Public space experiments customary and ongoing in NYC

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While systematically observing public behavior, activities, and spaces, NYC continues to be a hotbed of urban experimentation.

Times square, the epicenter of the city’s crowd culture, has become a pedestrian mall for the summer.  The city (Mayor Bloomberg) has closed Broadway to automobile traffic from 42nd to 47th streets and provided dozens of bright green, pink, and blue lawn chairs in the street for public lounging.  I’ve been to Times Square before.  It’s the part of the city avoided by the residents of New York, occupied instead by hoards of tourists.  Yet, the opening of the streets to people is a refreshing new look at the physical environment.  It is finally possible to see and experience the square instead of bottlenecking through crowds on relatively narrow sidewalks, adjacent to fast-moving cabs and large busses.  This is a total reclaiming of the street.  I was lounging long enough for someone to approach me and ask where he could go to rent a chair (like it was the beach).  No sir, these are free to the public.  Some critics believe this very European experiment (think Picadilly Circus) will fail and clog automobile traffic in the city.  They anticipate a decline in business for shop owners and recall that pedestrian malls in the US have a track record of inactivity.  I find all of this hard to believe given that we are talking about a, or the, global hub of public space.  If anything, I think it might begin to attract those NYC residents who so carefully abstain from stepping foot in its chaos.

The methodology I am using to document new cities often hails from sociologist/urbanist William H. Whyte’s 1969 NYC Street Life Project.  He was the first researcher to film, analyze, and measure the use and ‘life’ of urban plazas throughout the city.  He “charted peak hours by hand and used time-lapse photography to illustrate the movement of people throughout the day.”  His findings revealed that there was a science to the way people moved, behaved, and occupied public space.  The results dictated a set of principles and practices, helped influenced future designs of built form and open space in the city.  He was a supporter of movable chairs, for example, so in that regard, he would have appreciated the comfort and freedom possible right now in Times Square.

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The much hyped and anticipated opening of the High Line occurred a week before my visit and is in many ways an experiment because it is only the first of three phases scheduled to open to the public in the next few years.  See more photos online (It is extremely photogenic.) and on my flickr photostream (link on the left).  As a destination and a link, it offers amazing and uniquely elevated views of the west side of Manhattan, the Hudson, and distant Jersey shores.  It seemingly exhausts all possible scenarios for sitting, lounging, loitering, and walking.  It is an incredible example of a piece of public architecture/infrastructure that has influenced the design of the surrounding environment – from buildings that span the width of its path, to similarly planted awnings on restaurants below.

For more public space experiments happening mostly in the US and headquartered here in NYC, check out the Project for Public Spaces.

The more time I spend in New York, the more I want to stay.  Maybe if I were here on a more permanent basis I wouldn’t have to field the question I’ve dealt with for most of my life:  “Where are you from, New York?”  Just sayin….

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