The study of the historical and operational structure and evolution of cities offers critical insights for their continued evolution in the twenty-first century. The examination of urban morphology is particularly critical at a time when a pandemic challenges fundamental assumptions about cities, from structure to density to the provision of open space and their consequences for physical health, social equity and environmental justice. Morphological study of particular districts and neighbourhoods of a city, here referred to as urban territory, allows for in-depth understanding not only of the nature of the structure and the ‘urban artefacts’ of that territory, but also of the city more generally.1 Urban structure here, in its most fundamental aspect, refers to the system of differentiation of private and public space through the definition of blocks and their subdivision into building lots, and the public network of communication between them for pedestrian and other modes of traffic, consisting of boulevards, avenues, streets, alleys and lanes.2 Within this general structure, open space in the form of squares, parks and promenades provide crucial places for a variety of types of activity and social interaction, a type of being in the city that is differentiated from the activity of the typical street. Civic squares, tied to the municipal administration of the city, have particular potential and capacity to be endowed with the values of the community. In this way, the civic square, as a key urban artefact, can act as a microcosm for the analysis of the values and forces driving the evolution of the morphology of a city.
Brooklyn was an important American city in the nineteenth century, which was consolidated into the metropolis of New York in 1898.3 Brooklyn’s position before consolidation as a sister city to New York, its chronological urbanisation following that of New York and the rich documentation of the city’s growth offers a significant opportunity to study the regional urban morphology. In the territory of Brooklyn’s initial growth, its first civic square emerged, almost by accident. This space, referred to here as City Hall Square, matured into a unique position in the region, simultaneously serving as the chief crossroads of the young city, a commercial and cultural hub, a transportation hub and the governmental and judicial seat of the city and county. For nearly a century, this square was a seamlessly woven and connected place in the larger urban structure.
As the city of Brooklyn grew, and the geographic centre of the city shifted away from this location to the east and south, the square’s future was brought into question. Community discussion raised the question of the value of this space as rich debates on memorials, commemorations, celebrations and political activity ensued. A subtext was evident in some of the discussion, raising questions of class relations and attitudes regarding the mingling of all members of the community in the square. As this place faced pressures for transformation in the twentieth century, both the values of the urban place and its structure were redefined, leaving the place diminished, no longer serving as a meaningful hub of civic life in the city. The examination of Brooklyn’s City Hall Square in the context of its larger structure reveals the problematic treatment of this place where social vitality, memory and heritage are sacrificed, thwarting rather than propelling the community’s civic spirit. This examination reveals pathways for continued transformations that may restore or establish new values of place that reinvigorate this urban artefact and relink it to both the origin of the city and the landform’s longer history, its heritage and memory, but also its future potential as an inclusive, connected and meaningful place in community and civic life.
The regional culture of urban form
In the territory now defined as New York City, an evolution of urban form is apparent in the examination of the plans and maps documenting the territory’s urbanisation over time. This evolution of form is further revealed by historical analysis that overlays the social and political values driving the formation of the territory.4
This territory was the land of the Lenape for millennia prior to the arrival of the Dutch, the European colonisers who laid the foundations for the urbanisation of the land.5 The Lenape dwelled in seasonal camps around the territory; this habitation pattern’s major surviving legacy is the alignment of pathways that influenced the positioning and alignment of country roads/future streets of the city, especially in Brooklyn.6
New Amsterdam, founded by the Dutch in 1624 at the southern point of Mannahatta, was first and foremost a trading post that formed around the commercial interests of the Dutch West India Company rather than the needs of settlers seeking to establish new permanent settlements.7 With a relatively stable population during Dutch rule, the low-density town, meticulously documented in the redraft of the 1660 Castello Plan by John Wolcott Adams shown in Figure 1, consisted of blocks of varying sizes defined by houses, stores and garden walls, with the block interiors used for agriculture and housing livestock to supply food to the population.8 The urban morphology was centred on the functionality of land, allowing varied block sizing that shifted in dimension and scale based on the location of the block relative to the emerging commercial waterfront. Blocks distant from the waterfront could encompass more land for agricultural use while blocks adjacent to the waterfront were compressed to allow for more building frontage in the streets near the waterfront. The streets in the urban morphology respond to function and logical connectivity, laid out without a strict geometric structure but rather a fluid structure that allows the streets to adjust to the geography and the waterfront edges.
With the transition to English rule in 1664, the newly renamed city, New York, shifted its culture of urban morphology to one that increasingly prioritised the efficient accommodation of new permanent settlers.9 This culture saw the subdivision of large estates and land holdings into increasingly geometrically governed blocks and streets, with the exploration of block sizes still evident in the variety of block depths and lengths. While topography and geographic features are respected to some degree, the planning culture is clearly pursuing the concept of a defined structure of parallel and perpendicular streets. The new neighbourhoods’ structures were localised, developed within the boundaries of the estate but also oriented independently in response to some degree to geographic and topographic features of the land. This flexible/adaptable urban morphological culture was soon superseded by an exactingly codified morphological culture in post-revolutionary New York through the 1811 plan for the city. This plan not only regulated the block and street dimensions but also unified them into a strict geometric order that could extend in an almost limitless manner up Manhattan Island, without having to consider local geographic features. This codified system developed on the priority of accommodating the townhouse as the base building typology of the moment, with building footprints of slightly varying widths and limited depths that allowed for ample rear gardens. Even as the prevalent building typology evolved to accommodate higher population density, the urban morphological culture of Manhattan held fast into the twenty-first century.10
Brooklyn’s urban morphological culture, emerging in the post-revolutionary period, aligns with the early adaptable geometric culture of eighteenth-century New York rather than the contemporary 1811 plan, with landowners subdividing their land applying a geometric system with a localised orientation/alignment and localised variations of block and street sizes. This culture of urban morphology persisted as Brooklyn grew, creating a much less cohesive structure when compared with the nineteenth-century structure of New York.
Culture of the square in the early urban form of the region
Urban space, and in particular the square, is evident in the form of New Amsterdam/early New York. In this territory, the urban spaces can be categorised into two types: irregular emergent squares and planned formal squares.
Irregular emergent squares
New Amsterdam and early New York’s plans developed with irregular nodal open spaces that emerged from the demarcation of the blocks and have qualities that distinguished them from the general street network. In the redraft of the 1660 survey of New Amsterdam shown in Figure 1, a primary open space sits adjacent to the main entrance of the fort. This trapezoidal space lies at the end of the axis of the broad street (the future Broadway) to the north and slightly rotates to the alignment of the fort to the south. This space, the future Bowling Green, emerges from the contingent boundaries of the adjacent blocks, the geographic placement of the city gate to the north and the fort’s positioning to defend the town from approaching ships in the harbour. The square’s emergence is likely driven by a combination of keeping the land clear from the fort’s immediate territory with the requirement for space outside the fort’s gate for military and civic functions and ceremonies as a parade ground.11
Other irregular emergent squares are evident in the 1767 survey of the renamed city, also shown in Figure 2. Many of these squares are the resultant space of a complex intersection of streets, leaving an irregular open area that functioned as a node in the street network, a place with a differentiated spatial quality that eventually earned itself a formal name as a square in the young city. Hanover Square is an example of this type; others are evident but not yet named on this survey, including the future Chatham Square. The Common, a triangular space, emerged at the split of ‘Broad Way’ heading north and the future Park Row/Chatham Street cutting to the north-east. This space was at first a large open area on the edge of the city for events and executions; later it was surrounded by city fabric and eventually became the site for a new city hall in the early decades of the 1800s.
A more subtle but clear type of emergent urban space in the early form of the city are particularly wide streets that blur their role as both an identifiable open space and a street. Two of these are evident in the 1660 and 1767 surveys: Broad Way and Broad Street. They are both distinguished from the typical streets of the network, with a prominence enhanced by their links to key buildings in the city, including Trinity Church, the city’s northern gate, City Hall and the Exchange.12 Broad Street’s width initially accommodated a canal flanked by street passages on both sides; the canal was later filled in, resulting in this remarkably wide street.
Planned formal squares
The first planned square apparent in the 1767 survey of the young New York is Great Square,13 a large-scale square developed as part of the city’s expansion to the north in the mid-eighteenth century. This new grid-style neighbourhood, shown in Figure 2, indicates a clear shift towards an orthogonal grid as a planning strategy and the appreciation of a square as an anchoring component of the neighbourhood. This shift to a defined geometric form is ratified and codified by the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for New York City. While the Commissioners explicitly rejected a form of planning centred on figural public squares anchored by public buildings or monuments, they did, albeit somewhat reluctantly, indicate and describe a series of squares in their plans.14 By the mid-nineteenth century, the growth of New York had reached 50th Street, with eight planned formal squares indicated on an 1852 survey, partially shown in Figure 3.15 Some of these squares were planned with the motivation of establishing land and real estate value, including Gramercy Square, Stuyvesant Square and Hudson Square.16
Brooklyn sits just to the east of the early territory of New York across the estuary later referred to as the East River; this territory remained largely rural throughout the eighteenth century while New York underwent a period of rapid growth and quickly extended its footprint up the island to the north. The Revolutionary War stalled any further development of Brooklyn until the early decades of the nineteenth century, leaving Brooklyn lagging behind New York in the establishment of an urban form. This delay offered the landowners of this territory a powerful model and precedent to consider as they envisioned the transformation from estates, orchards and country lanes to streets and blocks.
Landscape of indigenous roads and European village settlements
Brooklyn’s pre-urban condition in the eighteenth century, shown in Figure 4, was a rural landscape marked by country roads that generally followed the alignment of the Lenape trails through the territory.17 The primary trail connected the distant Atlantic shoreline to this north-west territory and continued winding between hills and leading down to the waterfront for a convenient crossing point to Manhattan Island. The early Dutch settlers respected this trail’s alignment, setting up logical locations for the first villages in this territory: one at the river crossing, later referred to as Brookland Ferry, and a second on the highland in the heart of the territory, Brookland Parish, so named to reflect the Dutch Reformed Church built in the middle of the road.18
Recognition of the real estate potential
By 1806 urbanisation was underway in Brooklyn. At this time, New York’s population had already exceeded 60,000 people.19 A property survey developed by Jeremiah Lott for Jacob and John Hicks documents a view of how Brooklyn would transform.20 This plan for the land running up the hill to the south of Brookland Ferry village shows 50-ft wide streets and 200-ft deep blocks of slightly varying lengths. The typical lots in this plan are 25-ft wide and 100-ft deep. While the streets are slightly narrower, both the block and lot dimensions in the Hicks survey generally correspond with the New York Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. This plan is evidence of a critical view of Brooklyn’s urban form as it is initiated: the form would be as equally dense as New York.
Positioning the development: Brooklyn Village, Vinegar Hill and Olympia
By 1816 this initial plan was extended further south, with additional landowners, notably Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont, continuing and adjusting the urban form established by the Hicks survey.21 Pierrepont envisioned how the bluff south of the ferry would appeal to New York’s upper classes, especially with the wide exposure to the fresh breezes blowing across the harbour. He tweaked the dimensions established by the Hicks survey, seeking wider streets and lots for larger houses for his property’s urban plan.22
At the same time, two other developments emerged to the east of the ferry, occupying the territory between the ferry and Wallabout Bay, the site of the nascent Navy Yard. Both developments were conceived and marketed to specific communities: John Jackson named his track ‘Vinegar Hill’ with the goal of marketing the lots to Irish immigrants, while Joshua and Comfort Sands named their development ‘Olympia’ and aimed their marketing at transplants from Connecticut.23 In the latter case, their plan indicates a more sophisticated urban form, with an unusual network of streets, lanes and alleys, perhaps intended to facilitate an anticipated maritime industrial focus for the waterfront site.24
A facsimile of the 1819 approved map of Brooklyn Village, shown in Figure 5, documents the entire plan of early Brooklyn, compiling the territory at Brookland Ferry, the Hicks and Pierrepont plans, Olympia and Vinegar Hill.25 The planning of the territory at this point follows the pattern of urban form apparent in the pre-1811 plan development of New York, with landowners subdividing their landholdings applying an independent, localised grid system within the contingent conditions of the location, geography and boundaries of their property. This pattern of urban form is marked by rotated grids that often meet at the pre-existing country roads.
This pattern of Brooklyn’s early urban form can be described as incremental urbanisation, in contrast to the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 for New York. This form of urbanisation has certain advantages and qualities that were sacrificed in the New York plan, including the ability to adjust to the local topographic conditions or specific geographic features including waterfront edges, ridges, bluffs and alignment of the historic roads.26 Incremental urbanisation also contributes a specific quality to the urban form with a subtle but important definition of the various quarters or neighbourhoods based on the shifting and rotation of the grids. This allows for dynamic conditions where two independent grids meet; these conditions often form the distinct centres or defined edges of neighbourhoods. At the same time, a lack of continuity and connectivity are adverse conditions at the macro scale of a city; in the case of early Brooklyn’s territory these conditions would prove to be central concerns of the future planning of this part of Brooklyn.
A city without public squares
Incremental urbanism provides opportunities for squares and other forms of open space through emerging conditions at nodal points as well as planned spaces as part of the initial urbanisation. Nodal points incubate a condition for future public squares, as evident in New York in Hanover and Chatham Squares, and in pre-urban Brooklyn at the ferry landing as well as in the broadening of the street at Brooklyn Parish. Beyond nodal points, each new territory has equal potential for the integration of planned squares and parks as it is transformed from rural landscape to urban neighbourhood, with this critical moment allowing for some of the transforming space to be reserved for open areas, holding it back from the speculative market. This pattern is observed in New York as the city’s development marches north, as at Gramercy Square, for example.
As the initial planning was underway, there was discussion in the Brooklyn community regarding the development of squares: the notes of General Jeremiah Johnson, dated 1800, discussed by Stiles in his history of Brooklyn, confirm the recognition that public squares and other forms of public space are a critical component for the emerging urban places of Brooklyn. These notes include the following passage regarding the development of Olympia:
Now proper time that a corporation for Olympia should commence its operations, and particular appropriations be made for extensive market-places, a square for an academy, another for a promenade, others for public buildings of different sorts, as churches, courthouses, alms-houses, etc.
Despite this recommendation, no open spaces are included in the plan for Olympia. In the case of Brooklyn Village, Pierrepont, having profited from the beneficial aspect of his property on the bluff in Brooklyn Heights, did push for a public space where all residents could enjoy the view and fresh air. This founding father of Brooklyn with a vision for the new city, however, was unable to deliver this public space for its residents.28 While a few nodal points are visible in the 1819 plan,29 there is no clear indication of space being reserved for squares or parks in any of the developments.30 The evidence points instead to the intention to maximise saleable/taxable property.
This lack of integration of open space is explicitly noted by members of the community. There is clear discussion among the Brooklyn public about the pervasive density and the missed opportunity to establish public open space in this new city. An editorial in the Brooklyn Long-Island Star in 1830 criticised this failure:
One may look in vain for a public square, a well shaded avenue, or even a sufficient cemetery. The whole object seems to have been to cover every lot of eighteen by twenty-two with a house, to project and open unneeded as well as unheard of streets, and to tumble the hills into valleys … We have not a single public square.
Incremental urban planning and its impact on this territory
The incremental pattern of Brooklyn’s initial urbanisation continues in the next phase to the south and east, documented in the 1843 Hayward Map shown in Figure 6. The city’s extent in this decade takes on the shape of a butterfly with Flatbush Avenue as a spine down the middle. Each wing of the butterfly is dense with blocks of slightly varying dimensions and proportions with independent grid alignments/orientations.
The 1843 Hayward Map and other plans that date from the 1840s reveal the considerations the city commissioners were exploring in their plans for the city’s expansion.32 The 1840s planning reveals a critical opportunity for conceptualising and integrating a broader ‘macro’ structure that provides both a conceptual clarity but also opportunities for more direct and efficient circulation linking the initial urban territory to these expanding neighbourhoods.33 This planning also offers a critical opportunity to develop a distributed system of public spaces to both relieve the density but also provide a sense of place and centre for the new neighbourhoods. While the 1843 Hayward Map indicates some concept of a larger connective structure through proposed radial diagonal streets and some distribution of proposed public squares, overall, the planning documents of this period clearly indicate that a unified structure or clear conceptual plan is not applied as a model for the planning of Brooklyn’s urban form.34 In addition to lacking a clear system or structure, many of the structural elements explored in this planning, including several of the proposed public squares and two diagonal connections shown in Figure 6, were never realised.
Civic square by accident
While the initial planning of the new city was devoid of public space, the need for a dedicated site for Brooklyn’s new City Hall became apparent; one was established in the 1830s where Fulton Street bends to the south-east where it meets Joralemon and Willoughby Streets. This location follows a clear logic, placing it along the critical artery of Fulton Street not far from the old ferry landing, now called Fulton Ferry, and a new one at Main Street.35 The site was previously laid out as an odd-shaped block intended for residential lots, but the geometric irregularity was resolved by simplifying the block and dedicating the leftover triangle of land to the site for the future City Hall.36 While the triangular geometry of the site is striking in contrast to the more regular blocks of the territory, the scale of the site is diminutive for the primary civic structure of the young city. This further reflects the primacy of real estate income that likely made the allocation of a larger site less appealing to the landowners.37
Evolution of the site and the emergence of the square
The initial design for City Hall had a large programme and a footprint that fully filled the triangular lot.38 With no established squares in the structure of the city at the time of the design planning,39 it is notable that an open space was not the initial intention for this site.40 This initial building programme was halted due to a market downturn, and when the project resumed, the building programme was reduced and the new design had a simple rectangular footprint.41 This new footprint was situated on the southern portion of the site, leaving the northern portion free of construction, as shown in Figure 7. The concept for a forecourt-like open space likely evolved simultaneously with the reduced building’s design as it sets up a natural place for appreciating the Ionic pedimented porch standing above a steep monumental stair on the north façade of the building. This façade addressed residents and visitors approaching from the north after arriving at the ferry landings, still the major transit access points to Brooklyn at the time.42 With the open space serving as a forecourt, the monumental portico provides a dramatic sense of arrival in Brooklyn, the impressive presence that some of the elite desired for their city.43
This was the generating operation that established an emergent urban open space for City Hall. As the space emerged, it took on the nature of a classic square anchored by a dominant civic building, an uncommon condition in the region’s urban morphology.44 At the completion of City Hall this public space surfaced in the consciousness of the community, who discussed the space’s treatment. A mention of the building nearing completion in an 1846 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article articulates the author(s’) desire for the space in front of the building:
We hope there will be a proper liberality and taste shown in the ‘outside trimmings’ of the place – which are often in similar matters so overlooked as to spoil the general effect of all. We allude to the fence, the entrance-yard, and so on. A tasty and solid fence is very necessary to such a building – and by due disposition of flagging, trees, grass-plots, &c., the grounds round the Hall might be made in a high degree ornamental.
A civic place without a name
Strangely, even with the appreciation of this new open space as a civic place tied to City Hall, there is ambiguity regarding a formal name for this space. This ambiguity is substantiated by numerous maps/surveys that label City Hall but not the open space, whereas other parks and squares are indicated with clear names.46 Furthermore, the references to this space in the local papers vary, suggesting a formal name is not agreed upon.47 The term City Hall Square is thus applied to this space for clarity here.
The maturing of City Hall Square: crossroads and civic place
Detailed maps, engravings48 and photographs give a sense of the nature of the fabric forming the perimeter of this square in its initial build out, as shown in Figure 7. Documentation from the 1850s and 1860s shows a range of building types, up to four storeys tall, including townhouses, a theatre, a church, a hotel and a concert hall. Across the street to the south and east of City Hall, the King’s County Courthouse was built by the same architect and provides a dynamic extension of the growing civic architecture of the place.49 Some of the buildings fronting the square have commercial shopfronts at street level, a condition that continued as the space evolved. The documentation reinforces this space not only as a civic seat but also as a commercial/cultural/transit hub.
As the city grew, the block to the south of City Hall saw a concentration of additional governmental buildings flanking the courthouse.50 These buildings, although they do not front directly onto the square, define a rich architectural grouping with City Hall that reinforces this place as the civic/governmental heart of Brooklyn. In particular, the courthouse, with its striking dome and orientation setting it oblique to City Hall generates a rich scenographic complement to City Hall, visible in Figure 7, that one especially appreciates when approaching from the north. Together, these government buildings define an emergent civic/governmental centre endowed with a remarkable architectural and urban richness that stands out in the American conception of civic centre.51
Although Brooklyn expanded to the east and south, shifting its geographic centre away from this territory, City Hall Square maintained significance in the community as the nineteenth century progressed. The perimeter fabric defining City Hall Square continued to evolve over the decades, with buildings of varied massing, rich in their detailing, supporting a variety of uses. Residential streets were a block away while offices, theatres, shops and banks fronted onto the triangular space. The elevated train line connected distant neighbourhood populations to this square, adding another layer of activity, albeit less desirable due to the noise and pollution of the trains. The Brooklyn Bridge, opened in 1883, reinforced the significance of the square with its alignment and access point along Fulton Street a short distance north of City Hall.52 The two structures became linked in the image of Brooklyn, as depicted in scenes of the city in the late nineteenth century.53
Signs of ambiguity in the value of this civic place
City Hall Square is a logical place for commemoration as the venerable civic space, but some in the community raised questions about its appropriateness for its first memorial. A debate regarding the location suitable for the installation of the monument to Henry Ward Beecher reveals a lack of consensus about the importance and role of the space in the community.54 In 1887 some community members supported the monument’s siting in City Hall Square because its placement in this ‘heart of the city’ would make his memory ever present to the community, while others saw this space as too busy and perhaps less dignified as a place for such an important monument.55
Another manifestation of this tension about the role of this space in the community can be discerned by examining the treatment of the space, especially its frequent design changes. The lack of stability in the space’s design treatment, shown in Figure 8, suggests the lack of a consistent vision for the role of this space in the community. The various iterations of the design of the landscape treatment are repeatedly revealed in archived photographs to create awkward conditions for the staging of events in the space.56 These photos capture a marked tension between the desire to treat the space with decorative landscape features and the desire to assemble the community in this space for special events. Despite this clear awkwardness, future changes did little to solve this problem.57
Road infrastructure, superblocks, zoning work against vitality of the territory
Photographs from the 1900s to the 1920s, like the one shown in Figure 9, reinforce the nature of the place as a crossroads in the city, with pedestrians, trams and motor cars sharing the roadway and elevated train lines above mirroring the subway lines hidden underground.58 As transportation infrastructure, especially that focused on the private motor vehicle, became a major focus of urban design in the twentieth century, this territory of Brooklyn, the key threshold to Manhattan, experienced significant pressure to adapt and change to accommodate new demands for transportation connectivity.59 The pressure was particularly acute with the continued reliance on the two historic pathways, Fulton Street and Flatbush Avenue, to connect the river crossings to the distant territories of Brooklyn’s expanding neighbourhoods.
As early as 1843, the Hayward Map’s radial diagonal streets show evidence of a recognition of the need to develop easy movement from the civic area to the rest of Brooklyn. The missed opportunity to introduce a circulation structure on a city-wide scale early on left future generations confronted with a serious and challenging transportation problem. A number of plans, including those in Figure 10, confirm that addressing this challenge was a high priority for the planners, threatening the urban structure and fabric of the territory, now a historic neighbourhood, with significant intervention.60 Surface roads for cars come to dominate the planning process and justify exploring radical changes to the whole territory, with significant impact on City Hall Square.
Traffic arteries and open space undermining the urban form
As options were considered to solve the transportation challenge, the idea emerged to develop traffic arteries linked to a monumental open space to serve as a new gateway to Brooklyn. This concept was developed further with the goal of visually linking the Brooklyn Bridge to Borough Hall (City Hall’s new name after the consolidation of Brooklyn with New York in 1898), the two primary identifying urban artefacts of Brooklyn. Another component was layered into this concept: the development of a new ‘modern’ civic centre replacing some of the historic governmental structures.61 These concepts were presented as the major goals of the replanning of the territory between the bridge and Borough Hall, with a number of iterations tested in planning drawings and multiple building campaigns. Combined, these ideas centred on a large-scale open space that could provide a new setting for governmental and institutional buildings that were seen as a means of dignifying and monumentalising this gateway space.62 This vision proceeded, however, with little competing value placed on the existing spatial quality or sense of place of City Hall Square with its unique and architecturally rich civic centre already in place. It also proceeded with little value placed on the existing dense street network providing strong local connectivity across the territory.
Between 1930 and 1960, this territory was radically transformed.63 Dozens of blocks dense with historic fabric were demolished, including buildings with significant architectural value, most particularly the King’s County Courthouse. Numerous streets were de-mapped to consolidate land into superblocks for large-scale housing projects. High-capacity and high-speed roadways, motorways and ramps were inserted to create long-distance connectivity. At the local scale, the superblocks and major roadway infrastructure created barriers to movement that subdivided and separated people across the territory. Through this planning process, referred to as ‘urban renewal’, the territory of early Brooklyn that lacked open space was transformed into a territory with vast stretches of open space in the mid-twentieth century,64 as shown in Figure 11 and Figure 12. The replanning of this territory resulted in a dysfunctional, interrupted local street network with odd block configurations.
Separating rather than mixing uses
A diagram of uses, shown in Figure 11, provides a sense of the impact of the twentieth-century concept for a strict zoning approach that separates uses. This highlights the contrast of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century development pattern that concentrated mixed-use (red) along key streets in the neighbourhoods, still extant to the south, and the post-mid-twentieth-century pattern that justified clearing mixed-use fabric to provide large areas for government, institutional (yellow) and office uses (orange), in the central area of the territory. This diagram co-relates well with the observations of the most active streets (red) and the least active areas (yellow). In contrast, photographs from the early twentieth century, along with detailed fire atlas maps document the intense mixture of uses at City Hall Square and along Fulton Street.65 This fabric’s removal, in combination with the decreased street network connectivity, contributed to the current observable low daily activity and pedestrian use of the streets and open spaces north of Borough Hall.66
The modern civic centre, intended as a dignified, monumental gateway to Brooklyn, turns out in the end to be an underwhelming and underused place in the city that was bypassed by the traffic coming off the Brooklyn Bridge, negating the very concept of a gateway to Brooklyn that dominated the planning conversation. The north portico of Borough Hall now greets skateboarding youths rather than visitors to the great borough. All of these factors played a role in transforming City Hall Square from the crossroads of the city to a localised open space with diminished significance to the larger community both in daily life and for special civic events.
Assessing the production and transformation of City Hall Square
This analysis provides insights but also raises further questions regarding the production of this square, the territory of Brooklyn’s early urbanisation and the major interventions in this territory during the urban renewal period. First, it is clear that Brooklyn developed in the context of New York’s planning, where the commissioners authoring the 1811 plan only reluctantly allocated space for public use in the form of squares and parks, and many squares developed in New York were driven more by real estate speculation than the desire to provide public amenities. The Brooklyn landowners making decisions about its initial urbanisation failed to produce any public open space. The public was well aware of this failure, petitioning and cajoling the newly established municipality to consider providing such places. While there are examples of attempts to produce public spaces that would benefit the community, the value of land and its taxable contribution to the city seemed to be a higher priority than the provision of squares and parks.
The space produced at City Hall was not in the initial plans, and only emerged as the building design was replanned on a more modest scale. This awkward production of the space was reflected in the lack of a clear formal name. The space nonetheless did thrive as it evolved, clearly meaningful to the city, both in terms of the concentration of municipal and commercial buildings but also in the use of the space in daily life, as well as special commemorations and celebrations. This active use, even with its awkwardness, continued through the mid-twentieth century, with the celebration of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1955 World Series victory held in this space.67 Photographs document the space as an active part of life in Brooklyn up to the point of its transformation in the urban renewal period.
The urban renewal planning was the culmination of a decades-long design process and discussion in the community, with multiple configurations built and then modified. The goals and aspirations for this work, however, were largely abandoned in the final design and implementation. Major disruption of the territory was justified by the municipal authorities, whose decisions were made at a time of major demographic change with the phenomenon of suburbanisation and ‘white flight’.68 Ideological views of the modern city, aligned with real estate development interests, supported this disruption.69 The outcome of this disruption was a disconnected and dysfunctional street network that stifled pedestrian mobility and accessibility, leaving the vast territory of open space north of Borough Hall underused.70 The Brooklynites represented in the press had remarkable discussions about open spaces in their community in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but that did not ensure a legacy of great open- space design.71
Brooklyn City Hall Square served not only as a true gateway to Brooklyn, with traffic between Brooklyn and Manhattan largely passing through this space, but also as a symbolic representation of Brooklyn, an artefact tying its vital present to both its origin but also its hopeful future. The significance of the loss of this urban artefact can be felt in the disconnected, quiet, placeless qualities of Columbus Park, now the official name of the space. The central goal for a gateway in twentieth-century planning is incongruous with the current conditions that pedestrians, cyclists and motorists crossing the Brooklyn Bridge encounter when they ‘arrive in the middle of nowhere’ as they are dumped onto the heavy traffic corridor of Tillary Street.72
The twentieth-century concept for a civic centre marked by impressive architectural works reinforcing the sense of place and its significance as a seat of government failed to fully materialise.73 The impressive qualities found in the composition of government buildings immediately around City Hall in the nineteenth century were sacrificed along with the civic place of the square in the name of progress, but their replacement is hardly equally compelling.74
Furthermore, the loss of the historic link between the square and the ferry landing is especially unfortunate today with the revival of the East River ferry, the landing area and the attraction of Brooklyn Bridge Park.75 Similarly, the resilient vitality of Fulton Mall to the east is cut off, rather than tapped into.76 This severing of Fulton Street ended the centuries-long prominence of the historic Lenape path through the territory.
The once-significant use of the site as a place for commemoration and civic events, even with the poor design treatment, was disrupted, sacrificing its challenged but then still growing role as a repository of community memory and heritage.77 The Beecher Monument was moved a block and a half to the north, disconnecting it from Borough Hall and placing it in a much less active location where few pedestrians come in contact with it. The intention behind the naming of the post-urban renewal space Columbus Park is questionable in regard to meaning and representation of the community in the face of the growing population of people of colour in Brooklyn.78
The lost significance of this place to the community, combined with the continued treatment of the space that hinders large-scale gatherings, results in the diminishment of the place for civic identity and activity. In fact, during the large-scale protests after the killing of George Floyd in 2020, the space at the Barclay’s Center, a corporate, commercial space at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue, seems to have been a more practical and poignant space for political protest than the awkward space at Borough Hall.79 Similarly, a large-scale march to raise awareness of police violence against black transgender women was staged on the avenue in front of the Brooklyn Museum rather than Borough Hall.80
Analysis of historical discussions in the local newspaper suggests a classist view of this urban space as it matured, a view that likely weighs on the decision-making process by the elite for this space’s development and eventual transformation.81 As the social context for the major disruption of this territory was the abandonment of neighbourhoods by white middle-class families, there is a clear need for additional analysis of the social/economic/political production of the urban renewal project.82 This context also points to the importance of digging further into the critical role of urban space for daily interaction and community assembly in relation to building social capital among the less powerful members of Brooklyn society.83
The value and necessity of urban open space in cities was clear to the early population of Brooklyn, who noted the positive effects on social, physical and psychological health, and on happiness for city dwellers. Many community members also recognised the power of placing monuments in the public square where the commemoration of a great citizen of the city in the space would both bestow honour but also enrich and endow the civic heritage and memory of the city. In our own time, we especially appreciate the value and role of urban squares and parks as spaces for well-being, happiness and communal life as we reflect on the long period of risk and isolation in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the necessity of collective civic spaces where our communities can build – and nurture – new social bonds is ever more apparent in this moment of political polarisation. In these spaces, heritage and memory are a foundation that can be drawn upon or challenged as communities seek justice and equity; adding, adjusting and revising the civic heritage and memory in a place for future generations to reflect and build upon.
The pandemic has reinforced our human need for outdoor rooms in our cities where we see each other and recognise our common humanity, both in everyday active life as well as critical social/political moments. If we are to rebuild/revitalise our urban open spaces, we must re-establish or reinforce the culture of the square in our communities. The nuances of design that contribute to the active use and civic meaningfulness of the urban square need rediscovery and reinforcement. Historic spaces are important to study as they reveal the specific urban morphological culture of a place. Study of historic spaces also helps us understand how these spaces worked, especially to help us appreciate the transformative impact that prioritising cars has on these spaces.84 Study of the structural context of historic spaces helps us rediscover the value of a highly connected spatial network that maximises mobility, accessibility and active use by the community. Analysis of historic spaces also provokes questions of treatment and capacity to accommodate diverse activity that can help communities as they seek to make active, flexible, inviting and – critically – inclusive spaces that nurture our social and civic lives.85