Smart spaces & places

A blog brought to you by Chris Kane 

New York is certainly a ‘State of Mind’, as Billy Joel once sang, and a trip there always fills me with awe and inspiration. I’ve always marvelled at places such as Manhattan. Perhaps it’s because I come from a small village in a small country and can’t get over the scale of things, whether it’s the buildings or the vehicles or the buzz and adrenaline of the ‘city that never sleeps’!

Walking along various canyons formed by multiple skyscrapers which are the hallmark of Manhattan, those concrete bastions representing both the triumphs of the ‘American Dream’ and the worship of Mammon. I always ask myself how they were built, especially the original iconic early 20th century towers – the Empire State, the Woolworth and the Chrysler – just as much as I question what goes on inside those behemoths of concrete and steel.

This most recent visit was particularly productive as it turned up a number of interesting spaces and places, as well as making some new discoveries.

spaces and places grand central station
Grand Central Station

One of them, which doesn’t have the soaring height of New York’s quintessential high-rising skyline, is Grand Central Station. However, it’s certainly not short on impact and making an impression, as well as occupying a pivotal location in mid-town Manhattan. This grand old building was opened in 1913 and within it are tales of great engineering, survival, and rebirth. In the 1960s and 70s it went through the doldrums, with several attempts at replacing or changing Grand Central by eager developers keen to exploit the station’s prime mid-town location. However, a campaign spearheaded by former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis secured landmark status for the Station, ensuring the building would serve New Yorkers for generations to come. In the 1990s a structural, architectural refurbishment programme was introduced to restore the station to its past decorative glory. This upgrade has also added retail and dining outlets which greatly enhance the experience of being in this impressive and magnificent symbol of New York’s past, now made relevant for its future.

We Work

On this topic of how buildings are used and made viable for new generations, I couldn’t help noticing the growing presence of that “disrupter of disruptors” – WeWork. Their centres seem to be everywhere, with over 60 sites in Manhattan alone, and growing. I learnt that in recent years they’ve added an educational component to their portfolio. In addition to acquiring the Flatiron School which provides coding education, as an outcomes-based alternative (in person or online) to traditional, university programs, which can be offered in scholarship/study-now-pay-later models. They also have a private primary school in New York’s trendy Chelsea area under the WeGrow programme. This is the brainchild of Rebekah Neumann, the chief brand officer at WeWork and the wife of CEO Adam Neumann and there are plans to expand WeGrow further afield. WeWork, which is now rebranded as We Company, have also dipped their toes into the retail sector, with WeMRKT, a “modern retail space” selling products from a variety of WeWork member companies and Made By We which is the full retail model/experience.

During my time in New York, I had the opportunity for a quick visit to WeWork’s corporate headquarters. You could feel the palpable vibrancy and energy permeating every level. Although, there seems to be a fair amount of scepticism in the UK about WeWork, personally I believe they will thrive.

Last but certainly not least, what was definitely the highlight for me, was a wander along The High Line. This is an elevated linear park and greenway, created out of an abandoned site, which was part of New York’s central railroad system. It opened 10 years ago and is an incredible example of landscape architecture, urban design, and ecology.

Although it was pretty chilly -3°C the walk was full of purpose, as I was keen to see what I could learn for the Waterside Belfast project and there were several useful place-making aspects that stood out for me. Although the park was partially closed my walk took in a substantial part of the 1.45-mile long walkway. I marvelled at the various interventions which makes this a fascinating piece of the city: such as providing a useful App enabling visitors to navigate the many interesting and engaging components of the park.

Overall, the walk proved to be a great experience even on a very chilly afternoon, I can only wonder how uplifting and buzzy it must be on a warm sunny weekend? There also seems useful purpose to open up a pretty inaccessible part of Manhattan, which had been forgotten owing to the dominance of the automobile. By using clever design, The High Line provides an attractive mix of public art, simple viewing stops and engaging landscaping all of which combine together to add to the appeal of the place.

It was when I was back into the utilitarian urban setting, descending into the depths of Penn Station to catch the train to Newark airport, that I pondered on the various and diverse experiences I had been fortunate to enjoy in New York. No matter how you cut and slice the Big Apple, it will always retain its unique appeal, its vibrancy is there for all to see and it continues to amaze and intrigue me.