The importance of small ideas to urban revitalization isn’t widely appreciated. Particularly in the most recent real-estate cycle, many planners, design professionals, and developers produced grand schemes instead. But profound change is more likely to result from a deeply considered idea that alters an essential component of an urban environment than from an elaborate master plan that requires abundant resources and considerable political capital. While some large-scale plans, like Rockefeller Center, are successful, most become impersonal, overbearing failures—or, even more often, are stillborn, the victims of the long process of assemblage, environmental remediation, community participation, zoning adoption, and the securing of financing.
For a striking example of the power of an apparently small idea, consider urbanist William H. Whyte’s suggestion that in public spaces, people prefer movable chairs to fixed seating. People like to control their own space, and movable chairs allow them to do just that. Movable chairs let people face one another and interact in different ways, not just the ones that landscape designers have in mind when they arrange fixed furniture. Having chairs scattered around sends a message of trust that people won’t steal them. And chairs’ historical associations convey the sense that a space is civilized and of high quality—like the European areas that use them, such as the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.
Whyte first suggested movable chairs for Paley Park, a small park in Manhattan’s high-end Plaza District. After their success there, he recommended that they be a key element in the restoration of squalid Bryant Park during the 1980s. Some regarded that suggestion as naive; failing to tie down chairs amid the bustle and grunge of 42nd Street would surely spell trouble, they said. But the chairs—the same model used in the Luxembourg Gardens—were a key element of Bryant Park’s hugely successful reintroduction in 1992. One now finds movable chairs in public spaces across the country; in fact, many designers have chosen the same $30 chair that Bryant Park uses, apparently finding in its design something essential to its success. Most recently, movable chairs can be found in the recaptured pedestrian spaces in Times Square, though they are slightly different models.
Another small idea that produced an outsize effect in improving public places was the high-quality trash-can design employed in 1993 by the Grand Central and 34th Street Business Improvement Districts, which were run by the same staff as the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation. The idea of a well-designed trash can was unusual at the time; the Gotham standard was made of battered metal mesh. But an attractive trash can sends a powerful message that public spaces are well maintained and under social control, and as a result of its successful implementation in midtown Manhattan, communities across the country and in Europe have adopted the very same design. Other widely emulated ideas that grew out of the work of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation and its affiliates include showing films in public spaces, using streetlamps that emit high-quality white light (as opposed to high-pressure sodium lamps’ yellow light), and planting gardens to soften streetscapes.
Campus Martius Park in Detroit is a dramatic example of how the Bryant Park model has been adopted elsewhere. Detroit is a museum of failed, expensive, large-scale urban fixes that were à la mode in planning circles at different times over the past half-century: a decrepit and underused people mover, the gigantic and isolated Renaissance Center, and the equally huge and isolated Comerica Park (sometimes derided as Comerica National Park), where the Detroit Tigers play. The stadium looks like a spaceship that descended on the city after the surrounding blocks were leveled and turned into parking lots. Campus Martius, by contrast, is Detroit’s liveliest and most humane public space. Based on Bryant Park, it is tremendously popular with pedestrians. The park includes movable chairs, a fountain, food concessions, regular arts programming, and high-quality horticulture.
Of course, urban planners are perfectly capable of ignoring the proven place-making techniques of the last 15 years. The park built atop Boston’s Big Dig, after the expenditure of billions of dollars, is a hot, forbidding wasteland on a spring day. There is nothing to draw visitors in: it contains limited, fixed seating, has no shade or water, and appears unprogrammed. While from a distance (and perhaps from an airplane) its design is attractive, from a pedestrian’s perspective it is cold and uninviting. When I visited this past spring, it was essentially empty, while adjacent attractions like the Quincy Market bustled with visitors.
Small changes are appealing for many reasons. They’re cheap, for one thing. Also, what works can be easily expanded, and what doesn’t work can be as easily terminated or altered. One successful food concession can become two; an unsuccessful stall selling local crafts can be replaced; a planter made from a material that discolors or chips can be replaced with a better one. Contrast that with grand schemes, which can attract broad opposition and be subject to complex political, logistical, and financial obstacles. Once an elaborate design has been committed to, backing away from it—or even altering it—becomes both politically and mechanically complicated. Further, planners have a limited capacity to predict how people will respond to their designs. The larger the project, the more likely unintended consequences become, and the more difficult it is to change course.
Above all, small ideas for revitalizing urban areas work, as the success of Bryant Park and its emulators has demonstrated. Why? Because, as Whyte (and Jane Jacobs as well) understood, people in public spaces respond to thousands of subtle visual and aural cues, and successful places manipulate these cues (often without premeditation) to provide familiar assurances of comfort and well-being. The cues prompt a person who encounters a new place to predict a positive experience there—above all, that he will be safe. The most important cues transmit a sense of order and social control. And the best new or restored spaces, like Bryant Park, Campus Martius, Discovery Green in Houston, and most recently the High Line park on Manhattan’s West Side, provide their patrons with the premonition of an enjoyable experience.
Those engaged in the work of downtown renewal and urban revitalization should always remember that truth. It will help them identify, and integrate into their projects, the helpful small ideas that can make cities more enjoyable places.