The Project for Public Spaces

The transformation of Times Square from a car-land to a sight of the walkable public space is the result of a process based on pedestrianizing Broadway that occurred during the Bloomberg mayoralty. In a brief sense, the portions of Broadway Avenue crossing Times Square and Herald Square were eliminated from the City’s traffic system, changing their use and meaning, displacing the vehicular hegemony in the area. 

As an official date, the pedestrianization of Broadway started on February 29, 2009 with the announcement of the pilot program called “Green Light for Midtown.” In her book Street Fight. Handbook for an Urban Evolution (Sadik-Khan & Salomon, 2017), the former Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan was narrating how the idea of fixing Broadway’s grid started in late 2008 after her first walk through Times Square “with the eye of a commissioner” (p.91) and realizing how many serious issues regarding planning and transportation the Square had:

“But beneath the showbiz glare of Times Square lay a fundamental transportation problem: 137 percent more pedestrians were struck by cars in Times Square than o adjacent avenues, a tragic product of the masses of people walking in the road. The streets themselves were old and warped, pooling with water after every heavy rain. The existing roadbed was basically composed of layers of street strata, with streetcar rails and other remnants of bygone transportation eras paved over the decades. It was a classic transportation problem hidden in plain sight.” (p.92)

Nevertheless, it was in 2006 when the first approaches about how to transform Times Square in a  public pedestrian space appeared. The story begins with a collaboration between two institutions: Times Square Alliance (TSA) and Project for Public Spaces (PPS). The first one, formerly known as Times Square Business Improvement District, was created in 1990 as a public-private initiative with the aim of “provide everything from sanitation to security services for Times Square.” (de Witt, 1990). The second one was founded in 1976 as “a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build strong communities.” (“about”, n.d.)

My intention right now is to use the metaphor of the “urban laboratory” for talking about Project for Public Spaces and its work in Times Square. I want to experiment with that metaphor as a device for approaching the urban transformations of particular places carried out either by closed, localized and controlled stabilizations or collectives of heterogeneous elements.

An urban laboratory is a center of control. Inside of its walls everything is measured and calculated by urban planners, policy makers, urban researchers, engineers, architects, and urban enthusiasts. Despite sometimes this kind of laboratory has totalitarian intentions —the idea of encompassing the “whole” city, for giving an example— its area of action can be located either in a specific spatiality (the pedestrianization of Times Square) or around a particular network (LinkNYC). 

According to PPS, Times Square Alliance hired them, “from May 2006 to June 2007, to better understand and re-imagine how Times Square performs as a public space.” (“Times Square”, n.d.) After a year of research, Project for Public Spaces presented five points they considered were both issues and opportunities regarding the way how Times Square was composed at that time: 

  1. Ground floors – Most building bases in the district do not support sidewalk activity, gathering and smaller destinations.
  2. “No square there” – Demand for use and activity in median is very high yet there are no amenities in square to support this activity.
  3. Movement and circulation – Street design does not support pedestrian movement – there is a lack of sidewalk space and crosswalks and crossing times are inadequate.
  4. Flexible spaces – District needs flexibility to close side streets and even Broadway at various times to facilitate planned events.
  5. Reach out like an octopus – Not perceived as a district. Side streets (especially theater blocks) are underperforming as destinations in their own right. (ibid)

A pdf summary about PPS findings can be download from this link

Those centers of control, talking about “urban labs”, have the particularity of using a limited vision, focused on specific pieces of reality, for avoiding generalizations and with the aim of reaching a more objective level of objectivity —based on real objects— that is only possible through particular and situated knowledge (Haraway, 1988). 

So, when we talk about “urban laboratories,” we should stress both notions, paying special attention to what do they represent in the meaning and construction of the concept of “urban- laboratory”. I mean, if the laboratory acts as a center of control, as an oligopticon, the urban should serve as a diorama, as a particular and (semi)controlled scenario that is totally opposed to totalitarian and universal ideas.

At first glance, to think about an urban location as a diorama seems to be a contradiction with its effervescent and plasmatic nature, but that urban place, the one that is being “controlled” by the oligopticon is a domesticated space that has been framed and delimited to be unassembled, analyzed and transformed. We are talking here about a temporary process of territorialization through  the implementation of experimental actions. 

Project for Public Spaces certainly acted as an urban laboratory and Times Square was its field-site. The first one had the structure of an oligopticon with a focused knowledge on (1) urban issues —as a structured academic field— and on (2) a specific controversy happening in a (3) particular place. The second one acquired a double meaning, as an artificial theoretical construction and as testbed. 

So, the PPS laboratory was displaced to Times Square for a bit more than a year. During that time this scenario was actively approached through the implementation of various techniques  and procedures such as mapping and tracking, directly systematic observation, and surveys — all of this with the intention of learning, firsthand, about the performance of the Square as a public place. 

Nevertheless, this systematic exploration was not designed with the intention of studying any single aspect of this location. It was deployed for taking care mostly of mobility issues. Its located (Times Square), temporal (during one year), and focused (flows and transportation) glance is exercising a sort of limited movement of control that is also depending on how the plaza and the different elements that are composing it react to that kind of piece of research. 

It does not matter how much one can plan a strategy for intervening or analyzing an urban place, at the end the volatile condition of those spaces can modify our entire work. That is the reason why I decided to use the notion of “experimental actions” for talking about those kind of methodological strategies created on laboratories with the intention of bring tested and applied on urban scenarios.

The work on Times Square as a public space made by PPS and hired by TSA was the first step on the pedestrianization of Broadway two years latter. This pedestrianization, the act of transforming a busy avenue into a pedestrian mall, is nowadays viewed as a milestone of the public but, paradoxically, started, or at least it was inspired, by a private initiative in a city governed by an administration that prioritized cars instead of pedestrians and other alternative ways of transporting. The intervention of PPS in Times Square served as an inflection point between an automobile oriented city model (Naparstek, 2004) to a more sustainable one. However, this topic will be carried out in  a next post about transitions.