In Queens, Broken Concrete Keeps Pedestrians Safe

With the Queens Plaza Bicycle and Pedestrian Landscape Improvement Project, the New York City Department of Planning and Economic Development Corporation are moving forward with efforts to redesign the streetscape of a dysfunctional part of Queens, New York, and revitalize JFK park. The urban design project, which includes landscape architect Margie Ruddick, ASLA, Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT), Marpillero Pollak Architects, Leni Schwendinger, a light artist, among others, and will also involve the innovative reuse of materials from the construction site. One smart application of reused materials: broken concrete medians that cover approximately 14,000 square feet of “unusable space between lanes of traffic and in Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) maintenance areas,” says WRT. While this redesign can achieve a whole set of “goods” like increasing pedestrian and bicyclist safety and creating a more artful urban landscape, it’s also a real-life example of sustainable reconstruction in action.  

WRT says Queens Plaza is an “extremely busy” vehicular corridor that provides connections for 140,000 vehicles moving between Queensboro Bridge, Manhattan, Queens Plaza Boulevards North and South, Jackson Avenue, and other streets. The area is also dangerous: over a three year period, there were 23 accidents, mostly involving jaywalkers. This is six times the national average for urban streets. As a result, one of the key goals was to improve the “accessibility and functionality of the crosswalk and bicycle path systems.” Reused materials play a major role in this. 

According to Tobiah Horton, a landscape designer with WRT, the reused concrete medians “physically block passage across vehicle lanes and visually indicate to the pedestrian who is still safely on the sidewalk that it is impossible to cross.” In addition, the textured and irregular appearance of the medians, which can perceived as looking “scary or dangerous” actually make pedestrians safer. “With a perception of danger, here perceived in texture and irregularity – a heightened sense of awareness and care is created in the user. Paradoxically, what is smooth, clean and without remarkable characteristics actually creates a dangerous environment of speed and inattention.” 

Beyond calling attention to the dangers of crossing the street in such a busy area, these pieces of reused transportation infrastructure are also artful in a shabby chic kind of way, and may even resonate with the hardened pedestrians in this evolving neighborhood. Horton adds “keeping some traces of the old neighborhood in the new design comes to mean something for a neighborhood that is undergoing a rapid stage of change. Keeping the material in a relatively unprocessed or rough state allows for it to still be perceived as sidewalk, but with some suggestion of it as a demolition waste material. These lingering identities from the former use and the demolition process combine with the new identity as landscape element to suggest a way of looking at waste as resource with potential value and meaning.” 

Importantly, this technique shows that designers working on urban redevelopment projects can safely salvage and reuse materials on site in an efficient manner. Horton says approximately “1,000 CY of broken concrete was used, saving transportation, disposal, crushing costs and impacts. Our rough calculation suggests that approximately 1.7 Billion BTUs of embodied energy is conserved in the reuse of this material in a higher form than crushing for road base. Additionally, we estimate that a release of 60 tons of C02 (principally from cement production) was avoided by not installing a typical DOT median feature composed of new concrete and other new materials.” Moreover, those rough surfaces meant no energy was wasted polishing them up.

Also worth noting: given these medians are made up of broken concrete, they are also permeable. WRT didn’t provide info on whether these new medians will function as green infrastructure and use natural systems to manage stormwater, but they say the “the uplift of the sidewalk suggests the opening of the impermeable urban surface” and opportunities for “green space, permeability, and infiltration.” Perhaps that piece will be coming soon.

The project is expected to be completed by fall 2011. See an interview from Urban Omnibus with the project designers. Also, check out an ASLA animation that explores some of these concepts, “Building a Park Out of Waste.”

Image credits: WRT

12 thoughts on “In Queens, Broken Concrete Keeps Pedestrians Safe

  1. William Leatherbee 03/09/2011 / 1:19 pm

    A great idea in all respects and looks well executed. Congratulations to Toby Horton and the WRT team!

    William Leatherbee AIA

  2. Michael Smiley 03/15/2011 / 6:11 pm

    The project looks interesting and an innovative re-use of urban materials. However, I think you should use more care in your use of the term urban design (second sentence). Urban design is a recognized professional discipline and this project surely is not that. More correctly it should be described as an “urban landscape” or “streetscape” project throughout the text.

    The profession of landscape architecture constantly laments the misunderstood role of landscape architects among the other design professions. I think greater care should be taken to understand and correctly reference the other design professions, lest you be guilty of the same misrepresentation.

    Michael Smiley, ASLA

  3. Pat Pfirmann 03/17/2011 / 3:55 pm

    This project is a garbage magnet. I live in the area and have watched in horror trash lodge itself into the concrete shards. Who is going to keep it clean?

  4. Robert Beaulieu, ASLA 03/18/2011 / 2:25 pm

    I have to agree with the last comment. Maintenance is a big factor in any design and I see it greatly lacking here. The arrangement of planting and concrete pieces is a bit odd as the concrete blocks the view of the material from most viewing angles.

  5. sorabji 04/09/2011 / 5:05 pm

    it looks like a cemetery

  6. Kathy Linares 05/19/2011 / 10:30 am

    My initial reaction was “interesting”, but after more consideration and more importantly, I wondered how do you maintain this area? What about trash and weeds? Has this been taken into consideration? OMG!

  7. Curtis LaPierre 05/19/2011 / 12:02 pm

    It will look great in some future CSI New York episode.

  8. Christy Fisher 05/19/2011 / 2:43 pm

    Traffic-calming, not-pedestrian calming seems to be the emerging trend. This design punishes pedestrians physically and visually (with all the trash and weeds that will accumulate) while still allowing traffic to speed through as usual. Could you imagine installing spikes along the road to make sure cars didn’t get in the way of pedestrians!? This is ridiculous. I applaud thinking outside the box, but it looks messy, not wabi-sabi. Christy Ten Eyck used recycled concrete in a clean, elegant way at Steele Indian School Park.

  9. Charles Warsinske 05/19/2011 / 5:38 pm

    I am happy to see people calling BS on this. Lets see what it looks like in 3 years as this trash rack matures. That first picture looks like a bike rack from the Fintstones. Maybe Urban Accessories can get it in their 2012 catalog.

  10. sarahscapes 05/20/2011 / 7:04 pm

    I agree with the comments that this does look like a a cemetery… I live near several so I should know. Queens has enough of them it doesn’t need any designed mimics to add to the lot. Also the comment on trash is on point. Garbage and litter collection will be a huge issue and is an issue to consider in urban design. I do appreciate the attempt to reuse, but this is just not appealing.

  11. w donnelly 11/17/2011 / 10:11 pm

    looks like tombstones, Queens blvd is the Blvd. of death.

  12. Mike 03/20/2012 / 4:55 am

    It looks terrible as does the Jackson Ave. with the horrendous Planters. You can’t make left turns out of side blocks and buses and trucks have a hard time navigating this horrible idea by DOT (Jeanette Sadik-Khan) the Bike Lane lady. We did not need them.

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