Slow City

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times today about the design and implementation of “aging-improvement districts“—that is, “parts of the city that will become safer and more accessible for older residents.”

[Image: Photo by Emily Berl for The New York Times].

One particular detail that stands out is also the first they mention: “New York City has given pedestrians more time to cross at more than 400 intersections in an effort to make streets safer for older residents.”

While most adults average four feet per second when crossing the street, older residents manage only three, transportation experts say. So signals have been retimed at intersections like Broadway and 72nd Street, where pedestrians now have 29 seconds to cross, four more than before.

Introducing time-delay into city services by splicing an extra stretch of the present into New York’s infrastructure, this is a temporal re-engineering of urban space: a longer stroll across the street with friends, no longer having to run to avoid that yellow light, becomes experiential evidence that a subtle though highly deliberate retuning of time in the city has occurred.

There are many other evocative details for how New York will be re-designed into an “age-friendly” city. “What people say they want most of all,” for instance, “is to live in a neighborly place where it is safe to cross the street and where the corner drugstore will give them a drink of water and let them use the bathroom.” Aging residents say they also “want better street drainage, because it is hard to jump over puddles with walkers and wheelchairs.” And there are very straight-forward architectural ideas in the mix, as well: “One of her ideas [Linda I. Gibbs, New York’s deputy mayor for health and human services] is to hold a contest to design a ‘perch’ to put in stores or on sidewalks where tired older residents doing errands could take a break.”

However, I’m also reminded of the fake bus stop that was added outside a hospital in Germany so as to calm—and, frankly, to trap—Alzheimer’s patients who had wandered out onto the street: “The result is that errant patients now wait for their trip home at the bus stop, before quickly forgetting why they were there in the first place.” Does decoy infrastructure, similar to these bus stops, already play a role in New York City—and, if not, will it—for the psychiatric well-being of elderly residents? What unexpected forms might these well-camouflaged psychological props take?

After all, how will the aging minds, and not just the aging bodies, of New York City find solace through design—a “perch” for psychological respite? Perhaps, channeling architects Arakawa + Gins, New York could become the city of reversible destiny.

5 thoughts on “Slow City”

  1. Hoping that interventions will include vegetation, too.

    I think other populations will benefit from aging friendly design. I am thinking of mobility impaired persons and parents with young children. (What's with the lack of curb cuts in "walkable" neighborhoods?)

  2. I think there's also an element of socio-economics here. 72nd & Broadway, on the UWS, is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city, and is home to many (rich) young families and elderly. I live on the Lower East Side, and crossing Delancey is a nightmare for even the speediest of walkers! I'm guessing the city wants to keep the suburbia-bound traffic moving. I've come thisclose to getting clipped by an SUV with Jersey plates several times!

  3. When I first saw this post in my RSS I somehow got the impression that it was about "parts of the city that will become safer and more accessible as they age". Like, infrastructure designed to improve as it weathers and settles, instead of needing maintenance and repair, or something. Like a pair of jeans which get more supple and stylish and fitted the longer they're owned.

  4. John, perhaps a city that becomes safer through aging would incorporate Georgia's ideas of strategic vegetation. Trees, for instance, or other networks of urban-hardy plantlife, would somehow help to stabilize works of infrastructure that had been ad hoc or even improvised at their time of construction but that become, very literally, rooted in place as the city grows old.

  5. I cannot help but to think these changes are really designed to allow texting pedestrians safe avenues in our cities.

    Sure, they can claim it is for the aging, but I'm too cynical to believe this is the true goal.

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