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Central Park Safety

New York's storied park has had its share of tragedies. Read how alumnus Matt Falber is taking cues from its original design to keep pedestrians and bicyclists safe.

Arts & Culture  |  Jul 27, 2015  |  By Catherine Arnold

Matthew Falber, ’06 BA University Studies, is looking to Central Park's past to help deal with today's issues. (Photo by Matthew Rakola)

In New York's Central Park, Matthew Falber stands before the chiaroscuro of green and blue on a park map. A high and intricate twitter of birdsong laces the air. It throbs, swoops, and fills the space of trees, plants, foot traffic, paths, and the sometimes hidden roads.

Falber, '06 BA University Studies, is discussing the 843-acre park's original 1857 design by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, which emphasized nature over architecture. Then he notes the car-forward changes that urban designer Robert Moses began making in the 1930s, including the pedestrian paths that cross roads to reach those and other high-traffic sites.

Falber heads Central Park Sunset Tours, which walks people through the history, urban design, and romance of the storied park. He was poised, therefore, to notice its tragedies as well -- and to think about their causes. In August and September 2014, two people walking through the park were struck by cyclists and killed in separate instances.

The park's original design, Falber knew, used arches to separate walking and carriage traffic, ensuring peaceful travel for both. While many of those arches still exist, Moses' mid-century plans destroyed three of them, burying one beneath the park's surface. It also introduced crosswalks, which have left pedestrians vulnerable to high-speed cyclists.

Falber wrote letters to government officials suggesting that lives could be saved if Central Park recreated the three destroyed arches at points of high traffic and rerouted footpaths to encourage use of the existing arches. After receiving positive replies, he founded the Central Park Arch Project, established its board, and launched a campaign to raise awareness.

Diversity of Interests

In New York, Falber has come full circle from his New Jersey birth, but he grew up in Wyoming, where he loved Yellowstone National Park best, he said. His university studies degree from UNLV reflects the wide range of interests -- including acting, urban planning, and history -- that are with him today.

He advises students and young graduates who may worry about where to focus their energies, to try different things. "It's cliche but you only get one life, you may as well take the time to find something that excites you," he said. "Just remember to commit to it once you find it and to focus your resume so that it highlights just the things that align with your chosen path."

Like many an aspiring actor, he headed to New York to audition but paid the bills as a commercial tour guide. Eventually, he found that suited him better than the actor's life and established his own tour company. He read extensively about the area's history and urban design, and his tours provided information that he hoped would allow visitors to walk away knowing more about the people who had helped create the city.

Now Falber devotes much of his time to working with three colleagues and local officials on plans for the park that could ensure greater safety for all. While his organization hopes that ideas found in the original plans will guide them, their goal isn't to restore the park; it must adapt to current times.

The Central Park Zoo and a playground now sit where two arches were once located. "We're not advocating the destruction of a beloved playground or shrinking the zoo," he said. "We are advocating the restoration of original park arches and pathways though.

Walking in Central Park, we see both high-traffic spots, where it's necessary to wait to cross the street, and ornate arches that allow us to pass safely and elegantly, with pleasing acoustics for conversations, underneath. Winterdale Arch, near 81st Street, was a key feature in curving Winter Drive; it was meant to unfold views of plants and trees representing the season to passengers on leisurely carriage rides. Falber would like to see a nearby path, which leads people to one of the park's most dangerous crosswalks, altered to encourage the use of the arch. "It's literally a left or right decision right now when (pedestrians) enter the park at 81st Street," he said. "If you walk left, you cross safely. If you walk right, on the path Moses added, you thrust yourself into a busy crosswalk."

To fund the costs of a masterplan and renderings for their vision, Falber's group is planning a Kickstarter campaign. They've accomplished a lot in a short time, but it's still not quick enough for Falber. "All projects like this take time, support, and money," he said. "I'm a very fast-moving person, and I have to balance that with good long-term execution. People worked from 1999 to 2009 to see a former elevated train in New York City become one of our most novel parks, The Highline. I try to remember how long that took whenever I'm feeling discouraged or don't know what the next step should be."