Early on I learned that when people said to me that Bryant Park looked great, what they actually meant was “Wow, the lawn is really green.” I even got a letter once from the managing editor of the New York Times complimenting us on how good the lawn looked, and asking if I would come out to Long Island to give him a hand with his yard. There is no getting around that nothing communicates to folks that a public space is well-managed and under social control better than a verdant, well-kept lawn. It may be high maintenance and not ecologically correct, but it is what is. People want to look at, sit on, play on and LIE on a beautiful carpet of grass. And getting to a great lawn isn’t easy. At the same time, keeping people off the grass sends exactly the wrong message – you want the lawn to be open to use as often as possible. This signals that the space is somewhere that people are invited in and welcome to use. Continue reading
The American Planning Association (APA) New York City Chapter recently hosted an event entitled “Small, Medium and Large: How Main Street Management by BID’s Affect Different Size Neighborhoods!” The event was organized in response to the Crain’s article about BIDs that was published last fall – about which I wrote at the time (http://www.theplacemaster.com/2016/09/26/in-defense-of-bids/). On the panel were a city representative and four BID managers – three of them from smaller BIDs.
I attended and felt old (and was the oldest person in the room!). The BID world has changed a lot in the last twenty-five years. When I started working for the midtown Manhattan BIDs, there were a grand total of around ten BIDs. Today there are over seventy. While the first few BIDs were of relatively modest capacity, the trend at the time was to take the concept of downtown management organizations onto a larger scale. New organizations of with substantial resources were being established in the most-dense commercial areas. Now the trend is for the proliferation of small organizations with limited staffs and funds of under $500,000 – which, according to the presentation at the event is about the current mean BID size. In the mid-90’s, since there were fewer than a dozen BIDs and half of those were the of BIDs with budgets over $5 million (which remain the same group), the BID world in New York was all about those larger organizations: Grand Central (GCP), 34th Street, Bryant Park, Times Square and the Downtown Alliance. Continue reading
Over the last fifty years a range of economic development agencies, departments and entities have been created around the country. Their goals have primarily something to do with retaining and attracting businesses to a particular place in order to have more jobs in that place. While ideally those would be new jobs, created out of new ventures and entrepreneurship, for the most part they are about moving existing jobs from one jurisdiction to another. The most powerful tool most economic developers have are government subsidies – reduced taxes, government-owned property offered at a discount, cash grants and tax-exempt borrowing rates. But seldom to never is it possible to pinpoint what actually creates new businesses and jobs – actual economic expansion. Even in the best cases, economic development is usually a zero/sum game. Where a business in one place expands it is because it is, at best, taking customers from another firm in another city, another state or another country. We don’t have a firm understanding of where entirely new jobs and economic value come from.
Government also attempts to improve a local economy by moving a government function, and therefore government employees, to a particular place. On the biggest scale this could be a military base. In an urban setting it could be a large government office. In Jamaica, I was able to observe the impact on the community of the results effective lobbying efforts to attract a college, a one million square foot government office building, a court and a laboratory and office space to the community. One thing that I noticed was that government office workers rarely left their offices to eat or shop. Most employees came from outside the community. With electronic record keeping, the largest governmental office employer halved its workforce leaving a massive structure mostly filled with file cabinets. The multiplier effect from such a tremendously expensive project didn’t seem very powerful. When the jobs left, there was a vacuum. There was no real expansion to local economic activity. Only the college seemed economically connected to the community. Continue reading
A serious challenge facing public space managers is people living in and engaging in antisocial behavior in public spaces. This seems to be a particular issue for cities on the west coast, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Eugene, Oregon. The situation is raising a raft of crosscutting concerns about individual rights, the causes of economic disadvantage in our country today, the sensitivities of upper-middle class urbanites and our society’s stubborn unwillingness to assist those suffering from serious mental health issues, including substance abuse. Conflicting interests and ideologies play out in policy discussions about how public spaces are governed and managed.
Successful restoration of social control to public spaces is not about enforcement. The apparent decline in the quality of the public space experience in the second half of the 20th century was driven almost entirely by how safe people felt they were on sidewalks and in parks. Many felt that the public realm of shared space was out of social control, and as a result, they feared for their physical safety. Some of this fear may have been exaggerated or even incorrect, driven by race- and class-bound assumptions and stereotypes. But even if the threat was not real, the perception of it kept people from visiting, working, shopping in or investing in public places perceived to be unsafe. Much of the success of improved public spaces over the last two decades has been based on improving those perceptions – making public spaces feel safer by employing “broken-windows” management (discouraging low-level disorder and providing high-quality, detail-oriented maintenance) and placemaking practice. Continue reading
The September 19th issue of Crain’s New York Business carries a broadside attack on business improvement districts on its front page, featuring a photo of Dan Biederman the founder of Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (“BPRC”), Grand Central Partnership (“GCP”) and 34th Street Partnership (http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20160918/REAL_ESTATE/160919896/shaping-a-neighborhoods-destiny-from-the-shadows). The article rehashes a range of charges that were the subject of dozens of newspaper articles published in the 1990s, as well as a half-dozen government inquiries, including those by the New York City Council, the City’s Comptroller’s office, the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a forensic audit commissioned by City Hall. Given New York’s tabloid culture, many casual (and even some well-informed) observers assumed that where there was journalist smoke, there must be fire, but in fact, the BIDs under Biederman’s direction were shown to be models of good not-for-profit governance and transparency, and none of the negative policy arguments have been shown to be of any merit. BIDs work, and Biederman’s BIDs work better than most. They provide essential services without compromise of any important democratic principles. (BIDs Really Work, City Journal, Spring 1996 http://www.city-journal.org/html/bids-really-work-11853.html).
In fact, I would argue that the downtown renaissance, which began in the early 1990s, was catalyzed by the work of Biederman’s BIDs (of which I was a staff member), and particularly by the success of BPRC. The reopening of Bryant Park in 1992, following philosophies articulated by William H Whyte and George Kelling, demonstrated that social control could be reasserted in the urban core. GCP created “clean and safe” programs for the blocks around Grand Central Terminal in a successful effort to reverse what was feared to be the hollowing out of the city center and its occupation by the violent and homeless. Bryant Park and GCP proved that through high quality maintenance (“fixing broken windows”) and active programming, public spaces previously perceived as being dangerous could be made inviting and attractive. Cities all over the country, from Detroit to Houston, and around the world copied and continue to copy the model. Continue reading
Nothing gives you more bang for your public space improvement dollars than plants. When people ask me what the one thing they should do to improve public space, my response is always to institute a horticulture program. Improving the perception of public space is about providing visual cues to users that the space is under social control. Colorful, well-maintained plants send that message in a number of ways. The physical material isn’t very expensive and the skills to maintain horticultural materials are widespread and easy to find. Putting plantings in places where people don’t expect them sends a powerful message.
I knew absolutely nothing about gardening when I went to work for Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in 1991. My father grew some terrific tomatoes in the yard when I was growing up (it was New Jersey, after all) and for some reason there was always mint growing outside the backdoor of the house that we put into iced tea. And that was the sum total of my agricultural experience when I arrived in the Park. From that day to this, I haven’t had a personal garden or even a yard. Continue reading
The details matter!
There are two widely held mindsets that often stand in the way of public space improvements. The first is the assertion of objections to proposed actions or changes based on hypothetical predictions of negative outcomes drawn from assumptions that aren’t based on actual observations or data. An example is the automatic reaction to proposals for public seating — that they will become a magnet anti-social behavior – particularly for the homeless. This is something that “everyone seems to know,” that, actual experience with public space demonstrates isn’t necessarily the case.
The second is that successful public space or economic revitalization strategies that work in one place aren’t transferable to another place – because one of the two places is somehow unique or different. I have been told that the success of Bryant Park is unique because it is in Manhattan, or that it is in midtown – and therefore programs and strategies that worked there won’t work in other places. In fact, before Bryant Park reopened, we were told that many of our ideas were impossible because of the park’s unique location. Moveable chairs, outdoor movies, elaborately planted gardens all wouldn’t work at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street, we were often told. Now all of those strategies seem obvious successes.
But nothing about Bryant Park’s success was inevitable, and a number of the elements of the park’s redesign were failures (although none of those were among the recommendations made by William H. (“Holly”) Whyte in his 1979 analysis of the park’s problems). The important take-away from this is that these failures were quickly identified and new programmatic or design solutions were created to address them. At the center of great public space management is an iterative process of observing how real people use public space and adjusting strategies to deal with issues as they arise. It is difficult to admit failure, particularly in a political environment, which comes with the territory of public space. But successful public space managers have to be nimble, identify problems and attempt new solutions until they get it right – and be willing to recognize what isn’t working. Continue reading
Most/all public spaces can be made to work with good programming and maintenance. Below are some images and suggestions as to how to improve this one.