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Parkways: city-shaping devices. Case study by Sofie Verjans


Parkways: city-shaping devices. Over the last one and a half century, numerous parkways have been built in Brooklyn. The definition and design of these big infrastructures have changed over time from green pleasure drives for carriages to the main traffic arteries they are today. In this case study, Haussmann's boulevards in Paris are briefly discussed, because they served as an example for many of the parkways that were built later. The definition of a parkway differs in time, as will be shown by the examples in this case study: the first parkways designed by Olmsted and Vaux (Eastern parkway is shown in light blue, and Ocean Parkway in dark blue on the figure below), the first "modern" parkway: Bronx River Parkway (shown in red), and the parkways envisioned by Robert Moses (Henry Hudson Parkway shown in orange).


Figure 1: The transformation of Paris by Haussmann: new boulevards were constructed throughout the whole city.

Figure 2: Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, 1861-63: an example of Haussmann's treelined boulevards that transformed the look of the city completely.

Figure 3: Conceptual scheme of the parkway system by Olmsted & Vaux, 1867. Figure 4: Ocean and Eastern Parkway as constructed.


The transformation of Paris: 1853-1869. To adapt Paris to the 19th century's changing conditions, Georges-Eugène Baron Haussmann transformed the city by creating large boulevards (Figure 1). These boulevards were straight lines to and from the railway stations and to the centers of commerce and pleasure. They were primarily meant to prevent delays, congestion, and accidents. Haussmann deconstructed infected alleyways and centers of epidemics to improve the health of the town and he increased circulation of light and air with the large boulevards.1 To make the streets more pleasing to the eye, Haussmann made all facades similar and lined the boulevards with rows of trees. The new boulevards dominated the scene of the city and residential problems were put into the background. The uniform facades of the boulevards hid the disorder behind them (Figure 2). Haussmann concentrated on traffic problems and transportation, long before cars were introduced, and in doing so, his design was beyond the actual needs of his time. By incorporating the suburbs in the city, he created a great potential for the growth of the city.

The first parkways - Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway. In the late 1860s, Brooklyn was the third largest city in the United States, inhabiting nearly 300.000 people. When landscape designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux proposed their design for Prospect Park in 1866, they included a metropolitan-wide parkway system to structure the development of Brooklyn 2 (Figure 3). The Brooklyn Park Commission's president James S. T. Stranahan was immediately captured with their idea of linking parks and other public open spaces together throughout the city and even beyond. The parkways connecting these parks were conceived as green pleasure drives, resembling the grand boulevards of Paris. Around the parkways, radiating out from Prospect Park, single-family houses would be built to create suburban neighborhoods. The inhabitants of these suburbs were to travel to all parks in the city on routes having a park-like character. This park-like character would have a positive influence on pedestrians walking on the parkways, but also on family and community life in the surrounding neighborhoods. 3 Stranahan quickly began implementing the plan by building two parkways: Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway (Figure 4). The parkways, consisting out of three roadways, were the widest streets in the city. A wide roadway in the center, flanked by two wide malls, separated the middle roadway from two narrow roadways, carrying one lane of local traffic and two lanes of parking. Along the parkways, six rows of trees formed borders along the sidewalks and the "malls" (Figure 5). 1

The aims of Eugène Haussmann as described in: S. GIEDION, Space, Time and Architecture; the growth of a new tradition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 5th edition, 1978 (1st edition 1941) p745-746. ² MACDONALD, Elizabeth, "Suburban visions to urban reality: The evolution of Olmsted and Vaux's Brooklyn Parkway Neighborhoods", in: Journal of Planning History, 2005, nr.4, pp. 295-321 3

MACDONALD, Elizabeth, "Suburban visions to urban reality: The evolution of Olmsted and Vaux's Brooklyn Parkway Neighborhoods", in: Journal of Planning History, 2005, nr.4, pp. 295-321


Figure 5: Sections through Ocean Parkway (top) and Eastern Parkway (bottom).

Figure 6: Pleasure carriages on Ocean Parkway, 1890.

Figure 7: Subway Entrance on Eastern Parkway median.


Both Parkways were built between 1870 and 1876, with investments of adjacent landowners (many of them were real-estate speculators). Even though Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway were the only parkways of the parkway system to ever get built, they are important for the planning history of Brooklyn. Olmsted and Vaux created a vision for the city, long before city plans or zoning even existed, because the parkways were meant to influence the neighborhoods around them. The Parkways are different from other streets or boulevards because of their status: they are under the jurisdiction of the Park Commission, which means that they are not only streets, but also parks. Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway start at opposite ends of Prospect Park. Eastern Parkway starts at Grand Army Plaza, at the northern entrance to the park, and goes east towards the old Brownsville district. Ocean Parkway starts at the southwestern corner of the park and goes south to the beach of Coney Island. The physical form of the parkways remained more or less intact, but the use of the roadways changed over time: they were originally designed for pleasure drive carriages (Figure 6), and are now major traffic roads trough the city. Development along the parkways didn't come immediately because of nuisance restrictions for adjacent buildings and a recession in the early 1870s. When the recession ended, development occurred in other places and the area remained largely vacant for many years. But with the construction of the subway, the parkways became almost fully built by the late 1920's. Not with the single-family houses that were envisioned by Olmsted and Vaux, but mostly with apartment buildings and row houses, but also some institutions and commercial buildings. 3 Eastern and Ocean Parkways escaped big transformations during the 'highway-period' until the 1970's, though they were considered to become limited-access highways. Both parkways were declared a historic landmark, respectively in 1978 and 1975, and shortly after they were reconstructed (repaved, providing new benches, planting new trees, replanting grass,...). 4 Olmsted and Vaux's vision to create an interconnected parkway system didn't get lost in time: Since 1987, the parkways have been incorporated in the Brooklyn-Queens Greenway, a network of bicycle and pedestrian pathways connecting parks and communities. This network runs from Coney Island in the south of Brooklyn all the way to Fort Totten on the Long Island Sound in Queens (Figure 9). The Greenway holds all sorts of amenities, cultural experiences, and passes through 13 parks, two botanical gardens, the Brooklyn museum, the New York Hall of Science, and different ethnic and historic neighborhoods. 5

3

MACDONALD, Elizabeth, "Suburban visions to urban reality: The evolution of Olmsted and Vaux's Brooklyn Parkway Neighborhoods", in: Journal of Planning History, 2005, nr.4, pp. 295-321 4

MACDONALD, Elizabeth, Enduring complexity: A history of Brooklyn's Parkways, 1999

http://www.uctc.net/research/diss046.pdf, last visited: 25/10/2011


Figure 8: A view on the Eastern Parkway today.

Figure 9: Brooklyn-Queens Greenway.

Figure 10: A bridge over Bronx River Parkway made out of native stone.


The first "modern" parkway - Bronx River Parkway. The Bronx River Commission built the Bronx River Parkway as a joint undertaking between New York City and Westchester County. The goal was to accommodate large amounts of traffic, but the natural surroundings of the Bronx River Parkway Reservation had to stay intact. All architectural elements, such as bridges or retaining walls, were to be designed in harmony with the landscape, and made out of native stone (Figure 10). 6 When construction began in 1917, new machines and techniques were used to minimize costs. The Bronx River Parkway, completed in 1925, was the first modern, multi-lane parkway with limited access. But with expanding car-ownership, the parkway quickly became obsolete, because it had only four roadways and was just 12 meters wide (while Ocean Parkway and Eastern Parkway are 64 meters wide). In the early 1920's, the parkway was extended south, into the Bronx. Between 1935 and 1955, when Robert Moses became the New York City Park Commissioner, he widened the parkway to six roadways, extended it, and made some improvements. In the early 1990's, the views of the parkway had diminished due to exhaust pollution, graffiti,... etc. A public concern initiated a rehabilitation effort in 1992, that is still ongoing. The Bronx River Parkway now runs from the Sprain Brook Parkway in Westchester County all the way down to the Sound View Park in the Bronx, near the East River. This parkway is called the first "modern" parkway, because it was the first parkway to separate functions from each other. This parkway is all about through traffic movement; all other elements of normal street form are separated. Unlike the Eastern and Ocean Parkways, the Bronx River Parkway is maintained by the New York State Department of Transportation.

Figure 11: The Bronx River Parkway in 1922.

6

Figure 12: The Bronx River Parkway in 1928.

http://www.nycroads.com/roads/bronx-river/, last visited: 21/10/2011


Robert Moses' system of parkways - the Henry Hudson Parkway. On the Metropolitan Conference in 1930, a system of parkways was recommended to solve the city's traffic problems. This planning report included much of the park and parkway constructions in the 1930's, including the Belt Parkway, the Grand Central Parkway, the Cross Island Parkway and the Henry Hudson Parkway. 7 Already in 1927, Robert Moses had a plan called "The West Side Improvement". It included the design and construction for the Henry Hudson Parkway, running from West 72nd Street to the border of the Bronx and Westchester (Figure 13). Construction began in 1933 and in 1937, the Parkway was completed. It had center median with three roadways of 3.65 meters wide on each side. Moses also converted the Riverside Park, designed by F. L. Olmsted, from an unsafe area to a complete park with playgrounds, trees, sport fields,... etc (Figure 14). to create a nice landscape surrounding the Henry Hudson Parkway. The visitors of the Riverside Park had little access to the Hudson's waterfront, but the people using the parkway had a direct view at the Hudson. The in 1910 proposed Henry Hudson Bridge was Moses' next construction. The bridge, that opened in 1936, existed at first out of four roadways, but one year later a second deck of four roadways was added due to the huge success of the bridge. For the part of the parkway that was supposed to go through the Bronx, Moses widened the existing Spuyten Duyvil Parkway, which had only two traffic lanes, lined with trees. In 1965, Moses proposed an upgrade of the Henry Hudson Parkway to increase the capacity, but the scheduled interventions were never constructed. A section of the West Side Highway collapsed in 1974, due to excessive use and deferred maintenance. Because of structural deficiencies on the Henry Hudson Parkway, the parkway was reduced in capacity. The proposal to convert the parkway to an interstate highway was rejected and rehabilitation works began in 1977 to restore it, almost to its original form. During the reconstruction, the parkway was narrowed two lanes in each direction, and a new park was built: the Riverbank State Park. 8 The Henry Hudson Parkway is maintained by the New York City Department of Transportation, while the surroundings are under the maintenance of the New York City Parks Department.

7

History of the NYC Park Commission, http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_about/parks_history/historic_tour/history_new_ metropolis.html, last visited: 23/10/2011 8

http://www.nycroads.com/roads/henry-hudson/, last visited: 25/10/011


Figure 13: West Side Development, Henry Hudson Parkway.

Figure 14: The Fort Washington Park.


Conclusions. Changing definition of the term "parkway". Clearly, the definition of a parkway has changed since the Ocean and Eastern Parkways were built; from a parkway that connects parks with each other to a parkway that runs through a park. While before 1900, the Eastern and Ocean Parkway were referred to as both Parkway and Boulevard, after 1900 a whole debate about terminology took place. The debates were about the functional or the aesthetic purposes being dominant. Later debates concerned the jurisdiction of the parkways. In Olmsted and Vaux' parkways, pedestrians, traffic and residential functions were all intermingled. Later on, in the modern parkways, all of these functions became separated, harmonizing full freedom for pedestrians and traffic. Out of this separation came the fundamental law of parkways: 9 there must be unobstructed freedom of movement, a flow of traffic without interruption or interference. This was clearly not the case for the Eastern and Ocean Parkway, were streets intersect the parkway on every block. The parkways may be compared with European highways, but they certainly are not the same: The parkways don't provide the most direct and rapid transit. Instead they humanize the highway by carefully following and utilizing the terrain according to the topography of the earth and merging into the landscape. Opposes the notion that the parkway is an isolated track, it was conceived as part of its surroundings, as a part of nature. Regulations govern all construction along its borders, limiting gas service stations, and prohibiting all residences, business houses, and factories.

How livable are the Eastern and Ocean parkways today? Today, the Eastern and Ocean Parkway carry between 50 000 and 70 000 vehicles a day. 10 That is less than, but still very close to, the Bronx River Parkway (approximately 100 000 vehicles a dag in the South Bronx, 75 000 vehicles a day in the northern Bronx, and 60 000 vehicles through Westchester County)11 and the Henry Hudson Parkway (approximately 120 000 vehicles a day south of the George Washington Bridge, and 70 000 north of it). 12 Comparing Eastern and Ocean Parkway with normal residential streets (not parkways) for a number of environmental data (traffic speed, street noise level, and traffic volume) showed remarkable results: for many of these indicators, residents felt the medium-traffic residential streets to be worse than the multiple-roadway parkways. 13

9

S. GIEDION, Space, Time and Architecture; the growth of a new tradition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 5th edition, 1978 (1st edition 1941) p823 10

MACDONALD, Elizabeth, Enduring complexity: A history of Brooklyn's Parkways, 1999 http://www.uctc.net/research/diss046.pdf, last visited: 25/10/2011 11

http://www.nycroads.com/roads/bronx-river/, last visited: 21/10/2011

12

http://www.nycroads.com/roads/henry-hudson/, last visited: 25/10/2011

13

MACDONALD, Elizabeth; BOSSELMAN, Peter, "Boulevard Livability Study", in: Places, 1997, p66-69


Perhaps the distance between the residents and the high-speed traffic in the middle of the street creates a barrier and a sense of remoteness from traffic. The "malls" with double rows of trees also might add to that fact.

City-shaping devices? Parkways completely circumscribe Manhattan: Henry Hudson Parkway, Northern State Parkway and the East River Drive, but they were not able to penetrate the city's inflexible structure. Robert Moses, who had perhaps the same enthusiasm and energy for Parks and Parkways as Haussmann, said the parkway wasn't an isolated traffic lane that didn't depend on the organism of the city, but it simply had a different scale than the city with its rigid division into small blocks. It is the actual structure of the city that must be changed. 14 The parkway was the forerunner of the urban highway which, properly designed and located, can weld the automobile and lines of traffic into the actual organism of the city. They can pass through the city, as the early parkways passed through the landscape, flexible and informal. 14

Is the concept of a parkway still relevant today? The parkways can be an inspiration for the quality perception of large infrastructures. Though it might be almost impossible to create immense projects in the dense city of today (or the future), the parkways are still present in the city as important infrastructures. The "old" concept of the parkway has shown adaptability, and therefore is still relevant today.

14

S. GIEDION, Space, Time and Architecture; the growth of a new tradition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 5th edition, 1978 (1st edition 1941) p826


References. MACDONALD, Elizabeth, Enduring complexity: A history of Brooklyn's Parkways, 1999 http://www.uctc.net/research/diss046.pdf, last visited: 25/10/2011 GIEDION, S., Space, Time and Architecture; the growth of a new tradition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 5th edition, 1978 (1st edition 1941) MACDONALD, Elizabeth, "Suburban visions to urban reality: The evolution of Olmsted and Vaux's Brooklyn Parkway Neighborhoods", in: Journal of Planning History, 2005, nr.4, pp. 295-321 MACDONALD, Elizabeth, BOSSELMAN, Peter, "Boulevard Livability Study", in: Places, 1997, p66-69 JACOBS, Allen B., MACDONALD, Elisabeth, ROFÉ, Yodan, The boulevard book: history, evolution, design of multiway boulevards, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2002. City of New York Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn-Queens Greenway guide, http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_things_to_do/facilities/images/Brooklyn_Queens_GreenwayGuide.pdf, last visited: 20/10/2011 http://www.nycroads.com/roads/bronx-river/, last visited: 21/10/2011 http://www.nycroads.com/roads/henry-hudson/, last visited: 25/10/011 History of the NYC Park Commission, http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_about/parks_history/historic _tour/history_new_ metropolis.html, last visited: 23/10/2011


References - Images. Figure 1

Scan from S. GIEDION, Space, Time and Architecture; the growth of a new tradition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 5th edition, 1978 (1st edition 1941) p746

Figure 2

Scan from S. GIEDION, Space, Time and Architecture; the growth of a new tradition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 5th edition, 1978 (1st edition 1941) p752

Figure 3

MACDONALD, Elizabeth, Enduring complexity: A history http://www.uctc.net/research/diss046.pdf, last visited: 25/10/2011

of

Brooklyn's

Parkways,

1999,

Figure 4

MACDONALD, Elizabeth, Enduring complexity: A history http://www.uctc.net/research/diss046.pdf, last visited: 25/10/2011

of

Brooklyn's

Parkways,

1999,

Figure 5

Scan from JACOBS, Allen B., MACDONALD, Elisabeth, ROFÉ, Yodan, The boulevard book: history, evolution, design of multiway boulevards, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2002, p47

Figure 6

Scan from JACOBS, Allen B., MACDONALD, Elisabeth, ROFÉ, Yodan, The boulevard book: history, evolution, design of multiway boulevards, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2002, p73

Figure 7

Scan from JACOBS, Allen B., MACDONALD, Elisabeth, ROFÉ, Yodan, The boulevard book: history, evolution, design of multiway boulevards, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2002, p48

Figure 8

Own photo, made on 05/10/11

Figure 9

City of New York Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn-Queens Greenway guide, http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_things_to_do/ facilities/images/Brooklyn_Queens _GreenwayGuide.pdf, last visited: 20/10/2011

Figure 10

http://www.woodhavenhistoric.com/index.php/bronx-river-parkway-reservation-white-plains-vicinity-nyphoto-119.html, last visited: 15/02/2012

Figure 11

http://www.nycroads.com/roads/bronx-river/, last visited: 15/02/2012

Figure 12

http://www.nycroads.com/roads/bronx-river/, last visited: 15/02/2012

Figure 13

Scan from S. GIEDION, Space, Time and Architecture; the growth of a new tradition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 5th edition, 1978 (1st edition 1941) p830

Figure 14

http://wirednewyork.com/parks/fort_washington_park/, last visited: 15/02/2012

Case-study: parkways, city shaping devices:  

This is a casestudy about parkways in NYC.

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