Published on Sustainable Cities

A New York Minute

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New York City skyline

I never thought I’d say this but I disagree with David Letterman. He loves to lampoon the closing of Broadway in certain places for a pedestrian walkway and a tree or two. I’m now sitting on Broadway between West 34th and 35th Streets, coffee in hand, and my great MacBook Air – there’s even free wireless. The Macy’s on the corner is under renovation and promises to open anew as ‘the world’s largest store’ (hmm, I’ve seen that claim before). The weather is gorgeous; people are flowing by like a rushing river, and I have a couple of hours before my train leaves for DC.

This one block has about 150 – 200 people walking past per minute (around 9 am on a Wednesday). My best guess is 75% work here -- certainly the 6 construction workers at the table next to me (cool how you can always detect swear words even in languages you don’t speak…Polish, I think); many seem to be late for work; 10% are people like me, passing through for work and living somewhere else; 15% are tourists; and 1 - 3% (of the ones who live here) could also be considered ‘other’. In 15 minutes about 5 homeless men and people, undoubtedly with mental and physical challenges, have passed by. One warned me that ‘someone has to die – it’s only fair’.

I’ve been here 30 minutes and now about half the 100 chairs are occupied. This place reminds me of an eddy in a rushing river. This also shows that for not that much money cities can significantly increase local quality of life. It might take leadership, and courage to stand up to Letterman’s scorn, but much can be done today in most cities.

The second thought I have this morning as a new crew of construction workers takes another table next to me (breakfast of Gatorade and Cheerios with milk) is about the homeless guys. As cities get bigger, and richer, is it inevitable that inequality grows? This is the City where the Occupy movement started, after all.

Tides, in theory, might lift all boats, but shouldn’t most cities be preparing for enormous storm surges that could easily swamp all boats? As surely as cities attract that man with the $3000 suit hailing a cab to Wall Street, they also attract the schizophrenic man now shouting at the pigeons. We really are all in this together -– and nowhere is this more obvious than a sunny Wednesday morning at Broadway and West 34th.

The pedestrian flow is down to about 75 people per minute. The bonehead next to me is feeding the pigeons and a couple of the construction workers are smoking (can I call the Mayor?). My oasis is under siege but it was a great respite while it lasted.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, AngMoKio


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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