A Vision for A Greener, More Resilient Urban Core
By John Goldwyn, senior vice president, director of planning and landscape, WATG
Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the real estate industry is one of many trying to navigate the “next normal,” especially in cities impacted by extended office closures, shuttered businesses and residential shifts to more spacious suburbs. Space — especially green, outdoor space — comes at a premium in these cities.
Yet science tells us that being outdoors is the safest way to gather in this era of COVID-19. Access to nature is also a proven antidote to the anxiety we feel after months of quarantine. And in many cases, operating outdoors is the only way a business can stay afloat today. As such, cities like New York are faced with pressure to transform so that businesses and residents can once again thrive.
As a multinational design firm, WATG has proposed Green Block Flatiron — a system in which New York City residents can enjoy both a green and urban lifestyle. Residents no longer need to sacrifice one for the other, nor flee for greener landscapes in the suburbs. This concept creates a system that can help us emerge from COVID-19 with a stronger foundation for the future.
While it feels ultra-relevant today, Green Block was actually conceived in 2017 by WATG and guerrilla geographer and creative explorer Daniel Raven-Ellison in response to London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s public challenge to designate the national capital as a National Park City.
Our master planning and landscape architecture teams observed increased reliance on public transit, ridesharing and bike riding, as well as decreases in car ownership. Cities needed fewer lanes for traffic and less parking, and more space for pedestrian movement, bicycles and outdoor public use.
Green Block reclaims space dominated by cars and other vehicles and gives it back to the people. It transforms streets into green spaces using a modular, maintenance-free, kit-of-parts system created from 100 percent recyclable materials. The program adds greenery to existing cafés and shops and creates revenue opportunities for retail, restaurants, fitness and other businesses while also cleaning and filtering the air and beautifying streetscapes.
As residents seek healthier, safer, more breathable ways of life, Green Block makes a statement about how our cities should evolve. Implementation is easy, but thoughtful adaptation is required based on understanding each unique part of the city. Green Block can serve single businesses, buildings, blocks or neighborhoods. Or it can stretch for blocks and link multiple communities, creating a network of parks, bicycle routes and pedestrian thoroughfares.
Green Block and the plant life it nurtures are adapted for weather and seasonality and for each location’s availability of light and water. Our landscape architects who understand what plants grow where can recommend the right mix, focusing on indigenous species that were here long before cities. Done right, there can be significant ecological impact.
In addition, water that would otherwise drain into sewers can be absorbed by the landscape or collected and reused for irrigation. Over time, this leads to less stress on urban infrastructure as the landscape takes hold. Landscape architects can also help to consider shady versus sunny streets and the ways design strategies must be adapted to function year-round.
Even now, as the winter season unfolds, the need for businesses to operate outdoors will not simply go away. Green Block is designed to be occupied throughout any season, so that property owners can consider outdoor heaters, fire pits and blankets to help keep their outdoor spaces comfortable during these cold months.
Adjustments to Green Block can also be made based on each community’s needs. For example, lawn areas can be designed to accommodate school picnics, gardens or nature labs complete with wildflowers and butterflies for children to enjoy and learn from.
At other times of the day or week, the same lawn can be used for fitness activities such as spin classes or yoga, or simply for informal sitting and meditating. Restaurants can set out tables and create herb and vegetable gardens to provide seasonal ingredients for their dishes, as the distance from “farm to table” becomes mere meters.
The purpose of Green Block is to provide a flexible, urban landscape that is accessible to everyone, ultimately creating more sustainable, resilient and self-reliant communities. During times of crisis, the concept provides space for people to carry out daily activities in safe, socially distant ways.
And because it’s designed to be aesthetically and physically appealing, the experience is elevated over other temporary, utilitarian solutions, such as concrete barriers that might be erected to extend sidewalks into the streets.
Green Block offers a more pleasant way of being together but apart in a park-like setting that lets people come and sit without pressure and rebalance themselves. It empowers businesses to continue earning revenue without interruption.
In fact, it can be rolled out on top of the city without piercing existing infrastructure, so it too can be temporary. This approach allows different configurations to be tested, while those that prove most successful can stay in place long-term.
To succeed, Green Block needs community stakeholders to participate, to embrace the world we’re in now and think positively about the benefits of change. Real estate developers, owners, civic groups and members of the community must be motivated to build and maintain these greener systems.
When lovely plants and beautiful urban orchards start to thrive, better human connections are nurtured, and civic pride is strengthened. Residents and business owners alike feel the strong pull to participate. Green Block builds a bottom-up democratic space for people to express themselves and live a better life close to home.
Green Block is not a knee-jerk reaction to the public health crisis. Businesses are currently under threat, especially small local businesses. Banding together to build more resilient, people-friendly communities is very powerful. Cities will be better equipped to handle future challenges — pandemic-related or otherwise — by giving residents more of the tools they need to thrive.
New York City already has meaningful urban spaces, but they are sliced into pieces by roads and cars. Green Block knits communities together and builds long-lasting change in the city.
— WATG is a London-based architecture and design firm that was established in 1990.