Let’s Chop Up Superblocks

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Forest City’s Atlantic Yards project would create two massive superblocks in Prospect Hts., Brooklyn

Portland, Oregon, which has ascended the ranks of cities judged most walkable, bikable, and urbane, benefits mightily from its small 200-foot square blocks, which provide businesses more street frontage and people more streets on which to bike, cycle and walk. These short blocks did not create Oregon’s and Portland’s growth management and pro-transit policies, but they gave them terrain on which these policies could take root.

Contrast that to Salt Lake City. Its founder Brigham Young for some reason opted for one of the widest urban grids anywhere. (I’ve read he wanted teams of cattle to be able to turn around?) Its streets are laid out in a grid where each blocks is 660 feet square – which means that nine Portland blocks to fill up one Salt Lake superblock. This makes getting around Salt Lake City on foot very difficult, as I can personally attest.

New York City is somewhere in the middle, at least in Manhattan. Its numbered streets are set at a pedestrian friendly 200 feet apart while its avenues are set at a pedestrian unfriendly 800 feet apart, except where broken in two by Lexington, Madison or other mid-grid streets. This deficiency has long been noted, so if anything the city should have a set policy creating new streets when possible, and so to create shorter, more pedestrian friendly blocks.

But that is not the case. Instead the city and state often encourage one of the deadest institutions, the Superblock. Not content with blocks that are too large already, the city and state often team up to create even bigger blocks, and not even pedestrian friendly versions of those.

What exactly is a superblock? This term came into vogue in planning circles more than a half century ago to describe the then fashionable idea of demapping older street grid and creating one large blocks where before many blocks had been. It was thought that the old small blocks were outmoded, and did not fit a car-friendly culture. Jane Jacobs, among others, fired a stake into the heart of this idea, and now, theoretically at least, the superblock is dead. There are few defenders of it — theoretically.

But practice is different than theory. Let’s look at a few examples.

There’s the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. While there are a lot of reasons to criticize this project, starting with the process that seemed to reverse the normal way development of a public parcel should proceed. But when you get down to urban design of the plan itself, it has entirely too few streets. Not only does it de-map some existing ones, it doesn’t pick up the possibility of creating new ones so that this big area could be divided into smaller, pedestrian friendly blocks.

The Hudson Yards Development on the Far West Side of Manhattan is still evolving and it’s far from clear what exactly will emerge there. But most of the proposed plans submitted by developers for the new area atop the West Side Rail Yards show towers set in parks or plazas. They seem more appropriate to an Edge City outside Dallas than in a dense urban city. Only the Brookfield plan, in its words, "honors the Manhattan street grid" by drawing several new streets across the site, and puts an emphasis on urban style buildings that front on streets.

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Brookfield’s Hudson Yards project plan essentially maintains Midtown Manhattan’s street grid.

Why do developers haul out the superblock so quickly when designing current projects, and why do public officials let them, despite its near death in academic circles?

One common answer these days is terrorism concerns. Setbacks for more prominent buildings are often larger now, to allow for the placement of bollards and other protective measures. But there is a certain lack of logic here. After all, most New York City buildings do not have enormous setbacks from the street, so pushing that for newer buildings hardly deprives a terrorist of potential targets.

A stronger explanation to me lies in finance and issues of political power. Large concentrations of money affect development in New York City disproportionately, and such large concentrations of money often favor having large concentrations of land to work with. While it may be a disservice to the city to have a large, island-like superblock – traffic flow is disrupted, walking and bicycling trips are made more difficult — to the developer, a superblock allows for wide floor plates, campus-like settings and a level of land use control that would not otherwise be possible. And since the government sector is weak, large developers often end up doing what suits them first, not the public.

I’m not expecting to get rid of all superblocks. But it is a fair question whether the city should make creating a pedestrian friendly city of short blocks with buildings close to the street a priority. We have the most pedestrian oriented city in the country, but too often we chip away at its essential attributes in this regard, rather than seeking to add to them.

Photosim by Eric McNatt and Jason Lee for New York Magazine.

  • brent

    The tower in a park model might look cool in an architect’s rendering, but on a practical level it makes for second-rate street retail. Some of the building’s inhabitants might go to the on sight deli or dry cleaner, but visitors tend to avoid retail set far back from the street. These places will never become destinations. Developers would ultimately benefit more from a traditional street scale. More streets means more frontage. People might live in the buildings, but they will still spend their evenings in The Slope or The Village (except the people who live in these developments will drive there because every unit has like 2 garage parking spots).

  • This is a revision of an article that Alex published last month in the RPA Spotlight on the Region. When that article was posted to the Historic Districts Council blog, I posted a response, which you can read there.

    Essentially, I think that pedestrian scale and amenities are much more important than the size of the block. Many superblocks are only superblocks for cars, not pedestrians, and if the pedestrian traffic through them flows freely and heavily enough, they can be tremendous additions to the streetscape.

    Alex has a point that superblocks have a tendency to create anti-pedestrian environments, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient to do this.

    In terms of Atlantic Yards, I think the proposed arena would be too big to fit on any single block in that area, so a superblock is required. There are several superblocks in the area already, including almost every block north of Atlantic Avenue from Flatbush to Utica. Of course, that helps to explain why that stretch is so unpleasant for all concerned, and why the Atlantic Yards project is an abomination in general, but if you’re going to build an arena I think you need at least one superblock.

  • Gary

    I think there is a place for superblocks. After all they create car free zones. I think the problem is not with the concept, but often with the execution. If the space is inviting, with plenty of access and passage for pedestrians and bicycles(perhaps with a sense of the grid without the traffic), and appealing public spaces and amenities, they could be a great addition to livable cities (think great public plazas and parks). Further, we know that breaking the street grid has tremendous traffic calming benefits to the surrounding neighborhood streets.

  • FWIW, other sources of criticism and analysis of the AY project, beyond my site, are
    http://www.dddb.net
    http://www.nolandgrab.org
    http://www.brooklynspeaks.net
    http://cbrooklynneighborhoods.homestead.com/

  • jmc

    I think the reason that they’re building superblocks in the Atlantic Yards project is to meed some sort of required “green space/open space” requirement. These “open space” requirements are detrimental to the fabric of a city. I’m all for parks and play fields and trees and recreation areas but I think that they need to be discrete and usable elements, not minor set-asides.

  • upstate manhattan

    While there are a lot of reasons to oppose superblocks, livable streets advocates should be wary of unthinkingly reinforcing Manhattan’s grid system. That system is in many ways a contributor to today’s congestion problems. See here for a discussion:
    http://www.thevillager.com/villager_222/talkingpoint.html

    Coming from Chicago, I am acutely aware of the difference in grid systems makes to their respective cities. In Chicago street density rises with development density: blocks in the CBD are somewhat less than 400′ x 400′ as more space is devoted to streets, resulting in enhanced walkability; in residential areas of the city blocks are generally a bit under 660′ X 330′ as more space is devoted to non-transport uses. Just as importantly, almost all of Chicago is serviced by alleys, moving congestion causing deliveries off the thoroughfares. [To keep the city easily navigable, all streets and addresses are numbered on a uniform grid of 800 units/mile; technically a Chicago “block” is 100 units regardless of how many streets it contains.]

    In New York, by contrast, the dense spacing of EW streets means that a great deal of space is devoted to inefficient use. Many EW steets in midtown are glorified alleys: narrow and dark, primarily used for deliveries and trash collection, and unpleasant for pedestrians. All the while, since they are streets not alleys, they draw traffic and require full signalization at intersections. The avenues, on the other hand, are widely spaced to the detriment of both walkability and the overall transport capacity of the grid.

    [It’s worth noting how much dirtier NY is because of the grid: much trash is put out in bags on the EW streets because there is limited curbside access for bins/dumpsters. Bags are often not sealed or get ripped open allowing trash to escape. No wonder alternate side parking has been instituted to keep the streets clean! In Chicago, alleys allow for the mandatory use of bins/dumpsters and the streets require cleaning much less often.]

    Obviously, NYC is largely stuck with its grid. But where large-scale developments are being planned, there exists an opportunity to improve upon it: add additional NS thoroughfares for enhanced walkability; shrink some EW streets and dedicate them to deliveries, while expanding other EW streets to give more space to enhanced street life.

  • I agree with Alex’s criticism of superblocks. Studies in Portland have shown that small blocks are the single most important factor in making a neighborhood more walkable.

    I have some sympathy with Gary’s points that superblocks create car-free zones and calm traffic by breaking the street grid, but you can do the same thing in a way that is more effective and more pedestrian-friendly by building small blocks with the street closed to cars in some blocks.

    That is what they did in Santana Row, a development in San Jose, CA, that is modeled on Barcelona, Milan, and New York’s SoHo (if I remember the European cities correctly). It looks like old-fashioned European city blocks with a street closed to cars. That street was always designed to be closed to cars, but it has sidewalks, curbs, an asphalt roadway, and a median, as if it had once been a street. That makes it much more appealing than it would be if it were designed as a superblock, which would make it look more like a suburban mall.

  • mfs

    I agree with Cap’n Transit. The problem with superblocks is not that they have no streets. -They erase all the historic layers that make a city what it is.
    -Superblock developments typically provide too few uses on the “internal streets” given the scale of the development
    -Their “internal streets” are only used for accessing the development and discourage people from walking through them, which would otherwise make them viable places.

  • Spud Spudly

    One of the main problems with superblocks is that they are too focused on their interior spaces and tend to not be integrated well into the surrounding areas. So instead of creating an inviting place that others will want to enter for reasons besides seeing a Nets game, you wind up with superlong external sidestreets that front on nothing but brick walls, huge ventilation outlets and all the nasty industrial infrastructure-type things the developers wanted to push to the fringes of their new investment. If they were focused outward as much as inward they might be nice places. But of course if you’re a developer spending billions to construct one you’re not likely to be thinking too hard about the outward part.

  • vnm

    I have a real, real problem warming up to any concept of a superblock because the Modernists screwed up the concept so badly. And their results are everywhere.

    I suppose that if you were to take an ancient pedestrian-friendly town center in Europe, with numerous street-fronting buildings of various sizes and stages of disrepair, and ban cars from it, then call it a “superblock for cars only,” I guess I could go for something like that.

    But as practiced in the urban U.S., superblocks have been absolute disasters. I can’t name a good one.

  • vnm: Here are some good superblocks:
    – Columbia University
    – Central Park (this one’s cheating)
    – Penn Station (especially pre-demolition)
    – Harvard Yard

    But I agree that they’re few and far between.

  • Hilary

    Many of New York’s superblocks are “projects” that we’ve skirted for decades out of fear. More often now I venture to walk through them, and invariably discover that they’re leafy, pleasant diversions from the grid. It would help if their parks became public parks, maintained (to the higher standards of) the Parks Dept. We can probably be grateful that public housing was integrated throughout the city, rather than banished to outlying banlieu as in Paris. The challenge now is to go the extra step and really integrate these towers in the park into the fabric of the city.

  • john deere

    Superblocks can create routing problems for cyclists as well. NYPD treats the extra-wide paths as “sidewalks”, even if it used to be a street that is now interrupted by the superblock. So if you want to cut through using the former street, you can get a summons for riding on the sidewalk, even though a wide path cutting through the middle of a block doesn’t meet the city’s definition of a sidewalk, because it’s not adjacent to any street. I got a summons by riding through a superblock on what used to be a street, and I was prepared to fight the ticket on the grounds that it doesn’t fit the definition of a sidewalk; but the case was automatically dismissed b/c the officers didn’t file the summons. So I didn’t find out what the judge would say. But I did find out that going around the superblock to get to my office added nearly a mile to my commute to avoid being hassled like this.

  • Mike, think about Amsterdam Avenue through Columbia. If you can’t remember what it’s like, go take a stroll down it and tell me if you still think it’s a “good” superblock.

    Columbia might be more inviting than, say, Stuy Town, but I don’t think it qualifies as a “good superblock.” What makes parks like Central and Bryant, or Tompkins, Madison and Union Squares not pedestrian-unfriendly superblocks? The fact that they’re not really superblocks for pedestrians. Pedestrians can legally cross them, and there are plenty of places to do so. Their perimeter sidewalks contain pedestrian amenities like benches and trees and nice views.

    To the extent that parks do not allow through access, they tend to be more superblocky and less pedestrian friendly. The Museum of Natural History has attractive perimeter sidewalks, but it does not allow through access, and that is problematic for people wanting to get from one side to the other.

    By contrast, Lincoln Center makes it easy and relatively pleasant to get from one side to the other, but the perimeter sidewalks (especially along Amsterdam Avenue and 65th Street) are sterile and unpleasant.

    Parks like Bryant Park and Tompkins Square are actually less superblocky than they were in the past. In the 70s and 80s, these parks were uninviting unless you wanted to shoot smack or pay for sex. Now anyone can feel comfortable walking across them, they’re much less like barriers than they were.

  • re comment #5
    http://www.observer.com/node/36799
    Mr. Ratner, however, needs that street bed in order to increase the open space on the project. Along with streets that will be demapped to make way for the arena, he will gain about 2.7 acres, according to The Observer’s calculations based on the environmental-impact statement.

  • Hillary writes:
    “The challenge now is to go the extra step and really integrate these towers in the park into the fabric of the city.”

    And I think the way to integrate them into the fabric is to break up these superblocks with new streets. Those streets could be car free, but they should look like the surrounding streets. Then they will be part of the fabric -and they will no longer be superblocks.

    New Urbanist Ray Gindroz did this to a housing project in St. Louis, but I can’t find any pictures on the web.

  • Those streets could be car free, but they should look like the surrounding streets.

    And – this is very important – they should be legally and practically just as available as the surrounding streets to outsiders. They should not be “private property,” and they should not give the impression of being an exclusive domain for people who live or have business in the superblock.

    Forest Hills Gardens, despite all its streets, is a kind of a superblock because the streets are privately owned. However, because the property association doesn’t have the right to forbid through access (AFAIK), for practical purposes it is not a superblock.

  • Hilary

    Charles, To make them look like other streets, you’d want to line them with parked cars. This might not be a bad idea if it were in exchange for eliminating their parking lots. You won’t be able to straighten them out to fit the grid, though. To lure enough new people in, you need to create some destinations. I wonder what would happen if you put the Red Hook vendors in the Red Hook project rather than the park..

  • Hillary: It is a good idea to move parking from the old parking lots to the new streets. To the extent that parking is needed, it is less ugly on the street than in parking lots.

    But the on-street parking is not absolutely essential to make them look like streets: they don’t have parking on the closed street of Santana Row, and it still looks like a street.

    You are right that it is hard to line the new streets up with the grid or to fit them into the grid in any way, since many projects deliberately tried to break with the grid.

  • ddartley

    Mike, Capn Transit is right about Columbia. I was going to mention Columbia myself but I saw he did.

    Yeah, Columbia is about as good a superblock as you can get, in my (uneducated) opinion: maybe nice and fine on three of its four sides, and a #$% Berlin Wall on the fourth.

    Lincoln Center’s another one like that: beautiful, beautiful temple of high culture! accessible to the grand cultural and commercial arterial of Manhattan, Broadway! And to lungs, the retreat, of our fair Isle, Central Park!

    Oops, except for that enormous monolith on our backside, that huge wall, behind which are the projects, conveniently CUT OFF from all that urbane glory on the other side.

    Based (only) on every one I’ve ever seen in NYC,

    Superblocks are a @$#% SCOURGE.

    Blocks HAVE to have retail, or other open, in-demand institutions; those destinations HAVE to be close to the street; and the blocks have to be as small, or “cut up” for pedestrians, as their city allows. And if a superblock is “cut up,” then the “inside” sides of the resulting blocks have to meet those conditions too. Otherwise NO ONE GOES IN and the place becomes a wasteland.

    I have no education in urban planning, architecture, or transportation, but from my own, maybe small experience of living in various NYC neighborhoods for several years, I have a hard time imagining any superblock inside a city being good for the city at large.

    p.s. Brent, @ #1, is totally right: “Some of the building’s inhabitants might go to the on sight deli or dry cleaner, but visitors tend to avoid retail set far back from the street. These places will never become destinations.”

  • JW

    why are we still building superblocks?
    because architects worship le corbusier

  • Anonymous

    Funny that the source claimed to name Portland “urbane” doesn’t.

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