The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1903] Street Perception: Children and the City

United States

When strolling downtown Geneva, New York, I notice two things; the sound of motor traffic on nearby highway 5 and 20 which bypasses the downtown, and the “for sale” signs taped to the windows of businesses in the center of the city. This highway has created many problems for the citizens. There is little pedestrian traffic in the downtown, a decentralized public space along highway 5 and 20, desolate neighborhoods, and children who play precariously alone in deserted streets.

According to Frank Lloyd Wright in his book, “The Future of Architecture,” “building is itself only architecture when it is…significant of purpose.” The challenge of providing children with secure rights in any city poses many difficulties. As a result, several wonderful organizations throughout the world have developed which give safety, shelter, education, culture, and food to the children. The old proverb states, “it takes an entire community to raise one child,” conveying a notion that it is our duty to help the children. Being part of several organizations within our community, such as Habitat for Humanity, UNICEF, as well as local organizations, and after studying architects, urban planners, sociologists, and the city of Geneva, I would like to propose “Street Perception,” an essential concept Geneva lacks.

Architecture develops settings for activities and also communicates value systems. Sociologists recognize how physical settings inform and help people to behave. While my city has many good attributes, traffic on the highway bypass has drawn the life from the downtown core. The flight of businesses from downtown out to the strip malls has deprived the city of pedestrian traffic, resulting in a “ghost town.” This has left a frightening neighborhood, where danger lurks in the empty streets. Having been personally and emotionally touched by the murder of a young child wandering in daylight alone on one of the city’s desolate streets, this proposal has much meaning to me and to any humane person. Under the watchful eyes of vendors, store clerks, passersby, and tourists on the streets, our children would be much safer. Our streets need to be more perceptive.

Renowned architect, Peter Eisenman gave a speech on September 14, 2005 at Cornell University titled, “Architecture Matters.” He declared that we must understand buildings from the inside before we truly can see its entirety from the outside. In addition to understanding buildings, this applies to cities as well. In the early 1900’s Geneva’s children grew and played in relative safety as housing and population expanded, with buildings in a picturesque embrace of the northern tip of glacier-formed Seneca Lake. The city was lively with commerce and interaction between locals and soldiers stationed at the nearby military base.

In the 1950s, the state built highway 5 and 20, which allowed traffic to bypass downtown, and also divided the city center from the beautiful lakefront. The effects have been catastrophic. Still, Geneva’s architecture remains vibrant with stylistic diversity among buildings within the city’s center. Unfortunately, none of this is visible from the highway bypass. The bypass has choked off the economic life of downtown, isolating it from the lakefront, which shows only the backsides of buildings in the downtown area.

Seen from the highway, the unattractive and deteriorating rear walls of buildings are hardly inviting to passing motorists. Consequently, businesses do not want to be located where people are not abundant, and have chosen to relocate to the city outskirts in the burgeoning strip malls. The desolate and boarded business windows in the city center provide no assurance that the children roaming unaccompanied on the sidewalk have anybody watching. They are alone and more danger lurks than ever before. Increased police patrols only underscore the dangers of the streets, worsening isolation, and costing much more for taxpayers without really improving the plight of downtown.

In recent years throughout the United States, an increasing number of city planning programs have sought to resolve similar highway problems, which have choked off downtown business, decimated pedestrian traffic in the city, and made “ghost towns” of their urban cores. However such city planning programs attempt to ameliorate the negative effects of such bypass highways without considering the children whose lives are most directly impacted by the depopulation of the downtown. In the more than four decades since Jane Jacobs published her influential work, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” in which she asserted that street life is a critical component within a “living city,” many people have begun opposing urban expressways and supporting new neighborhood design concepts. Even today, cities are still wrestling with solutions to these problems. Our city has the opportunity to meet the needs of the children, neighborhoods and economic communities. Geneva’s urban design problem points to the need for a public space in which people are drawn towards a city center, or series of centers, away from the highway.

In order to understand the design solutions to Geneva’s problems, one must take both the past and the future into account. To come up with a successful plan, it is crucial to recognize the unique character and history of our city. Geneva has been given the opportunity by the state of New York to take control of the highway bypass. Currently neglected roads through the city center will be rebuilt to better handle the truck traffic. Traffic will be diverted to these revamped urban roads and these centralized streets will replace the highway bypass. The increased traffic will help to revitalize the downtown business and repopulate the city streets. This solution for our city is in the hands of the city council and urban planning committees.

Geneva will restore the lakefront, removing fill used for the highway bypass, forming a cove on the west side of Geneva’s Seneca Lakefront. In place of the old highway, a city center will form at this new lakefront site, focusing on education. Such plans for this area will include a library, art, science, and historical museums, providing a more direct connection to the nearby colleges and the city. These facilities will improve the lives of the children by providing places where they will attend functional events, and keeping them off the streets. The enhanced street traffic to and from these facilities and downtown businesses will strengthen the community by improving safety and visibility.

Nearby, fill removed to recreate Geneva’s waterfront will be used to create a second lakefront site for cultural experimentation. The innovative forms and topography of this reclaimed land will animate a very energetic urban space, encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit of rapid development, and attract curious people to the new cultural hotspot. This second node, located on the reclaimed land, will be a showcase for architectural distinction in Geneva. Walkways connecting the parks will allow pedestrians to travel between them along the waterfront, to experience the visual diversity of shops and upscale lakefront housing. Geneva will become the San Francisco of the East.

The removal of the highway bypass and these two land-water interactions will serve as a channel for reconnecting the city to the lake and to its history. The elevation changes are gradual and so some beautiful lakefront properties following the topography would be sold to private homeowners at high prices, and also to businesses that will want to rejoin the city once the highway’s traffic is redirected into the city center. Away from the water’s edge, at the newly formed cove, urban renewal will be essentially mixed income housing. This affordable housing will accommodate families who want their children to grow up in a safe urban neighborhood, and echo the forms of housing along the lake. Between these two new lakefront centers, urban street life will become essential and inseparable from the city, as many people will want to walk such a well-designed route, and venture into the business center. A bridge for the railroad which follows the terrain and landforms at the cove, will be constructed to symbolize the union of water, and land, and people.

The revitalized city would grow outward along axes radiating out from each of the new lakefront centers. Key buildings such as public schools, police stations, hospitals, and other government offices could be built along these new axes, mixing public and private space without being over-determined. The design will encourage a directional flow through the harbor, parks, businesses, out to the colleges, and up towards Park Place Hill with stairs recalling the Capitoline Hill’s directional stairs by Michelangelo, referring to the Italian immigration prominent in Geneva’s history. In designing the key buildings it will be important to invite well known architects from throughout the world whose innovative designs and points of view will promote tourism, business, as well as improving visibility in the streets.

While many urban parks built years ago have been based on the principle that bigger and more spacious is better, I feel that in the case of Geneva, vast, open areas would reinstate the existing problem of emptiness and danger for the children. Instead, Geneva needs clutter in their parks. If there is nothing happening, then the parks will be deserted. The way to make the parks utilized is to place several small parks around the city so that neighborhoods are drawn to them like magnets. With such a dynamic layout, the children will be able to get what they want out of the park, which can vary from day to day. Sometimes children want to sit, read, and watch, other times they may feel like exploring nature, and other times they may want to try to fly a kite, but there will always be people around to ensure their safety.

The costs for such an undertaking will be great, but will be less than the expenses that have been incurred in the past, and will be offset by the benefits that will result for years to come. The influx of new businesses will provide jobs for those without transportation, which in turn will boost Geneva’s GDP. The improved tax base will pay for the land reclamations in the long run. Chicago’s Millennium Park provides an instructive financial model. That project cost four hundred and fifty million dollars, half of which was raised through tax increment financing, and the other half was raised through fundraising. Realistically, when Geneva creates programs that pay for themselves, it will be learning a lesson from the Mayor of Chicago, and our children will be saved.

The new hubs of urban life will renew the vibrancy that once existed in Geneva. As businesses reenter the city and museums and library programs enrich our lives, the life and health of our city will be restored. Tourists and pedestrians will be abundant as the booming harbor, historical architecture, and the streets receive them into the city. A safer environment of shops, parks, and the life in the city’s streets will create a safer environment built upon an awareness of visibility. The streets will not only receive our visitors, but also perceive our children and preserve them in safety and security.

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