5 Visions for the Future of New York City Streets

Last month, as part of our Home of the Future, we asked 10 urban thinkers to answer this question: "What should be the future of the New York City street?" From gadget-free sidewalks to self-driving cars, here are five visions for the streets of tomorrow.


Andy Bernheimer: Bring Back Our Peripheral Vision

As someone who is professionally (and personally) concerned more with the formal and social aspects of buildings as opposed to the meandering pathways between buildings (though I am concerned about these, too), I thought instead of proclaiming my own vision of the form of our streets and sidewalks I'd prompt a question about the liabilities of our shrinking personal awareness of such space.

Gadgets have begun to destroy our periphery.

While communication devices have become more fun to use, more powerful objects of communication, desire, and utility, they have also begun to compact and deaden the interactions we have at the ground level. We stare at our phone. We change a song, we read a book, we text a loved one (or a soon-to-be-hated one). We send directives to students, we watch Bryan Cranston dissolve a body in a tub, we shoot at people in the form of pixels, and we crush candy.

5 Visions for the Future of New York City Streets

But we don't look around. We don't see the oncoming pedestrian that we bump into until it's too late, and then we apologize or grumble or just keep walking silently, tapping away. We trip on subway stairwells, or even walk into trees. We take pictures of events in lieu of watching the event, and we take pictures of people taking pictures.

So our periphery (and maybe even our full vision) is now limited, it's shriveled and contracted to a much smaller space around us, necessarily more connected and seemingly expansive but also more solipsistic and withdrawn. The sidewalk, the street, the space of the city is now going only a bit further than just outside our own physical fencing, despite having in our grasp a global reach.

We need to change this. We need to re-expand. We need to re-create the periphery as an experience, and we need to do it soon or we will lose it to the point of irrelevance.

I say we reverse things, create a closed, disconnected urban geofence to deaden technology at the sidewalk. Let's amp up the spectacle of the things which prompt a visceral response, such as planting, way finding, art, lighting (and NOT advertising). Let's take the sidewalk off all networks and only offer communal hotspots where people can access information, once every ten blocks.

This is not just to distract us as individuals from the devices that we now hold at a distance far less than arm's length, but to stimulate a reconnection to the physical and visual periphery.


Matt Hardigree: The Streets Of The Future Will Look Like The Streets Of Today

"Every social transformation requires ... the bravery of Churchill, the vision of JFK, the determination of Reagan, the rare ability to galvanize a country or the world to take the right step for a greater cause. We are standing on the verge of such an event."

That was Shai Agassi, founder of Better Place, a company that spent roughly $1 billion to change the way the world drove and built maybe 1,400 cars in ten years.

"Starting an electric car company would have to be one of the dumbest things you could do to make money."

That's Elon Musk, a guy who has built tens of thousands of electric cars that almost everyone agrees are pretty great.

Why do I start with those quotes? Simple, you'll hear a lot of fantastical ideas about streets devoid of cars. Utopian ideas. I'm here to tell you that the streets 25 years from now are going to be a lot like the streets today. Why?

If you look around us at the streets of New York, you see a transportation system where most of the decisions were made somewhere around the 1920s and 1930s. And who were they made by? You can give a lot of credit to urban planner Robert Moses, who helped get the bridges finished, the highways planned, the parks filled, and pushed through countless other decisions that shaped the city.

And all he had to do was rewrite big chunks of the state constitution to give him so much power even FDR couldn't get rid of him, kick a ton of people out of their homes, and generally become the closest thing to a tyrant we've seen in the U.S. in the 21st century.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has billions of dollars, a media organization, and essentially bought himself an extra term probably made the biggest post-Moses change to New York City and that was with the introduction of bike lanes—a technology even older than the car.

Change is hard.

That isn't to say we shouldn't change. That there aren't costs to the reliance on cars that we have. Commuting Culture—not to be confused with car culture—is something both environmentalists and car enthusiasts can agree is bad. No one benefits when we clog the roads with people in beige-mobiles slowly Candy Crushing their way in traffic to a job that's too far away from where they live.

5 Visions for the Future of New York City Streets

Flying hot rod featured in a print ad circa 1946 for Alcoa Aluminum via X-Ray Delta

So how will we actually get change? I see three possible ways:

  1. Technological: We can never discount a sudden breakthrough in technology (batteries, road construction, alternative fuel) that fundamentally alters the way the world works. In 1970 if you didn't know the Internet would exist you might have an entirely different idea of the way we live now.
  2. Political: While I have my doubts we'll see another Robert Moses (probably a good thing), you can't discount a transformative figure with the right ideas, at the right time, who can muster the political will necessary to fundamentally alter our built environment.
  3. Catastrophic: This is going to sound harsh, but if you want really want to see change you should root for a hurricane. Chicago needed a fire to rebuild. San Francisco needed a fire and an earthquake. Nature sometimes provides the worst, yet most effective catalyst. A storm even worse than Sandy that destroys much of our infrastructure, and displaces the tens of thousands necessary to build new infrastructure, could do the trick.

Even Moses needed some help from the Great Depression's sudden influx of government funds and jobs to get his projects moving, so a sudden increase in federal and state spending wouldn't hurt.

Oh, yeah, the seas are rising around us and we all might be living on Central Park Island in a few years, so maybe in 200 years something will change.

I'd rather see some mixture of the first and second than the third, but the safest bet is that none of those are effective and in 2040 we'll still see cars clogging our streets, old trains running on the same train lines, and maybe a few more bikes and robotic cars.

There's an old meteorological maxim that says "If you want to know the weather tomorrow, just look at the weather today and you'll be right more than half the time."


Amy Schellenbaum: The Future of Architecture is Public; The Future of Architecture is Small

A year ago I was on the phone with architect John Peterson, the founder and president of Public Architecture, a group of architects whose only objective is to give good design directly to people who wouldn't otherwise have access to it.

For example, at the time I was talking to him, Public Architecture was working on a station for day laborers in San Francisco. By day laborers I mean people employed informally and paid on a job-by-job basis. After talking to them, Peterson realized a custom-designed meeting space could solve one of their greatest complaints: a perception of a lack of legitimacy. A station could give them, to make up a word, officialness, a place where they could share tricks of the trade, formerly or otherwise.

Peterson told me, and I'm going to use some sweet airquotes, "There was an opportunity for design of their environment to shift the significant issues they were facing, things that weren't being identified as design problems."

When I think of the future of the city street I think about that conversation, particularly the idea of solving social problems using design. This project also raises a question: How can we possibly talk about the design of a city, particularly New York City, where oligarchs are buying $88 million condos for their 22-year-old daughters, without acknowledging the transient and non-residing populations? Hoards of street experiencers are ever increasingly working in Manhattan while being squeezed and flicked to the outer boroughs.

The street of the future will, in a grand twist of events, solve small-scale problems. Nooks will become slotted city-commissioned pop-up architecture. Things like cardboard wind shelters. Tiny private spaces to make phone calls and access Wi-Fi. Meeting spaces. Experiments in microdwelling (sponsored by Ikea).

5 Visions for the Future of New York City Streets

Park[ing] Day 2058?

The swooping, pin-thin glass monoliths that have defined "streets of the future" up until now will still exist but, for the first time in decades, that's not going to be what's cool, and for architecture, what gets built is all about what's cool.

That's because as much as architecture is about precision and permanence, there's an unavoidable element on personal aesthetic and artistic branding. And that roughly translates to a kind of grand theoretical fault line in the discipline, one that separates "design progressives," those who see their professional roles as master craftsmen or devotees to the clarity of the design approach, and "social progressives," architects who first and foremost define their roles as problem solvers of some of the world's social ills.

It's a division that's made more obvious in a field as closed off as architecture is. The phrase "echo chamber" has been thrown around a lot lately. Essentially innovation in is contained within a chamber of aesthetic trends and voguish intellectual theories. So there needs to be something big, something monumental to change the discussion. Over the course of the last century it's been a tug of war between design progressives and social progressives, each trying to pull the echo chamber onto their side.

A year ago, Peterson told me that the shift was coming. For the first time since the '70s, the social progressives are going to have their day, and it's about damn time.

The proof? How about the fact that this year the planet's premiere architectural prize went to a guy famous for building relief shelters, churches, and schools out of cardboard? How about the fact that Pritzker winner Toyo Ito has drafted a petition against superstar architect Zaha Hadid's massive bicycle helmet of an Olympic stadium, hoping to find a design that "pays more attention to human scale, ethics and the integration of public green space"?

How about the fact that Kickstarter is funding projects like public pools in the middle of the East River, community pavilions on Governor's Island, and underground parks on the Lower East Side. Elsewhere it gets better: crowdfunded wind-powered mine detonators, for example.

It's not as sexy undulating skyscrapers and cantilevered penthouses, but its simplicity is exactly what makes this so cool. Dear god, I may even say so millenial. How awesome is it going to be to cut the bullshit and start designing things that keep water bodies the size of Lake Michigan from pooling at street corners? How great is it going to be when somebody (and there's a crowdfunding plea for this) decides to harvest heat leaving subway vents for people living without homes? When there are bus stops that provide shade while sipping energy from the sun and siphoning it to power the new media company adjacent to it?

It's no robotic cockroach, and it's no world's tallest building. It's not sleek and it's not pretty, but it's the future, and I, for one, am way pumped.


Mayo Nissen: The "City of the Future" Will Not Just Be the City of the Future

Just like today's city, it will be a mix of the past, the recent, the cutting edge—and always in flux.

Future visions and narratives of the city often address all the problems for all the people all the time. That's a natural consequence of those visions coming from and reflecting one perspective, but no city is experienced from only one vantage point. Even cities in history with big masterplans—Haussmann's Paris or even New York's street grid—exist in a reality that's vibrant exactly because it's so much messier than the plan could ever envision.

The city of the future will not be a single gleaming vision. It will be many visions, layered on top of each other, tomorrow's visions on top of yesterday's visions all on top of a history of human existence right back to when the city was no more than a village.

Sure, there will be the occasional mega-development on the scale of the World Trade Center or Hudson Yards, but most of the city will look and feel, broadly, much as it does today.

The cobblestones from yesteryear will still be there. The asphalt from last week will still be there. The general structure of how people go about their lives will be much the same as it is today, even as many of the details change dramatically.

Of course there will be visions, as there should be: large overarching ones that only partially come to be as they compete with other visions, with history, and with stubborn facts of everyday reality on the ground. Smaller visions that seek only to address one issue, and leave the rest to be solved by others.

Many of those visions will involve technology, of one sort or another.

5 Visions for the Future of New York City Streets

Jet parking, conveniently located in Midtown, image via Ptak Science

New materials will change how we build things, from things we wear to the very foundations of the city. Sensors and software running on the street will help us better understand how the city is used, from the traffic on the streets, to the crowds on the subway, and the rats in the sewers.

Consumer technology—from smartphones to things we cannot yet imagine—is inherently visible, subject to marketing and a need to generate consumer demand. But many of the changes to the city will be invisible. Decisions will be made differently; some services will run more efficiently. Sensors will continue to be installed, but many additions to the streetscape that today need large metal boxes and wiring will become vanishingly small and increasingly disappear, visible only by their effects, if at all.

People's own technology and the homes they live in will change faster than the built environment, but everything—from that single-use disposable device you buy for a dollar to municipal infrastructure replaced on a generational timeframe—will have software running on it in some form. Always changing. Always evolving. Always in beta.

But for all the talk of systems and technology, a city is composed first and foremost of the people in it and the lives they live there. People, both as individuals and as society, are inevitably hard to understand, and harder still to predict. And each person living in the city of the future will have their own needs and desires, their own visions, and their own ways of living their lives.

The city of the future will doubtless incorporate some of those dreams, and dash others. But we can be pretty sure that it will just as messy, layered, and contested as it's ever been.


Annie Barrett: The Streets of the Future Are Going to be Thick

The future is going to be thin.

Sometime between today and Minority Report, our smartphones will recede into a plane of electronic paper, folded in our back pocket. In the mornings, we'll run through the city on sneakers that are nothing more than a gel, brushed onto our feet before leaving the house. And in the evenings, we'll wrap our winter coats around us like the thinnest scarves, unburdened even in the most crowded subway or the hottest bar. We'll all be five pounds thinner in the future (of course) and we'll look it in the thin, LED-powered light of the city. Think about how thin your subway token became when it turned into a metrocard. Then think about what a metrocard will look like when it gets future-thin. We can start to imagine an entire city of thinness – smooth, fast, and trim.

Except for the streets. Because the streets of the future are going to be thick.

Literally. Forget all about that thin membrane of asphalt you know now, the slick one, the steamy, concrete jungle one, the gum-stained one. Forget about the 12,000 miles of concrete- and bluestone- topped sidewalk. Our streets will be thick like a sponge, deep and porous, flexible and reflective. Your super-thin sneakers will know the difference: you won't be jumping over puddles at the intersection anymore, because rain and flood waters will slowly seep into and out of the streets of the future. You won't find tar on your soles in the heat of July, and you won't have to worry about potholes, because the streets of the future will all be one giant organism-like network of self-healing material. Thick with this infrastructure, the streets will channel new forms of resources and technology through bedrock and wetlands to the far extents of the five boroughs. Thick with architecture, they'll be fronted with thick facades—glassy buildings thick with aerogels and solid buildings thick with performative skins.

But that's only where the thickness begins.

5 Visions for the Future of New York City Streets

Our cities will see us through thick and thin

The streets of the future will also be thick with potential. They'll be wired, coded, and electrified. They'll support forms of transit we don't yet know about, with technology we don't yet have, and choreograph divergent, overlapping pedestrian events. Today's streets are 1:1 diagrams of their own use: sidewalk, tree, curb, street drain, bike lane, car lane. Things wont be so simple in the future. Thick with possibility and anticipation, surface markings won't be painted on, they'll be emergent, and might come and go depending on the day, the season, the event. These streets might help organize a weekly greenmarket or a gay pride parade, but they'll also probably be armed. They might be able to protect you in the face of a global emergency, but they might not let anyone "occupy" wall street or any other street.

The streets of the future will be more private and more public, thick with contested uncertainty.

But most of all they'll be thick with activity, because what reason will we have to sit in an office all day? Thick with communication, you won't be searching for a signal, you'll be searching for a street. And when you find one you'll step into the thickest sound overlay you've ever heard, the polyphony of even exponentially more people and more languages, one- two- and three-way conversations dissolving into one thick metropolitan murmur. Like wandering through white noise, you'll find pockets of tranquility within the thick foam of sound, smell, light, and air.

Even in our thinned-out future, our city will be thick with streets. And our streets will be thick with use, thick with movement, thick with alive-ness. It won't be a slow, gooey thickness, but rather a thickness of intensity and abundance, multiplicity and opportunity.