How Cities Move Us
100 Ideas in Print
"How Cities Move Us" is an article by James Biber in the current issue of PRINT magazine featuring a selection from his upcoming book (and feature on this website) 100 Ideas for New York, along with an essay on movement in cities.
Designed by Tony Brook of Spin UK, who designed our identity and website, this beautiful issue is all about movement. Our take on motion is a free ranging essay on New York and Paris, and how movement defines a city...
"Cities, and especially New York, are different from the rest of the planet. Instead of being isolated in vehicles or widely spaced homes, we dance around the city in commonly owned spaces; subways, buses, elevators, and, most significantly, streets. These public ways are not just paved strips through the landscape but sequences of outdoor rooms, or grand hallways (in the Versailles sense of ‘hallways’).
The relationship of buildings to cities is like trees to a forest: The city is defined by its buildings, but none are indispensable. The destruction of monuments like the original Penn Station, Madison Square Garden (the one on Madison Square), and, of course, the World Trade Center demonstrates the independence of city life from any single building.
Buildings exist to define these public rooms, and they do it most beautifully when they hold to the urban tradition of the street wall. Whenever the question of the best buildings in New York comes up, I am usually at a loss to suggest any single examples (Rockefeller Center is a good fallback). Instead, I think of wandering around the East Village, a stroll up Madison Avenue, biking around Red Hook Brooklyn, Central Park West, or anywhere that Broadway meets the city grid. Streets and urban spaces are what make this town. Ever since 1811 when the street grid was imposed on a mostly empty Manhattan, the city has been a system defined as much by its voids as by its solids.
The distinctive long rectangular blocks of the grid allowed cross streets to correspond in close rhythm to the shipping piers at the Hudson and East Rivers, while the wider avenues collected the flow of traffic, people, and goods from the water, through the city, and north off the island to the mainland.
The grid organized real estate and set unique cardinal points (New York north vs. magnetic north) as it metered movement. The grid is, in a very real sense, the metronome of the city. My once partner Daniel Weil has said that “movement is the physical manifestation of time.” All New Yorkers know how long it takes to walk ten blocks north (ten minutes) and two blocks east (eight). Seasoned residents will round down to 15 minutes to assure that they are a tad late; a newcomer will round up.
Robert Moses, the most powerful builder that New York has ever seen, had a dream. It was a city crisscrossed by bridges and elevated highways and ringed by parkways, all with the goal of moving traffic efficiently. And by traffic, Moses meant privately owned vehicles.
New York’s other Moses, Moses King, had a dream, too, when in 1900 he forecast, in fantastically engraved detail, the city of 1999 as a Piranesian labyrinth of skyscrapers connected by sky bridges, elevated trains, and walkways, with a cloud of triplanes filling the sky. Moses King began his career writing guidebooks and loved the street as much as he loved the iconic buildings that defined it. King’s How to See New York, describes a city of incredible energy, productivity, and progress while stopping to note the disappearance of the stately homes on Fifth Avenue and the Hebrew [MS2]signage on lower Manhattan’s streetcars. This Moses cherished everything about the city in motion, marveling at ocean liners and ships, subways and streetcars. His system of orientation was essentially point-to-point navigation: the Woolworth Building to the Municipal Building; the Washington Square Arch to the Met Life Tower.
Robert Moses was fascinated by movement as well. Efficiency, throughput, vehicles per hour, and lanes per highway were his measures of value. He proliferated highways as quickly as he destroyed neighborhoods with massive building projects and World’s Fairs. This Moses was the Antichrist of the city street, but his vision of efficiency persisted until recently. We are just getting over the age of Moses.
The genius of the urban grid is how well it still works. New York is still a machine for moving commerce, but not the kind it was designed for. New York was the largest manufacturing center in America when Manhattan’s grid was conceived. It processed materials efficiently from the port to factories and sent finished goods to the world. The grid has been repurposed as a system of movement for our ideas. Our media, art, finance, design, technology, philanthropy, and health care use the system of streets to make New York the most fluid place on earth. We no longer make many tangible goods, but the streets are still our metronome and dance hall.
Paris, the 'moveable feast', became the Paris we love when Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, in a bid to improve health and sanitation and ease the movement of troops, carved the great boulevards through the medieval city that was pre-1850 Paris. That grand and rational circulation, imposed over charming winding streets, now defines the city. The movement of air people, and eventually the construction of the Metro transformed Paris. The persistence of the street wall; consistent building heights and balcony arrangements; aligned colonnaded blocks stretching to a vanishing point—these are the grand Parisian visions we love. And all for the sake of movement.
Parisians, even more than New Yorkers, live in the public rooms of the street. Cafés, originally used to circumvent laws against political assembly, became the incubators of the greatest art of the age. Is this outdoor salon filled with Picasso, Apollinaire, Sartre, Duchamp, Beckett, Gris, Miro, and Breton even imaginable in the suburbs? Modernity was invented on the streets of Paris.
There is a subtle but powerful manipulation of scale at work in Paris and other European cities. Buildings are limited to the height of an acceptable staircase (around six floors), while the cars are slightly smaller and the sidewalks narrower. The result is that humans are slightly more dominant in the city. We are all just a bit bigger in Paris.
You can see it in the way Parisians take the street for political marches, strikes, and celebrations. The French citizenry own the whole damn town, and they never let you forget it.
The line between public and private realms is carefully secured. This clarity is a symptom of the city. We live so close that we are picky about barriers when we choose to be in private.
In Paris the courtyard or forecourt was the only suitable transition from the 17th-century street to the hôtel particulier. New York’s earliest large-scale apartment houses, like the Dakota, follow the courtyard pattern, but the norm is the brownstone row house or the steel-framed elevator apartments of the post–Civil War era. New Yorkers’ privacy is guaranteed by height, not courtyards.
Paris, like all defended monarchies, started as a walled city. And walls create an inside-outside organization that intentionally limits movement. New York is an open system, albeit an island, while Paris had to be sliced open by Hausmann.
The city of Moses has been battling vehicles for centuries. Transportation in all forms dominates criticisms about New York’s quality of life. Better taxicabs (recently selected), a larger pedestrian realm (in place in embryonic form along Broadway), humane subways, bicycle lanes, public seating, congestion pricing (well, someday), and hundred of other ideas dominate the city’s suggestion boxes (another good idea: public suggestion boxes). It is an obsession of every New Yorker and maybe every resident of every city.
Movement is what we think of when we think about how cities work. It’s not the mechanics or engineering that attracts us but the way that movement choreographs our lives. We live in cities for various practical and emotional reasons; family, jobs, culture, comfort, excitement, social opportunities. But we quickly learn that none of it matters if you don’t get there in style."