Planted Medians: Beautiful Space or Dead Space?

A planted but unloved median on Father Capodanno Blvd.

A planted but unloved median on Father Capodanno Blvd.

We’ve all seen them: the raised medians on some streets, usually the wider ones – Father Capodanno Boulevard; Richmond Avenue; Hylan Boulevard – that are used to separate traffic going in opposite directions. Averaging at around one lane wide, medians serve a variety of functions on these high-speed streets: they increase convenience for motorists by distancing them from oncoming traffic, add order to the street, and provide for a safe mid-crossing stopping point for pedestrians (where they are then known as “traffic islands”).

They can also seem like a huge waste of space: not used as a traffic lane except where the median peters out into a turning lane, medians seem to be a holdover from an earlier era of traffic engineering, one where leisure driving was a significant part of the motoring culture. Indeed, Robert Moses featured fancy planted medians in many of his pre-war parkways. His later street designs, like Father Capodanno Blvd, also have a certain measure of long-ago grandeur. However, with many medians today featuring nothing but cracked concrete, the question becomes: do today’s drivers really care about some deteriorating eye candy, and are we putting driver priorities ahead of other users competing for valuable street space?

A GreenStreets traffic island formed by Father Capodanno Blvd and a park entrance road. Wouldn't it be better if the island simply joined the rest of the park, and not float in space?

A GreenStreets traffic island formed by Father Capodanno Blvd and a park entrance road. Wouldn’t it be better if the island simply joined the rest of the park, and not float in space?

One glance at many of our once grand designs, like Belt Parkway, shows that greenery, lighting, and other aesthetic concerns have given way to solving the more pragmatic problem of returning streets and highways to a state of good repair. With small, central city exceptions (such as Park Avenue) the city doesn’t perform the required maintenance. In our modern budgetary environment, medians are more often than not an eyesore. Even the well-intentioned GreenStreets program, an initiative started by the Giuliani administration, appears to have backfired. This effort to remove extra concrete and add plantings to medians, islands, and triangles seems to be suffering from a serious maintenance problem on Staten Island. Plants added to them die quickly and are not always replanted. The program also fails to address the real issue: a lack of quality public space and extremely narrow sidewalks around Staten Island. The way to both improve our public space and solve the disused median problem is to move them to where they will be useful.

Simply speaking, green or open space in the middle of a street is not as usable as space along the edges of the street – the space adjacent to the sidewalk. Unless one considers extra-wide medians, also known as “malls” (like those in Manhattan along Pike St and Allen St) there is no comfortable way to use even a well-maintained planted median. Whether the median was a part of the street originally, or was added later (as a safety measure to visually narrow the street and slow down traffic), the better solution to the problem medians were meant to overcome is this: narrow the street by expanding the edges, not the middles.

Replacing a planted median with two planted edges has benefits for all users of the street. Imagine that a 10-foot median is moved to the edges of a street by expanding each sidewalk by five feet. For cars, the width of the street is unchanged – 10 feet is taken away on the sides and re-added in the middle. A regular double-yellow line or a narrow raised barrier can function as well as a wider median, while taking away the false perception of safety. The positive implications for local property owners and pedestrians are enormous – such an expansion would often mean a doubling of the sidewalk width, or more. Those extra few feet of being removed from car traffic will likely drive up property values and encourage foot traffic as people start to feel more comfortable walking, playing ball, visiting neighbors. It will have safety benefits as well. Moreover, the changes may inspire owners to make their own investments into beautifying their properties, replacing a government-funded program with a privately-funded one, and saving us all money in the long run.

It is well known that wider sidewalks are better for businesses and residences alike. Many of the city’s best neighborhoods feature wide sidewalks. Wide sidewalks make streets better places to live and safer places to walk and play. While beautification programs and safety improvements like new traffic islands have their place, the more comprehensive solution is to widen the edges, not the middles, of many streets. This may be harder to accomplish (with the possibility of having to move utilities, instead of simply repurposing “dead” space in the middle of a street), but the benefits of such a street reconfiguration are larger as well.

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