On the corner of Hudson and King Streets in Hudson Square, a new 80-foot-long electric-orange-and-red structure is straddling the sidewalk and the road. When I visited last Thursday afternoon, I saw a woman eating lunch at one of the built-in tables and a couple having coffee on a bench behind one of the street trees incorporated into the design. I immediately beelined to a hammock at the far end and plopped down into it. A nearby Con Ed worker walked up to me and said he’d wanted to sit in the hammock all day but had been too nervous to. After sitting down next to me, he said if I had arrived a couple of hours earlier, I’d have seen kids swinging on the bars and scrambling up and down the benches, which are covered in soft rubber and scratchy Astroturf and double as a playscape. Once we got up, the couple asked how the hammock was (answer: surprisingly relaxing for something on the street!) before stepping in themselves. It’s an experience I didn’t expect to have in Hudson Square, an area I tend to think of as a gridlocked on-ramp to the Holland Tunnel trying to remake itself into a new corporate hub.
The idea behind the colorful structure, aptly named Restorative Ground, was “to create a varied ‘landscape of choice,’” says Bryony Roberts, a member of WIP Collaborative, the group that designed the project. “Hopefully, there’s something for everyone at different moments of the day or week or year.” It’s the winning entry in Care for Hudson Square, a competition organized by the Urban Design Forum, Hudson Square BID, and Hudson Square Properties that invited architects to make the neighborhood’s streets more vibrant, restorative, and relaxing for families, workers, and visitors during the city’s reopening. Restorative Ground also shows how Street Seats, a program the city currently has in its placemaking arsenal, could be improved by designing spaces for neurodiversity. A far cry from the private streeteries that have popped up everywhere in the past year, it illustrates a type of inclusive, publicly accessible architecture the city ought to be building more of. As Roberts says, “How can streets support social uses and not only infrastructural ones?”
A few years ago, a typical public-seating installation — tables, chairs, and umbrellas on a platform surrounded by planters — was on the same corner of King at Hudson. It emerged from the DOT’s Street Seats program, which helps ground-floor businesses install seating on streets and sidewalks. WIP Collaborative, a new practice composed of seven independent designers with backgrounds in architecture, landscape architecture, and fashion, has been researching how to create more inclusive public spaces and thinks that updating programs that have established design standards, like Street Seats, could scale their ideas. “In an overstandardized public realm, you have this generic public space applied everywhere,” explains Lindsay Harkema, WIP Collaborative’s founder. That certainly doesn’t work for everyone. The group, which also includes Abby Coover, Elsa Ponce, Ryan Brooke Thomas, Sera Ghadaki, and Sonya Gimon, was interested in finding ways to impart more variety to public space could make the city more enjoyable to more people. “What we found in our research in talking to [autism] advocates and self-advocates is you’re either in a public space that’s very active, loud, and overwhelming — like a playground or Times Square — or an empty plaza, which is understimulating,” she says.
Restorative Ground takes a more expansive view of what a Street Seat can be: It’s a playground, a calm refuge, a place to meet a friend, and a landscape to explore. As Harkema says, “The public is diverse, and the public realm should be providing those experiences to them.”