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Urban Forests and Subway Skies: Reimagining the Bronx Grand Concourse (Sarah Todd)

November 3, 2009

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:

1966, the Concourse

Courtesy Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

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):

2006, Grand Concourse

Librado Romero/ The New York Times

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?

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"Live Wired" by Angus McCullough

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"The Grand Resource" by Jason Austin and Aleksandr Mergold

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"Agricultural Urbanism" by Christina Belton, Taewook Cha, Brenda Curtis, Lia Kelerchian, Gentry Lock, Erika Matthias, and Shachi Pandey

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"From Speedway to Mainstreet" by Vincent Lavergne, Jeremy Nadau, Mathieu Lavergne, and Remi Mendes

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. ssiperstein permalink*
    November 3, 2009 8:54 pm

    Fascinating post Sarah! I really like imagining what New York could look like the artists’ visions of future possibilities (It’s hard to imagine looking up in a subway tunnel and seeing a fake sky… how far we’ve come since the pre-Giuliani tagging days of the 1980’s and early 90’s when every subway station and subway car–except for the 4-5-6 and the upper east side of course–was covered top to bottom in graffiti, aka local art).

    I recently (this morning actually) discussed an essay with my freshmen, Martin Lewis’ “On Human Connectedness with Nature,” which was first published in 1993, and was, along with his book “Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism,” one of the first voices for the environmental benefits of dense urban centers (much better than the suburbs, more environmentally friendly, less energy consumption, etc). However, Lewis doesn’t address the local environmental problems and environmental justice issues that come along with thinking of urban landscapes and communities, and for most of my students, who have never lived in big urban centers, it was difficult to ‘think’ environmental problems from a specifically urban perspective. Jenny Price addressed a similar idea to yours in her talk last week. Her project of reclaiming and re-greening the L.A. River so that local communities can have green space and better living standards seems similar to the projects you describe above. As she noted, there is really no way to separate environmental problems from social and quality-of-life problems. However, one possible problem I foresee in developing projects like these–and I’ve seen this happen in Boston– is that increased green space or redeveloped water-ways usually means a rise in property values in the neighborhoods adjacent to those areas. While obviously unintended, this can result in more upscale businesses moving in, redesigned industrial spaces into artists’ lofts, and finally, large scale gentrification (e.g. Brooklyn) … pushing the citizens of poor communities for whom the green spaces were initially designed, farther away from them and into other, less green neighborhoods. I don’t think that this means that these projects shouldn’t be pursued, but should be done so from the ‘ground up’ so to speak, involving local community groups and businesses in the actual implementation, and also we should make sure to strength rent-control laws in those neighborhoods.

  2. November 8, 2009 5:47 pm

    This thread, along with Mary’s on the Manhatta project and others that take up the complex question of urban environments / environmentalism / ecology speaks to this middle unit of the seminar beautifully. Of course, Neuromancer does not take up the idea of green cities, which seems to lie beyond Gibson’s understanding of space as a cyberpunk novelist. However, I would hazard that the novel imagines the cities and megalopolises of the near future not only as virtual environments––where information and robotic technologies structure everyday life––but also as ecosystems, if ones that largely displace nonhuman animals with machine organisms.

    On another note, the fascinating Bronx exhibition reminds me of these two eco-urban projects: the New York conceptual architecture of Terreform 1 and of the Detroit urban farming project Earthworks.

    Terreform1: New York 2016

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