Does NYC need a pedestrian plaza?

Is the grand public-space experiment in New York City's Times Square at risk? Perhaps, according to this recent piece on City Lab. We asked a few of our authors to comment on the potential elimination of this pedestrian plaza in the city that never sleeps. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

James S. Russell

Disappearing the Desnudas

It’s desnudas versus New York City. 

Somehow shapely underclad women who’ve body-painted scanty tops have become a crisis in the city, requiring the demolition of plazas being built to make Times Square civilized.

The mayor and police commissioner overreacted, blaming the paving stones for this offensive (to some) innovation in the age-old art of the busker. To separate tourists and pedestrians from their cash, you gotta get a gimmick, as Ms. Mazeppa said in the musical “Gypsy.” And painted breasts certainly got everyone’s attention.

But the reaction is of a piece with America’s fear of public space. In other countries, a town square, or boulevardized street with wide sidewalks and cafés, invites conviviality as people stroll, take coffee, or hang out. In America, we assume that any public space that is not cordoned off for some “useful” purpose can only become a refuge for criminals, the homeless, and the mentally unstable. (In many suburbs, even sidewalks are looked on with suspicion. )  

The police commissioner has concluded that plazas—permitting louche idleness instead of puritanical destination-focused purposefulness—conjured the presence of nude women. The solution? “Removal” of the problem. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, but a common one, unfortunately.

The “problem” with public spaces is sometimes with the space, but mainly with our failure to gainfully employ people, who turn to public space to earn income. On Times Square, people push theater tickets, comedy clubs, tour busses. As cartoon characters, “naked” cowboys, and statues of liberty, they hustle tips from picture-taking tourists. Times Square is a buskerama. Which is absolutely in tune with its identity as the most commercial of public spaces. It would not be swarming with record millions if it was not fun. The allure is not the mall-style retail, but the mega-signage, which from time to time achieves dizzy heights of commercial nuttiness—but recently seems to have settled into a corporate coma.

James S. Russell - Disappearing the Desnudas

Actually New York City is a model in many ways for the management of public space. Intimate plazas have been created out of little more than flower pots and paint. They work, they are actively managed, and they’ve proven very popular.

The City’s administration has come to its senses and will not demolish the plazas, which have cost millions to install. They are essential because there are many more people in the square than the inadequate sidewalks can handle, and accommodating them is a safety issue. With the excruciatingly length of the plaza construction project, much of the square has been torn up for years, leaving bottlenecks that are inhumane and unsafe. 

A task force has been convened to address the desnudas, and sanity will probably prevail. (Though one idea, to cordon the desnudas, sounds even sillier than the designated prostitution zones found in Holland are.) 

There are many ways to manage this problem (on a recent balmy afternoon there was not a painted breast to be seen), but resort to heavy-handed policing or to removal of the “offending” space is the kind of answer that destroyed peoples’ faith in cities through much of the 20th century. 


Charles R. Wolfe

Why “I Think I Can” Needs NYC

In downtown Seattle last night, I saw the soft glow in the dark of Westlake Park’s evolution from a “little engine that could” to the real deal.  The evolution, you may ask?  A one-year experiment in private management of a public place, partially inspired by Bryant Park, a New York City example.  Yet this particular darkness said, in effect, worry not, for this is just a Friday night off for the Downtown Seattle Association/Metropolitan Improvement District management scheme.

Another New York City example has recently been at least a bit under siege.  Like Bryant Park, the conversion of Times Square to a pedestrian plaza has become a model for the American experience.  In civic discussions around the country, it is touted as proof of the possible, a domestic shining light of how every city can recreate places for people.  Who needs to cite to Mayor Jaime Lerner’s similar accomplishments in Curitiba, Brazil—or to evoke European forbears—when you have an American story for local consumption that easily translates to “why not here”?

Chuck R. Wolfe - Westlake Night

So, whether panhandling, or other tourist-oriented aversions drove (no pun intended) a late summer New York re-examination of the pedestrian concept, a “return to what was” for Times Square risks unintended consequences for the rest of us.  As Seattle’s Westlake example shows, we covet the emblems and icons of big cities that lead, and for many Americans, the lessons of New York ring truer than Las Ramblas of Barcelona ever will. 

If New York slides backward, so may also a multitude of “engines that could” who need the confidence that feeds the Little Engine’s immortal words, “I think I can”.


Galina Tachieva

Public Space in New York's Times Square

Pedestrian-only public spaces work very well in high-density environments, sometimes so well that they become gentrified and lose some or all of their initial appeal and character. In the case of Times Square, gentrification is ensued from the dominance of the panhandlers, unregulated vendors, and aggressively dressed women that are pushing out a portion of the users around Times Square that is a massive crowd of pedestrians. According to a pile of national and local news articles, the situation has been the subject of debates on many fronts in recent months that has resulted in a task-force plan developed by the NYC Mayor with support from other City authorities, Times Square business owners, advocates, and elected officials. This democratic effort is the essence of successful place-making. 
However, making great places in urban environments includes three main development tools: Design, Policy, and Management. There are simple and effective management instruments available that can mitigate some of the problems and a number of them are addressed in the Mayor’s task force plan. However, they need to be applied in a long-term perspective with more supportive measures to maintain Times Square’s iconic status without becoming a kitschy and unpleasant place. 
The street is the main public space in the American urban tradition. This is in contrast to the European emphasis on networks of plazas and squares. That is why it is a true miracle when a “plaza” or a “square” or any well-defined public space becomes a hot spot of conviviality, as is the case with Times Square. We should support such “miracles” and try to improve upon the small imperfections, rather than eliminating them altogether. 
New York City has many examples of prosperous open spaces such as Bryant Park, which is one of the signature examples of New York City's revival in the 1990s that owes its vitality to focused programming and management tactics. The park is the most densely occupied urban park in the world with 800 daily visitors per acre according to the Park’s website and is the venue of numerous public events during national holidays. It accommodates a diverse range of park users such as tourists, office workers, and members of the NYC’s Public Library on weekdays and the weekends. Times Square is different in location, scale, and use, with a focus on entertainment, shopping, and dining; but, it can be similarly successful as a vibrant urban node if it adopts adequate management and programming initiatives. It will not be that difficult to keep Times Square’s momentum as a fully pedestrian space, curbing its recent challenges and enhancing its iconic character. It is the strongest symbol of New York City’s revival and should be kept alive.

David Vega-Barachowitz

When the Paint Fades: The pilot and the permanent Times Square

On October 1, 1981, the New York Times ran an opinion piece entitled ‘Misguided Mall.' Referring to a proposed pedestrian mall near Times Square between 45th and 48th Streets, the author warned, “all the enthusiasts ought to think again. Do they really want to enlarge the scope for Times Square's prostitutes, drug salesmen, three-card monte dealers and derelicts? And do they want to live with the chaos that will result from choking off Broadway traffic for two crucial blocks?”
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent suggestion of a potential reopening of Times Square’s much lauded pedestrian plazas to traffic earned him a spate of criticism from the city’s planning establishment, pedestrian advocates, and midtown business interests, among others. His oblivious dismissal of the plaza’s success coupled with his perceived “surrender” to the mega-muppets and the topless solicitors of Times Square only compounded his lackluster transportation record to date, already sullied by his Uber debacle and horse-and-buggy snafu.
Yet in Times Square, De Blasio’s sentiments are worrisome in part because so many planners and transportation advocates deeply invested in the project’s success had come to take it for granted. Its assumed accomplishment had become such a given that its creators and their adherents had spawned pilot projects of similar design in Los Angeles, Austin, San Francisco, and even Mexico City. Moreover, that the city’s own Mayor had perceived the project as a perennial pilot, a longstanding and reversible experiment, called into question the logic of the “pilot to permanent” approach on which the Bloomberg administration’s keystone transportation initiatives were based. The city’s widespread use of temporary materials to create bike lanes, plazas, and busways across the five boroughs suddenly felt ethereal and fleeting. Had the citizens of New York perceived all of these projects as a kind of grand experiment, a protracted study of yet to-be-determined promise?
The pedestrianization of Times Square was first proposed as part of a comprehensive series of pedestrian schemes drafted under the Lindsay administration. These included plans for pedestrian malls on Madison and Lexington Avenues in Midtown, as well as the later proposals for malls on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, 165th Street in Jamaica, Queens and Nassau Street in Lower Manhattan.  While the majority of the Manhattan malls (except Nassau Street) never came to fruition, the Times Square proposal persisted until the early 1980s, when it morphed into an outdoor extension of John Portman’s New York Marriot Marquis Hotel, a project which famously accompanied the demise of five grand Times Square theaters. 
Image source: New York Times, Jan. 21, 1975
Image: New York Times. January 21, 1975. “Decision Awaited on Permanent Times Sq. Mall


In a period of intensified fears about crime, loitering, and ne’er-do-wells, the mall was never built, but the idea persisted. Other pedestrian malls of the era, most acutely in declining downtowns, were plagued by the anticipated social ills of the Times Square projects, and many were restored to car traffic in the 1980s and 90s. 

Our present era bears scant resemblance to the first wave of pedestrianization schemes, especially as our narrative of the city has shifted from white flight-fueled decline and delinquency to gentrification and nagging fears of inauthenticity. We find ourselves at a strange cultural moment, somewhere between James Rouse’s festival marketplace and Banksy’s Disma-land, forging a beguiling Vegas-Orlando hybrid of friendly-faced characters trolling the now nostalgia-laden steps of buskers and prostitutes. In some sense, these larger than life figures inhabiting the Times Square plazas have become the ultimate irony of our Disneyfied landscape, their frustrated costumes bearing witness to the latent anger of a city beleaguered by class warfare, as though Guiliani had encased the beggars in costumes to disguise the pervasive squalor. 

Image source: The New York Times, Jan. 29, 1971

The problem with Times Square is not, however, that it has spawned a latent seediness, or even its intensified Disneyfication. The problem is that the success of the project and the trajectory of the city should have given weight to a much, much more ambitious vision of Broadway as a whole and that De Blasio should have instigated such a proposal upon taking office. To relieve the pedestrian congestion of the square, why not expand the plazas permanently north to Columbus Circle and south to Herald Square, as originally envisioned in the early 1970s. By undertaking a more comprehensive plan and capital investment in Times Square’s future, the administration might have had the foresight to craft a proactive strategy under which they could build out, manage, and define a clear vision of the Square, rather than defaulting to a reactive defeatism. Those within the administration and the advocates for public plazas, bike lanes, and other transportation investments that have multiplied across the city must also press beyond the painted lines of incremental progress in the interest of securing their investments in concrete and curbs. These capital investments can move the city and its citizens beyond the misconception of a perennial transportation experiment towards a new and permanent paradigm for the public realm.