Thomas Hart Benton, Instruments of Power from America Today, 1930–31 / The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Providing a great experience to visitors to public spaces is something we know that Disney gets for its parks. It’s also essential to the hotel business. Even museums and other cultural institutions are focused today on being responsive to visitor needs – to providing great customer service. They do this because the visitor experience is essential to generating repeat visits and building brand loyalty. At not-for-profit institutions treating visitors well is also part of their development strategy – happy visitors are more likely to become future donors.
In the world of public space management we don’t talk much about the visitor experience – but we should. Most public spaces are operated by government agencies, and the incentive systems of government bureaucracies are oriented towards different goals – minimizing costs, preventing graft and corruption, minimizing risk and avoiding political problems (analogous in some ways to good consumer relations, but not exactly the same thing). Those goals can often be in conflict with providing park visitors with a positive time. Perhaps those of us in downtown revitalization and public space management ought to think a little more about how the individual visitor is treated in our spaces. Continue reading →
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 offthe 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 →
1894 Bryant Park before the physical changes. Looking north.
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 →
A view of the planting beds — on the south, shady side.
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 →
Daniel Burnham was wrong. I learned this from making a $600,000 decision that turned out to be a mistake. Placemaking/tactical urbanism is an iterative process. You need to learn as you go. It is essential to effectively improving public space to take risks – but those risks ought to be small, manageable ones; ones you can back out of with minimal damage. When ideas don’t work out, for example when they aren’t effective in drawing people into the space, then you need to bite the proverbial bullet and reverse course. That is an important part of listening to the community – admitting that what you’ve done isn’t working when they are voting with their feet (in the wrong direction).
At Grand Central and 34th Street Partnerships in the 90’s we created a sidewalk horticulture program. Our President, Dan Biederman, came back from a vacation France where he saw sidewalk planters and hanging baskets and decided that replicating that experience in Midtown Manhattan would improve the streetscape and the pedestrian experience. Our horticultural team, led by Lyndon B. Miller had already scored a great success with the perennial gardens in Bryant Park. So we went to work trying to figure out how to extend that success to the streets around Grand Central and Penn Station. We were furrowing new ground here because, while some smaller American towns had hanging baskets (like Cooperstown, N.Y.), we weren’t aware of any large city where baskets and planters had been implemented on a large-scale. It was several years before Mayor Daley (who sent his staff to spend time with us in Bryant Park to take notes) implemented the spectacular Chicago State Street streetscape redesign, with its beautiful horticulture program – which eventually expanded all over the Loop. Continue reading →