Category Archives: urban

Horray for the High Bridge

I like this article in City Journal about the High Bridge in New York City.

The restored High Bridge, New York City’s oldest standing span, not only has great views and a high-quality path connecting two largely minority neighborhoods, it also serves a social purpose; kids from the Bronx will now have easy access to the High Bridge Pool in Manhattan.

The histories of great cities are replete with stories of Herculean efforts to supply them with clean water. New York is no exception. Originally dependent on surface and groundwater supplies, early New Yorkers dealt with water that was insufficient in quantity and frequently polluted. Diseases were common. An 1832 cholera outbreak, followed by a lack of water to fight the Great Fire of 1835, prompted the city to take action: it built the original Croton Aqueduct system, including the High Bridge, to carry clean water 41 miles into the city.

Completed in 1848 and constructed as a series of masonry arches in the form of a Roman aqueduct, the High Bridge is, in effect, a pre-industrial artifact. While it was in use, water flowed across the bridge not in an open trough, but in twin, three-foot, cast-iron pipes. The top was a pedestrian walkway. After it was decommissioned as an aqueduct in 1917, the city planned to demolish the bridge to improve navigation. Protesters wanted it preserved, so the city replaced the spans over the Harlem River with a steel arch section in 1928. The arch span replacement was built for what was basically an obsolete bridge, making the High Bridge an early historic-preservation success, if only a partial one.

In the mid-twentieth century, the walkway attracted crowds, often just for a see-and-be-seen pleasure stroll. “New Yorkers from either side would put on their Sunday best and parade from one borough to another. It was far more than an aqueduct, it was the center of a social world,” Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver noted at the reopening. But the High Bridge and its social life fell into decline, along with much of New York City, as the century progressed. The structure decayed, and there were reports of people throwing stones at passing ships from the walkway. The Parks Department isn’t sure when it was closed or why, but by 1970 the High Bridge was off-limits to pedestrians.

Over the years, various groups called for the High Bridge’s restoration. In 2006, the Bloomberg administration took up the task in earnest as one of eight major regional parks investments in the PlaNYC initiative. This included a commitment of $50 million in city money toward the $61 million total project cost. While Mayor de Blasio treats his predecessor as He Who Shall Not Be Named—and failed to attend the bridge opening—the High Bridge restoration was in fact a good handoff of the baton.

The restoration—including masonry repairs such as tuckpointing—was complicated by needing to be performed on a bridge spanning two freeways, a river, and an active Metro-North rail line. The faded and peeling lead-based paint had to be removed. While before-and-after photos show a sharp contrast in appearance, the bridge was actually repainted the same color as the original. “We sent the paint chips off to the lab for matching,” says the Parks Department’s Ellen Macnow.

The fiscally conservative City Journal asks if it is worth it?

It’s worth asking whether, with its $61 million price tag, the High Bridge project was really needed. Strictly speaking, the answer is: No. The structure was in no danger of falling down. And, just a half mile to the north, the Washington Bridge provides a functional, if unpleasant, pedestrian crossing over the Harlem River. Yet, the High Bridge is an important part of New York history and deserves its loving restoration. Spending serious money on outlying neighborhoods that are mostly minority and heavily poor to give their residents a humane environment instead of a minimalistic one shows that New York does care about all its citizens. Great cities don’t just do great things in a sanitized downtown Green Zone for visitors. They create greatness in their workaday neighborhoods, too, with projects that speak not merely to the pragmatic, but to the human spirit. The High Bridge restoration again shows what great commercial success allows a city to do for its citizens.

What side of history is Saskatoon on?

Thought provoking piece in the Toronto Star by Christopher Hume about John Tory and the Gardiner Expressway

The Gardiner, a relic of an earlier age, dates from a time when the car was king. Today, the world is a different place. No question cars are here to stay, but in the decades since the Gardiner was constructed, we have learned that city-building is about more than taming traffic congestion. Successful cities manage to balance the two — cars and people — without sacrificing one on the altar of the other.

Ironically, Toronto has arrived at this point because of its chronic unwillingness to spend the money needed to keep the aging expressway standing. Now Tory would have us spend an extra $500 million to keep it standing.

In the meantime, urban highways around the world are disappearing as cities liberate themselves from the shackles of the car. But old habits die hard, nowhere moreso than in Toronto, where car dependency remains enshrined, amber-like, in public policy.

Like the Gardiner he defends, Tory, tragically, is a relic. The Toronto he imagines he represents no longer exists. He and his supporters seem not to have noticed that the city is transformed; people in their thousands now live in areas once given over to industry and then forgotten. The waterfront is a perfect example; the long-neglected precinct is now being turned into a series of mixed-use neighbourhoods that have attracted more than $4 billion in (private-sector) investment with much more to come.

“This is a pivotal moment in the history of Toronto,” argues Toronto architect and planner Michael Kirkland. “It is an opportunity to correct the devastating mistakes made during the mid-20th-century industrial era. We have the chance to reconnect the city to its greatest natural asset, Lake Ontario. Not taking down the Gardiner would be seen by our descendants as the great mistake of our age.

“This is a transportation issue, and we should focus on other forms of transportation. Congestion can only be resolved through a proliferation of transportation options. Increasing automobile access won’t improve congestion; indeed, it will only make it worse.”

Meanwhile Saskatoon prepares to add a freeway, highway, two three four (maybe five) bridges, turn residential streets into arterials, and keeps on building low density neighbourhoods like there is no tomorrow while doing nothing on the downtown and north downtown plans.