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There's a new kind of irreverence being paraded on Broadway these days. To see it and believe it, you have to adjust your eyes away from the colossal perfume and underwear billboards flashing nubility from on high. The unthinkable is happening down on the street in what used to be a traffic lane. Somebody is sitting in a chair. Somebody else is lounging on a bench. Where cars once dominated, there are people strolling along the road. It's consumption of the new delicious: walkable, rideable, lounge-able public space.

The taxi drivers hate it, naturally. But something of a revolution has been ignited in Manhattan. Broadway is getting a second chance as the main street that matters, that deserves to be honoured, seen and experienced. The change is happening on the streets in midtown and further north, on the fringes of Harlem where a major new student arts centre being built by Barnard College is turning a suave, open face to a street that was once shunned - specifically, fortified against.

In midtown, large planted pots have split Broadway in half: one half for cars, the other for people. Check it out: The car no longer gets to be king. The pedestrian-first program, launched one fine weekend in May, had the weather going for it. The city - its residents and tourists - were giddy as they paraded down the middle of the street enjoying the new freedoms and public amenities from 42nd to 47th Street, and from 35th to 33rd Street. So, I was curious to see how it was working in December during a trip to New York last week. Not even the winter could repress the crowd in the street. Though the space is rough and temporary-looking, a group of hip-hop dancers, including a convincing Michael Jackson look-alike, attracts a large, enthusiastic crowd. In front of the dazzling light display of Macy's front entrance on Broadway, dozens of café tables on the street are occupied by people sitting around in the evening. It's not about consuming food or drink. There are no waiters. It's simply people indulging in the public art of conversation.

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In the coming weeks, Mayor Michael Bloomberg will review the Broadway experiment. If he likes what he sees, the city will commission a permanent design to be constructed for the space. And, how could he not endorse it fully? Now that it's been experienced and embraced by the public, there's no turning back to the old, road-hogging automobile culture of the street.

The pedestrianization of Broadway at Times Square is part of a massive initiative that has affected 50 acres throughout New York City. Janette Sadik-Khan, appointed NYC's Commissioner of the Department of Transportation (DOT) in 2007, is driving the change hard and fast to satisfy Bloomberg's mission to dramatically reduce the city's carbon footprint. "I've been a New Yorker for more than 30 years and there's nothing more satisfying than contributing to a better city," she says, during our meeting at her Lower Manhattan office. That's an interesting piece of motherhood, but here's what else she says that actually astounds me: "Eight-five per cent of the public space in New York is taken up by roads. Roads are our most valuable space."

A decade ago, these words would have fallen on deaf ears. But, Sadik-Khan has done her homework. She commissioned the Danish guru of public space, Jan Gehl, to study the quality of the New York public realm. In their report, the Gehl team concluded that buildings on Broadway were often covered in scaffolding, making them inaccessible to shoppers. The uncomfortable crowding on the sidewalks meant café culture was nearly impossible; remarkably, there were only four cafés in one several-block stretch.

Not long ago, roads were thought of as grey, utility corridors designed to move cars as fast as possible from point A to B. In New York, the paradigm shift has occurred. Roads are being reconsidered as long, linear parks. Which explains why the transportation commissioner is no longer talking about cars but about people. Besides the changes to Broadway, small plazas are being built and bike lanes are being protected throughout the city's midtown. A median with lush plantings has been inserted in the middle of Carlton Avenue in Brooklyn, transforming a speedway into a neighbourhood-scaled street. Traffic calming has been introduced on many streets. Sidewalks have been widened. In the past few years, as New York's privileging of pedestrians became the new reality, the number of traffic fatalities has dropped to the lowest in nearly 100 years, according to DOT.

Importantly, a comprehensive street-design manual, issued this year, details a series of pre-approved materials for architects and urban designers so that upgrading sidewalks and even streets can be efficiently accomplished. This is the kind of information and fast-tracking process that most cities in North America lack. In New York, architects working in a Landmark district will know that the bluestone flags are preferred, or that hexagonal asphalt pavers are recommended for sidewalks adjacent to plazas. If a street bench is required, there is the Hoof Bench (circa 1870), the 1939 or 1964 World's Fair Bench, or the contemporary option: the Parc Vue bench.

Enhancing the connection between people and their cities cannot be accomplished, of course, by merely widening the sidewalks. Architecture plays a colossal role. A building can either talk to the neighbourhood, or shut it out. This is why the arrival of Barnard College's Diana Center, a multi-use arts facility lyrically designed by New York architects Weiss/Manfredi, is critical to the gracious reinvention of Broadway. Located at 117th and Broadway within the neighbourhood of Morningside Heights, the Diana Center has replaced a 1969 concrete brutalist student centre. Gone is the massive, windowless wall that once loomed over Broadway. Instead, Barnard College, a liberal-arts college for women, has decided to engage Broadway with a seven-storey, highly transparent building that establishes visual and psychological alignments with the neighbourhood.

The gesture recalls the embrace of the public realm further south at Times Square. The Diana Center's externally acid-etched panes of glass, provided by the Canadian company Goldray Industries, glow as if three-dimensional. They're tinted the colour of terracotta on the inside and outside - similar to the masonry buildings next door. It's possible from the south lobby to look several storeys up to glimpse a dining hall, study room and, on the top floor, architecture studios. Visitors can have direct access to the Diana Center off Broadway and, indeed, can walk into an elegant, oval-shaped events room by simply opening a door. What's more, the building's rooftop is to be extensively planted by students enrolled in environmental studies. Looking out from the rooftop with Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, two things become obvious. First, the city is the ultimate classroom. Second, Columbia University, located across the street from Barnard College, is as fortified behind walls and gates as it was when first built more than a century ago. "When Columbia was conceived, there was a reason for its fortification to protect the campus precinct," says Weiss. "As time has gone on, you're either building on that history or changing it. Barnard was ready to change that history by thinking about how this building might present differently to Broadway."

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Of course, New York is a city of risk takers. With its luminous new Diana Center open to Broadway, Barnard College opens a window onto its campus. Mayor Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan are taking the same kind of gamble, betting on a more civilized future for New York. The power of the people is being heard and expressed on the streets. That's why Broadway is buzzing all over again.

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