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  • 01.12.15

Imagining New York City’s 42nd Street With No Cars

What if the tourist attraction was a sustainable, auto-free place that New Yorkers actually wanted to visit? The idea actually dates back 40 years.

On New Year’s, all eyes turned to a gleaming Times Square to watch the ball drop. In some ways, the New York City plaza on 42nd Street has always reflected the mood of the city, and of the nation. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was all grime and blight, lined with peep shows and hustlers; later, its clean up became the poster child example of urban revitalization. Today, it’s filled with tourists, Disney characters, and mind-boggling foot and car traffic. “Real New Yorkers” tend to avoid it at all costs.

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A group of architects recently turned their eyes to imagining what the whole of 42nd Street–from the East River to the Hudson River–might look like in the next few decades by remaking it into a thoroughfare that locals want to visit. With the international Vision42Design competition, teams were asked to develop plans of a future 42nd street as a “pedestrian-friendly, auto-free, sustainable boulevard.”

The 200 entries in the competition, which was sponsored by the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility and coordinated by vision42, a citizen’s network that promotes the idea of light rail and a car-free 42nd Street, were winnowed down to four final submissions. You can vote for a winner here.

The Light Grand Rail Passage–A Linear Garden

Alfred Peter/Charles Bové/Karen Listowsky

This team, which includes light rail designers Alfred Peter, Charles Bové & Karen (Bloch) Listowsky, imagines 42nd Street as a microcosm of New York. A light rail, designed as a moving sidewalk, would carry passengers river-to-river along an East-West linear garden lined with trees, with the street widening in parts to coexist with pedestrians and loitering tourists. Its design would channel the “character of each section of its host neighborhood,” such as Bryant Park, the United Nations, and Grand Central Terminal.

From An Infrastructure To An Urban Renewal

Thibault Barbier/Aurélien Delchet/Mathieu Delorme/Yvan Okotnikoff/Adèle Sorge/Hugo Bruley/Valérie Tasseel

Mathieu Delorme, a France-based urban planner, proposes a light rail project that acts as “a catalyst for an urban renewal.” It targets three “mutations.” The first, a social mutation, would connect the light rail with the rest of the city’s transit hubs and create new grounds for public expression and free speech through a large urban square in front of the UN building. The second, an environmental mutation, would better connect people to green spaces (such as the The High Line park) and expanded, revitalized river fronts. The third, an economic mutation, would “create a new economy at the pedestrian level” by giving space to markets, street food festivals, sports, and open air activities.

42nd Street, Reactive Ground

Tiago Torres-Campos

Tiago Torres Campos, a Scotland-based landscape architect, proposes a series of landscape units that help refute “the idea of street as road-channel, or even simply as a pedestrian channel with a light tram, in order to embrace a wider notion of street as a gathering place, an urban and cultural stage and an environmental facilitator.” With units such as the Times Square Meadows, the East 42nd Waveland Park, and the East River Wetlands, he aims to reconnect New Yorkers with older versions of the regions ecology, geology, and geography. He even proposes a giant terrarium–two connected skyscraper-sized, self-sustaining, self-regulating greenhouses–that would sit on the site of what is now a giant parking lot between 8th and 9th Avenues. Who needs parking lots when you don’t have cars?

A Greenway On 42nd Street

Paul Boyle

University of Western Australia student Paul Boyle proposes a light rail system on 42nd street as “a seed from which further positive environmental actions can take root, with the metaphoric Greenway growing out of Times Square (the Heart of NYC) and sprouting its way East and West.” Each rail station contains plantings from a different Native American plants. Playgrounds and cycle/walkways encourage outdoor activity while strategically placed tree plantings cool the walkways for commuters. Seats and green spaces provide place to rest, “de-stress,” and “feel close to nature” in the middle of a busy day.

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It may seem like it would require a true miracle on 42nd Street to make any of the above proposals happen, but it might be more likely than it seems. Vision42 has completed a number of technical studies showing the benefits of the idea. And according to the group, ideas to get rid of cars on 42nd Street date back 40 years and were nearly achieved in the early 1990s, but lack of funding ended up killing the idea. That, of course, would still remain a big obstacle today.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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