recent renovation, which itself got me thinking about unique solutions to different kinds of urban challenges. In that case the interior was the thing. For cities where there is too much built space and traffic, greening of arteries is the thing. Also coincidental was last week’s news about the plan for the neighborhood where our sons attended school during the 2003-2004 academic year, which reaffirms my sense that good ideas are infectious.

Those news from New York and from Paris transported me to a very different urban space where we lived and worked for seven years. The image above and the title screen to the right both serve well to evoke an idea that was generated in one of India’s best preserved colonial harbor neighborhoods. Just prior to opening this property in that neighborhood we hosted four young creative professionals from Europe and the USA, two authors and two architects. One of the architects had recently completed work on our then-favorite model of urban re-utilization.
I stood with him on a rooftop overlooking the spice-trading on the street where our hotel was under construction. We had a breezy conversation about how this space might be made more accessible, and I commented on this neighborhood needing an urban design that, like the repurposing of two crumbling spice warehouses into our hotel would be respectful of history while not a slave to it. And the next day he disappeared, as guests do, but the idea is still out there, gestating, and in my hazy memory looks something like this image below.

“Envisioning Union Square’s Vibrant North Plaza” – Watercolor by Guido Hartray

Not the specifics, of course. But this dream-like watercolor rendering of Union Square Park’s future layout is a perfect reminder of that rooftop conversation about how Mattacherry might one day be a more effective version of its already awesome self. Carolyn McShea has posted this research note about the Union Square initiative on the website of Marvel Architects:

A Guiding Vision for Union Square and 14th Street

Union Square is famous for its rich activist history, successful Business Improvement District (BID) and 24/7 residential-commercial community that is also home to some of the city’s iconic buildings that have reached National Historic Landmark status. 14th Street is considered as a commercial corridor for New Yorkers and key cross-town thoroughfare.

Its throbbing commercial energy and world-class people-watching draws visitors across the city and throughout the seasons, and both public and private institutions work tirelessly to ensure that those who come are impressed by what they find.

As the current site of one of New York City’s largest subway stations, many storefronts and several dormitories for university students, Union Square has changed dramatically within the past half-century. It is a place to keep up with community happenings, attend public events and participate in political movements, but also a place where people from all walks of life can purchase fresh produce from the farmer’s market, take creative workshops, exercise, listen to live music, feel the spirit of the holidays, or just sit and linger outside on a pleasant day.

Union Square and 14th Street is increasingly a place that people travel through and a place that is facing even more changes to its built environment, transit, and population in the coming years. In order to understand why, we ask:

How has the district changed within the last several decades? 

How might we prepare its community to gracefully navigate the challenges and opportunities that will guide its fast-approaching future? 

By building upon previous placemaking research, these questions will enable us to create a forward-thinking plan for the neighborhood.

In 2018, Marvel Architects and the Union Square Partnership launched a collaborative Neighborhood Visioning and Planning process to determine “how we can best improve security, mobility, livability, and sustainability within the Union Square – 14th Street district”. We connected with over 650 residents, employees, visitors and passersby and hosted 11 pop-ups, conducted interviews and analyzed physical conditions throughout the area. Now, in January of 2019, we’re hosting a second Community Forum to engage community members in the goal-setting and solution-brainstorming phases of our project. We hope to see you there!

The next forum will take place on Monday, January 28th from 5:30 – 7:00pm at Xavier High School Keenan Commons (31 West 15th Street). Click here to register.

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