New York: The Green Archipelago
A breathtaking approach to Manhattan, along the East River in Astoria in Queens.
After more than nearly 4 years away, last summer I came back for a long visit to a greener and better New York. Not only are many of the city's neighborhoods gaining a higher quality of life, but the city seems to be finally taking advantage of one of its greatest assets: water on all sides. New York is an archipelago, just like Stockholm or Hong Kong, yet pedestrian access to its waterfront has been rather limited for decades and often the wet edges have been far from glamorous. Things are changing.World-class quality: Washington Square Park after its recent renovation.
I lived in New York City for 8 years, and had my first CitiNature project here in 2002. At that time the city was starting some exciting projects. Central Park was already beautifully restored, the Hudson River Park was under construction, beginning a total transformation of Manhattan's West Side, and the High Line park was conceived. But in so many ways at that time, the city was far behind its peers around the world in the quality of its infrastructure and waterfront development. Every time I would go to cities such as London, Sydney or Singapore I would feel let down, asking myself, 'If they can do it, why can't we?' And biking in New York was hazardous. I have always been a bike commuter, but riding my bike from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I lived, to any other part of the city was plain and simply dangerous.Bike path in Long Island City, Queens, right off the Queensboro Bridge bicycle path.
This last summer, I recognized that a process of fundamental change was underway. The city was becoming a serious global contender in green design and sustainability and moving towards a higher quality of urban life. In parts of Brooklyn I could have mistaken myself for being in Amsterdam or Dusseldorf. In Manhattan new bicycle lanes, separated from traffic, were being built on many Avenues and it was now a pleasure (and safe) to ride my bike over large tracts of the city. I could ride from E 45th Street, where I was staying, to the Bowery in 15 minutes - faster than using any form of public transport. I could also ride from the East Side of Manhattan to Queens, over the Queensboro Bridge, in about 10 minutes. The city was now bike friendly, although work is still underway to fill critical gaps in the network.Bike path on the Williamsburg Bridge, connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn.
I believe that New York is on its way to becoming one of the great biking cities of the world. In my 2 months in New York during the summer, I discovered how easy it is to move around inside the boroughs and between them, as well. There are 4 bridges with bike paths over the East River, connecting Manhattan to Queens and Brooklyn. Throughout the city there are nearly 400 miles of bike paths and the network is becoming denser. New York is no Amsterdam in terms of bike infrastructure density, but it is becoming easier and easier to get around this city solely by bicycle. Recent news, however, indicates that this progress may be under threat. Possible successors to Mayor Bloomberg are less bike friendly and have threatened cutbacks in bike lane construction.A soccer pitch in a park on Roosevelt Island, with a view of Manhattan.
In addition to massively expanded bicycle infrastructure, I discovered park renovations going on throughout the city. Formerly neglected parks in all boroughs are getting attention, making their neighborhoods more inviting places. People are responding and in any newly created or renovated park I saw, there were lots of people walking, picnicking, rollerblading, biking, sunbathing and of course, just relaxing. Poorly maintained parks were clearly not as popular and often almost empty I think it should be obvious to anyone living in New York that quality green space is in short supply and there is strong public demand for it.Corroding iron fence, sadly typical of waterfront infrastructure in much of New York.
Although New York has made considerable progress in the last decade, a tour along the shoreline can be discouraging. Large portions of the waterfront are still inaccessible and where it is open to the public, it is often in embarrassingly derelict condition. By bicycle and on foot, I explored the entire shoreline of Manhattan, the full perimeter of Roosevelt Island, and the sides of Queens and Brooklyn facing Manhattan. In contrast to the stunning Hudson River Park, most pedestrian waterfront areas of the city are in a crumbling state of disrepair. Pavements are sinking and uneven, access is difficult for nearby residents (most glaringly, along the west side of Harlem), fences are corroding and falling into the rivers, and parks along the water are poorly maintained and litter-strewn, Most readers of this blog, who live in the wealthier parts of the city, may be surprised to read this as parks in their neighborhoods are usually well maintained. It certainly seems that there is a divide between wealthier and poorer neighborhoods in terms of park investment and maintenance.New park on the waterfront in Long Island City, Queens.
To be fair, the city has its work cut out for it. Decades of underinvestment have left the present administration saddled with an unending list of urgent projects. But the task of rehabilitating the city's shoreline, and opening it to pedestrians, is . underway. There are large scale projects planned such as rehabilitating, expanding and extending parks along the east side of Manhattan and building the Queens East River and North Shore Greenway. There are numerous smaller projects, often associated with new development along the formerly industrial riverfront in Queens and Brooklyn. The plan is to have these parks one day connected in a continuous sweep of green spaces and recreational facilities along the entire perimeter of all the islands within the city.Carl Schurz Park, on the Upper East Side along the East River, nearing final restoration.
New York is without question one of the most interesting and dynamic cities in the world. Few places can compare with its mind-boggling array of cultural, culinary, educational (and so many other) offerings. But one place where New York has suffered in comparison to cities with the highest quality of life, according to various measures, is public infrastructure. While arguably having the best metro system in the United States, and one of the few systems I know of that operates 24 hours a day, it is run down and rather dirty in most stations. Public pedestrian infrastructure, likewise, does not compare well. Sidewalks are typically of artless, poured cement, streets are often roughly paved, and green spaces (especially outside of the wealthier parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn) are not up to standard. But the future looks bright. The scale of change I've witnessed tells me that New York is at last serious about catching up and becoming a truly world-class city in terms of the physical environment it provides. This is great news for the millions of people who call New York home.
Guadalajara, the center of Mexico's second largest metropolitan area, is a city I've come to know over several decades. My grandparents used to spend their winters here (in the 1980s), and my parents have made the nearby village of Ajijic their retirement home for the last 10 years. There are thousands of expatriates from all over the world in this area and the attraction is easy to see. It has one of the best climates anywhere on the planet and is wrapped in the beauty of the mountainous mesa central, Mexico's altiplano region.
The physical charms of the city of Guadalajara, however, are harder to appreciate. Despite a historic center studded with hundreds of impressive buildings, the quality of the urban experience is greatly compromised by jarring architectural blight, streetscapes overwhelmed by traffic in cars and smoke-belching, ramshackle buses, and a serious shortage of trees. Considering Mexico's relatively high economic standing, lack of resources cannot be a fair excuse for this state of affairs. Mexico has an income per head well above the Latin American average and one significantly higher than that in Belgrade or Bogota, cities I've written about favorably here. It's obvious that something has seriously gone wrong with city governance and planning. Tapatios, as the people of Guadalajara call themselves, are proud of their city and may be surprised to read what I write here. But compared to so many other cities at this economic level, Guadalajara has a lot of work to do to catch up.
Let me put my disappointment into context. Whenever I go into the center of Guadalajara I feel a sense of promise. The ingredients required for a stunningly beautiful urban scene are all here. I'm not exaggerating. As I mentioned earlier, there is a wealth of impressive architecture, from colonial to neoclassical, with many beautiful plazas and parks. There is also a lively pulse due to a youthful population Yet, the beautiful assets are disconnected and mixed in with unsightly buildings, low-end retail and gaudy fast food establishments. The areas of beauty are strung together by charmless and unwelcoming streets. This is a city that seems to willfully ignore its own potential (and problems), leaving its incredible assets wasted. It's why Guadalajara itself never features as a top tourist destination in Mexico. In discussions with people here I sense complacency. There is limited recognition that the city lags so severely in quality of life. And without this recognition there is, I imagine, limited public demand for the changes necessary to tie all the wonderful things this city has to offer into a compelling whole.
The quality of life deficit derives from many things, including a society plagued by high levels of inequality and undeniably poor planning and city governance. The inequalities have produced social problems that have driven the middle and upper classes out of the center of the city into quiet and safe suburban enclaves. City and regional leaders did seemingly little to stem this flow and encouraged unending sprawl by building wide roads, almost like highways, radiating out from the center. Instead of bolstering the historic center by maintaining high quality infrastructure and creating incentives for the middle and upper classes to stay, the center was allowed to deteriorate and become, in many areas, a haven for beggars and criminals. It was no longer a meeting place for all segments of society, but primarily a commercial center for the lower classes.
So instead of investing in the center and establishing policies that would encourage density and vertical growth, the Guadalajara region has opted, if by plan or negligence, to expand horizontally. In structure, it has more in common with large cities in the United States than with those in Europe or South America. Yet, unlike the United States, Mexico is not a wealthy country where automobile ownership is the norm. Despite having nearly 5 million people in the metro area, most of whom are dependent on public transport, the region does not have a well developed, integrated public transport system. For those in poverty, this disorganization means grueling, multi-segment and expensive commutes.
It wouldn't be fair not to point out the recent efforts that are being made to improve the center of Guadalajara, although in my opinion they are piecemeal. In many areas of the center new, wider stone sidewalks have been laid, often with tree plantings. There are now pole-mounted garbage cans on many streets, and plans are afoot to extend the metro and add more rapid-transit bus lines. Some serious urban renewal is taking place, especially in the Chapultepec area, where new high-rise apartment buildings are under construction and the young and trendy congregate. However, it is still in the outlying suburbs where the major development takes place. Puerta Hierro, an exclusive commercial and residential high-rise development, is a case in point. It is far from the city center and difficult to access without a car.
What I have't been able to find is a clear vision and master plan for the urban renewal of central Guadalajara - a renewal that includes the return of the middle and upper classes (and tourists) to the city center. It would require getting cars off more of the streets and a great expansion of pedestrian areas, replacing polluting, derelict buses with modern, quiet and clean alternatives, the widespread construction of quality multi-story housing, and incentives to get desirable businesses back into the center. There are many excellent models available. Santiago, Chile provides one example of how a thriving Latin American city center, inclusive of all socioeconomic groups, can look. See my posting on Santiago here. With the right policies and investment, Guadalajara has what it takes to become an elegant, walkable city with a thriving, inclusive city culture. It can also become a top destination for tourists to Mexico.
PLEASE SEE MY NEW BLOG POSTING IN 2017 ON POSITIVE CHANGES IN GUADALAJARA: http://www.citinature.org/city-livability-blog/category/guadalajara
about the author
After nearly two decades of corporate duty, I decided to follow my heart and do what I love: make cities greener and healthier places. Over the coming years I will be traveling to cities all over the world, reporting on what I see and learning about how even resource-poor places can improve urban lives through urban greening and greener lifestyles. I've started the CitiNature project to channel my energies and drive initiatives supporting equal access to green amenities for everyone.