Urban Forests and Subway Skies: Reimagining the Bronx Grand Concourse (Sarah Todd)
What is the place of the environment in the urban landscape? How can neglected and/or neglectful public spaces be reshaped to benefit urban communities and the environment, and what roles can nature play in revitalizing a cityscape? These are ginormous and fascinating questions which I am phrasing very clumsily, and about which I know basically zero (although I’m trying to learn). However! Some people who are thinking about these questions in extremely sophisticated and innovative ways are the contributors to a new show at the Bronx Museum, “Intersections: The Grand Concourse Beyond 100,” whose designs imagine alternative futures for the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.
Originally modeled on the wide promenades of Paris’ Champs-Élysées, the Grand Concourse was constructed in 1909 in order to provide city-dwellers in Manhattan access–by foot, bicycle, horseback, or automobile–to the public parks in the Bronx. As the Bronx became increasingly residential in the first half of the century, more buildings popped up alongside the Concourse. Most of the buildings from this time are way pretty and grand and Art Deco-inspired, thanks to the City Beautiful movement. Here is a photograph of the Concourse in 1966:
And a photograph of the Grand Concourse forty years later, as community activists continue to rebuild the Bronx after its socioeconomic decline in the ’70s and ’80s (the result of poorly planned construction projects and housing policies and deeply ingrained racism, among other contributing factors):
The mission of the architects and urban planners whose work is showcased in the Intersections exhibit is to maximize the enormous potential of the Grand Concourse as a public space. Many of their visions of how best to accomplish this reflect a concern with reinserting an active awareness of the environment into city life.
The winning design by Dongsei Kim and Jamieson Fajardo, PUMP, is summarized on the competition’s website:
PUMP envisions the future of the Grand Concourse as an innovative sustainable neighborhood transformed by multiple productive landscapes. We propose the ‘rebirth’ of manufacturing by injecting green industries that produce the PUMP, a purifying urban modular parasite, which mitigates air pollution, a critical problem prevalent in the South Bronx, today.
The design seeks to combat air pollution with a tree farm, a waterfront clean-up, and most importantly, a C-shaped air-filtering structure (the PUMP) that would be attached to the side of the Major Deegan Expressway. The structure would serve not only to filter automobile exhaust but also to absorb sound, filter rainwater, and provide pedestrians with pathways alongside the expressway as well as with access to the newly rennovated waterfront.
Most of the other designs, as expertly analyzed by Nicolai Ouroussoff’s review in the New York Times, also reflect a desire to collapse forced boundaries between the environment and the urban. One proposes a 24-hour image of the sky be projected onto the ceiling of subway stations; another offers rooftop gardens connected by footbridges and a long strip running through the center of the concourse crowded with trees; another suggests silent wind-turbines line the stretch of the Concourse as a functional and symbolic acknowledgement of the city’s commitment to clean energy. Any one of these inspiring proposals sounds great to me. Now the question is, what can we do to make these visions become realities?