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Empty Chairs, Empty Tables

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books and culture

Empty Chairs, Empty Tables

What pre-pandemic urban-design books can teach us about post-pandemic city living November 13, 2020
Covid-19
Arts and Culture
Cities

Learning from Bryant Park: Revitalizing Cities, Towns and Public Spaces, by Andrew M. Manshel (Rutgers University Press, 293 pp. $29.95)

Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City, by Pablo Sendra and Richard Sennett (Verso, 154 pp, $24.95)

Midtown Manhattan’s popular and busy Bryant Park is effortless and casual for its eclectic visitors—but nothing about planning, executing, and maintaining this successful public space was or is effortless and casual, as Andrew M. Manshel’s book, Learning from Bryant Park, makes clear. A second book, Designing Disorder, by urban-design experts Pablo Sendra and Richard Sennett, offers architectural and design theory to back up public-space management, some of which complements Manshel’s thesis, some of which contradicts it.

For 20 years now, Bryant Park has been shorthand for New York’s mid-nineties resurgence. Manshel served during that rebuilding period as associate director and counsel of what is now called the Bryant Park Corporation, the nonprofit firm that rebuilt the park three decades ago on the city’s behalf. He notes that “for nearly its entire history” over a century and a half, “Bryant Park had been an unsuccessful public space.” By the late seventies, drug dealers had taken over much of the park, while office workers and nearby CUNY graduate students shunned it.

Changing the ten-acre park’s fate took more than a decade. In 1979, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund commissioned a report from urbanist William (Holly) Whyte on how to fix it up. Whyte acknowledged that the park’s drug dealers were a blight, but they were the symptom, he argued, not the underlying problem: “under-use.”

The park’s original design as an urban sanctuary had backfired. Raised high above Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street, with steep, narrow entranceways, walls, an iron fence, and overgrown hedges, the park was too cut off from the surrounding city to attract visitors. It was dilapidated, too; the bathrooms and fountain had long been broken. Bryant Park closed in 1988 for a four-year redesign, part of the adjacent New York Public Library’s expansion of storage space underneath the park. New, wider, more gently sloped stairs invited the public in. New paths created more foot traffic so that people didn’t feel isolated reading alone.

More important than physical improvements, though, says Manshel, was “intensive programming and high-quality maintenance.” Landscaping, including carefully tended flower and plant beds, gives visitors a visual cue that someone cares about the space. Landscapers and maintenance workers themselves add a feeling of security. Movable lightweight tables and chairs allow for patrons to exercise some control over how they use the area. A predictable and relentless schedule of events, from juggling shows to movie nights, gives people a reason to keep coming back, and engages visitors during the colder, darker months. Attended restrooms—known for their fresh flowers—further advertise that this is a safe place.

These good uses, as Manshel puts it, drive out bad uses. Indeed, it was as much positive public activity as it was newly assertive policing that pushed the drug dealers out of Bryant Park during the nineties. After the park’s reopening, criminals found that the park’s schedule of events, and the new eyes the events brought, made it an inhospitable place to do business. Just a few blocks west, a lack of consistent programming in Times Square allowed scruffy counterfeit Elmos and Minnie Mouses to “entertain” visitors.

Manshel, now assistant commissioner for New York City’s information-technology department, doesn’t shy from invoking Broken Windows policing, as many government officials do today. But he makes clear that most Broken Windows policing isn’t policing in the traditional sense. People did steal Bryant Park’s plantings, particularly around Mother’s Day, but the park replaced them, before people can sense any disorder. “Using enforcement as the sole means of reestablishing order in public space takes enormous resources to be effective and does not create a long-term solution,” he writes. He takes the same approach to homelessness, advocating an intense social-services outreach effort to convince adult male vagrants that it is worth it to accept help.

All this activity costs money and time. “A public space revitalization project must have adequate operating resources from day one . . . this is non-negotiable,” Manshel says. Many well-designed public spaces fail because no one manages them. Something as straightforward as replacing ugly, battered plastic newspaper stands on the streets surrounding Bryant Park with a well-designed, uniform replacement took five years and multiple layers of inter-government and private-sector cooperation.

Bryant Park can pay for these amenities because of its unique management structure. The BPC, which runs the park under long-term contract with New York City, receives a “business improvement district” tax levy on nearby properties to fund the private-sector workers who staff the park. Manshel is a BID evangelist. He says, convincingly, that only a BID, and not a public parks department, could devote the disproportionate resources a central-city park needs to continue to attract visitors.

He concedes that BIDs, too, can fail, whether because of lack of resources or from being constrained, by a supervising government, from risk management. Bryant Park and its related BID have themselves failed at many things, Manshel admits, from classical music concerts that no one attended to fancy cement planters that became magnets for dents and dirt. The important thing is to fail small, so that mistakes are fixable. BIDs can’t insulate themselves from politics, either. For years, Bryant Park took criticism for allowing Fashion Week shows to take over the lawn. But it was nineties-era mayor Rudy Giuliani who overrode the park’s own objections to require this use.

What Bryant Park did for its surrounding midtown neighborhood—leverage tens of millions of dollars in public investment into at least $5 billion in real-estate development on nearby blocks—can work elsewhere, including in less wealthy, less dense areas, Manshel believes, if project sponsors understand the need for continuous maintenance and programming. Filling any voids, too, is important. At the Greater Jamaica Development Corp. in southeast Queens, where Manshel served as executive vice president after his Bryant Park tenure, he and his colleagues invited artists to use empty commercial real estate, making that real estate, in turn, more attractive to potential investors.

Multiple small-scale projects, if too far away from one another, won’t succeed in changing the public’s perception of a neighborhood; nor will flowerbeds that a BID installs, only to fail to maintain. But commercial activity in a public space “can be a great tool.” The BPC spent years attracting an operator for the Bryant Park Grill, the park’s semi-outdoor restaurant, because the presence of people eating sit-down meals adds to the park’s sense of busyness and purpose (and provides revenue as well), without shutting anyone who can’t afford a formal meal out of the park’s well-tended public space.

The authors of Designing Disorder echo some of what Manshel contends. Sendra, a London-based urban designer, and Sennett, the sociologist famous for his 1970 The Uses of Disorder, don’t use the term “disorder” to mean the eighties-style sordidness that Bryant Park’s new managers sought to end. Rather, they mean that a good public space should offer the possibility of surprise. Sennett and Sendra contrast the idea of the “brittle city” or the “closed city” with the idea of the “open city”: a place that can change as its residents’, visitors’, and workers’ needs change. A building, street, or neighborhood should always remain “incomplete,” so that it can adapt with the times. “Architects and planners should design for indeterminacy,” they suggest.

Designing Disorder and Learning from Bryant Park teach similar lessons, for example, about walls versus borders. Sendra and Sennett counsel against hard barriers that wall off streets from buildings and neighborhoods from one another, just as steep stairs once cut off Bryant Park. Instead, they counsel porous borders to combat hard walls. In the sixties, a West London community group took over the space below a new highway, Westway, as a playground, creating a well-used space where the city had planned a parking lot. More recently, in East London’s Gillett Square, formerly an uninviting parking lot, new, cheap kiosks and affordable workspaces have encouraged newcomers to set up businesses, knitting once-separated streets together. A city with a poorer neighborhood cut off from a wealthier one by a wide avenue could encourage the creation of an ethnic-food market along this avenue one day a week to bridge the divide.

Sendra and Sennett counsel the creation of an “infrastructural carpet,” such as an underground electrical system that can provide ready outlets for would-be users of a public space to put on a movie or concert. Bryant Park once had just two electrical outlets, Manshel writes, before BPC made exactly the investment that Sendra and Sennett suggest. Designing Disorder, too, suggests that a local government or other public-space sponsor could offer communal kitchen space for community groups to use in providing offerings for visitors, a more casual version of the Bryant Park Grill. Finally, both books favor incremental, not radical, change: “most urban interventions are not projects that start from a blank canvas; they build on existing urban and social conditions,” Sendra and Sennett maintain.

Where Learning from Bryant Park and Designing Disorder part is on their respective authors’ approach to self-governance. Sendra and Sennett imply that with good design, public spaces will largely take care of themselves. They envision “unregulated public space where people learn how to tolerate difference, which encourages social interaction and the emergence of unplanned activities.” Sendra points to the 15-M movement in Madrid, through which the “occupation of a central square in every city in Spain on 15 May 2011” turned into a potent political force, showing the power of public space to shape democracy and governance. In suggesting electrical outlets for outdoor movies or plumbing for kitchens to serve public spaces, Sennett and Sendra never quite say who should decide which group will get to show a movie, and what happens if other groups object. These conflicts will apparently resolve themselves.

Yet even well-designed, well-maintained public spaces don’t regulate themselves. In New York, earlier this year, a protest movement in City Hall Park quickly became a homeless encampment, with rampant drug use and sexual assault. Today, well-designed, formerly well-used spaces, such as Zuccotti Park downtown and Columbus Circle Park uptown, are now closed to the public (part-time, in the case of Zuccotti Park), because of the risk of long-term occupation. Left to regulate itself, Bryant Park’s lawn would quickly turn brown, and its flowers would wither, leaving behind dead space. Sennett and Sendra largely offer concepts and vignettes, but in contrast with Manshel, they don’t provide a blueprint for long-term funding and commitment.

Both books, published before the pandemic, are worth reading as a guide to post-pandemic urban-space management. Sennett and Sendra are right in some ways. Public spaces should be adaptable to new uses. New York’s Hudson Yards, for example, previously relied on hyper-tourism to lure visitors to its Vessel sculpture and its outdoor pocket park. To remain relevant, it will now have to offer something else to a different, and mostly local audience. In modest ways, it is already succeeding: the outdoor tables staffed by the complex’s Little Spain market are always busy, and, in mid-fall, its managers put out movable deck chairs to let locals watch football, for free, on a big-screen TV behind the Vessel—a use likely uncontemplated before the pandemic severed global tourist traffic. The problem with Hudson Yards isn’t its own space management, but how its highly subsidized development has drawn office and retail tenants away from the city’s spine. Rockefeller Center, too, has been adapting its outdoor space to what will likely be a long-term decline in foot traffic, spacing out large, round wooden tables in its public plaza all summer and fall to fill what would otherwise be empty spaces in an era of social distancing.

But Manshel is right, too. In an era of heightened anxiety, people will be looking for signs of order, predictability, and familiarity to make them feel comfortable in a city vastly different from the New York of 2019. One of the first entities to understand this was the New York City subway system. The teams of orange-jacket cleaners who greet passengers at each line’s terminus now aren’t just there to clean trains before they start each route (though that helps). They’re there to show riders that someone cares about their experience and is looking out for them. They are the equivalent of Bryant Park’s flowerbed gardeners—and New York needs more of them than ever.

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

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