The invisible City

Municipalities – Cities, villages, urban and suburban areas – are full of small bits of urban fabric which we almost never foreground: street furniture. These bits of urbanity are the unsung heroes of city life. They help keep us moving safely about our day by deploying signage and traffic lights; hold our newspapers before and after we read them; street furniture protects us with bollards and separated bike lanes; and street furniture brings us joy with trees and art.

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Municipalities purchase street furniture from a finite set of manufacturers. However, the composition, range, and context is different in each community. This website endeavors to present a wide cross section of communities, taking into account varying densities, geographic location, community age, and mobility mix, allowing wider insights. 

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Why studying street furniture is important

Street Dining on Lorimer and Bedford at Five Leaves

Street furniture is where public policy meets our bodies.

Topics like zoning and land use are fascinating, and I can speak or read books about these topics all day. But, it’s really really hard to understand zoning – and really difficult to hold zoning in our minds eye without scrambling a bit. We can kind of understand the difference between a R1 and an R10 district in terms of building scale, size, shape, orientation, and bulk. But the differences between a R4A and R4B district takes a minute to really understand and requires diagrams.

You might be able to touch a zoning map (once you print it out); but zoning maps can’t hug you back, or allow you to sit and hug someone.

Street Furniture shows who gets a share of our limited physical space.

We aren’t building new streets. The space between buildings (street walls) generally isn’t changing, and the spatial geometry is pretty much set. How we divide this already-set amount of public space, and for what purpose, is highly contested. Just see how many times people are stealing the North Brooklyn Slow Streets signs on Meeker.

What we put in our public thoroughfares are the physicalized form of urbanism. It’s the culmination of zoning texts, land use regulations at the state, county, and local level. And the decision of thousands of people, often people we never see or hear from.

Street Furniture is the canary in the coal mine or spectrograph of decisions past made. Often what gets put in our public way isn’t up to us – someone with control of the purchase order makes a decision. Or often, a small minority of people affect how we use the city because they show up at a community board meeting.

Street Furniture is the invisible made visible, that we all can touch and argue about.

That’s what makes it interesting.

Primary source in process: The Plan for Welfare Island

The Plan for Welfare Island

Primary sources are incredibly important to decipher the decision making process. Especially when it comes to procurement, and other government decision making. I found out there is a Municipal Library at City Hall (well, adjacent), part of the New York City Department of Records and Information Services. Searching their records, I found this handy primary document:

The plan for Welfare Island: technical report
Prepared for New York State Urban Development Corp.
By: Philip Johnson & John Burgee, Architects.
Contributor(s): New York State Urban Development Corp.
Publication Date: ​October 7, 1969
Call number: S Ur1.96 pfwi

I love finding original primary documents, the digitization of card catalogs has made finding a lot of these items easier; the hard part is gaining access the original or getting a digital copy of it sent. I no longer have an academic credential, and because of COVID many research libraries are still closed or appointment-only. Luckily, librarians are amazing. I mean, amazing. While I don’t have the full 196 pages scanned and in may possession, they have been great about scanning parts of the document so I can zero in on what parts of the technical report will be useful.

Johnson & Burgee Urban Plan from page 10 & 11 (original PDF) – Roosevelt Island Master Plan

About Roosevelt Island

Read more about Roosevelt Island here:

Specimens found on Roosevelt Island


Jane’s Walk NYC 2021 Starts

Janes Walk Title Square

Happy Monday, friends of tiny urban devices, and those who were waiting for Jane’s Walk NYC 2021!

A happy reminder that starting today thousands of New Yorkers and visitors alike will take to the streets and tune in online for Jane’s Walk, which lasts between May 3-9.

We are hosting our own Jane’s Walk 2021 – Street Furniture: Where Policy Meets our Bodies:

Street Furniture: Where Policy Meets our Bodies

Municipalities are full of small bits of urban fabric which we almost never foreground, but are the manifestations of our public policy: street furniture. These bits of urbanity are the unsung heroes of city life.

We will be exploring Roosevelt Island for our Jane’s Walk NYC, with the walk hosted on Zoom, while we invite attendees to also go on a self-guided in-person walk wherever they are, starting wherever, and encounter pieces of street furniture. We can share what we are all are seeing, listening, hearing, and smelling with the group.

Jane’s Walk 2021 – Street Furniture: Where Policy Meets our Bodies

Zoom info: Street Furniture: Where Policy Meets our Bodies
When: May 5, 2021 11:00 AM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Register in advance for this meeting:

https://us06web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJEsf–hqDgtHtEEgjDfnLBIFW5SLXkK5pH_

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

Come and join us as we share our love of these tiny bits of urbanity. We’ll be on site, and this will certainly be a prototype adventure. Something will certainly go wrong, but isn’t that the fun part?

About Roosevelt Island

Read more about Roosevelt Island here:

Specimens found on Roosevelt Island

Other Roosevelt Island Jane’s Walk 2021 Talks

Roosevelt Island Motorgate

We know everyone will join us for our virtual stroll around Roosevelt Island: Jane’s Walk 2021 – Street Furniture: Where Policy Meets our Bodies (sign up!). We see by our visitor logs that the internet is excited about Roosevelt Island by all the visitors to our entry about the Roosevelt Island Urban Plan. That’s awesome.

Janes Walk Title Square

We wanted to highlight other Jane’s Walk 2021 talks focusing on Roosevelt Island:

Roosevelt Island: A Vibrant Sustainable Community

Led by Theodore Liebman, Architect at Perkins Eastman and Judith Berdy President of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.

We will review the history of the island and its change from the infamous Welfare Island to today’s vibrant Roosevelt Island community and the 1969 Johnson Plan and its execution. We will review all the architecture, the restoration of landmarks, and sustainability features on the island, the tram and subway, the new Cornell Tech University and Four Freedoms Park created as a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and designed by Louis I. Kahn.

Criminalizing Queerness: A Glimpse into Roosevelt Island’s Disturbing Past

Led by Emma Dorfman, Life Jacket Theatre Company.

Roosevelt Island is known today for its high-rise buildings and ample green spaces, but it once housed hundreds of men unjustly imprisoned in the Welfare Island Penitentiary for “lewd and offensive acts which offend the public decency” (NY Penal Law 722, Section 690). This Zoom tour will show you how these queer pioneers- gay men, trans women, and cross-dressers- lived and loved 100 years ago, despite the relentless persecution they met every day.


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