Last night, while attending a presentation by New York architect Thomas Phifer regarding his design for the North Carolina Museum of Art, I struck up a conversation with a couple of people about how far behind the United States is when it comes to public space, urban design and contemporary architecture. The impetus for the discussion was the discovery that Thomas Phifer had won a New York City-sponsored design competition for street lighting last year. It’s a surprisingly sleek choice considering how nostalgic most street furniture and lighting designs usually are in American cities and towns, but in fact this design is only included in a catalogue of other approved designs and there’s no telling if any will be installed. So we got to talking about other examples where New York City is aesthetically lacking and not very user friendly. Take, say, Houston Street, which is undergoing a major renovation that, as of right now, doesn’t even include seperate bike lanes, much less a widened median for sustainable landscaping, a dedicated bus/trolley lane, additional pedestrian room, etc.
As the discussion progressed, we began to imagine, what would design aficionados in Amsterdam — people like us standing around with cocktails in hand — what would they be complaining about? “In the United States, they do X,Y, Z so much better.” We were stumped. What do we do better? The only thing we could come up with was commerce. We are very good at business, and everything about our cities is essentially geared toward smoothing the way for commerce and doing the bare minimum when it comes to that which does not directly facilitate transactions. What’s worse, this default method of operating can actually hinder the smooth operation of business, a point that was made recently by those in favor of congestion pricing. When Mayor Bloomberg was asked recently about the traffic problem in Manhattan, he dismissed it as a sign that business is good. That’s a rather narrow view of what is a serious waste of time and energy (which is bad for business), not to mention bad for people’s health. From London to Stockholm, other cities are finding ways to deal with traffic and make urban life better. New York should be leading the way in the United States, but even with a progressive mayor like Bloomberg, we seem to be falling further and further behind.