What Is Public Space?
We tend to think of public space as having certain essential and obvious characteristics. We believe it is publicly owned, the opposite of private space. We believe it is open and accessible to everyone, where no one can be turned away. We imagine it as the setting for important civic events, where large groups of people come to celebrate, protest, and mourn. We see it as somehow part of democratic life—a place for speaking out and being heard.
We also think we know New York City. It seems uniquely familiar to us, even to those of us who don’t live there or who have never visited and even before the intense television coverage of 9/11. New York’s public spaces and public life have been portrayed in countless films, novels, television shows, photographs, and songs. We can all conjure up an image of New Year’s Eve in Times Square, political speeches at City Hall, the handmade memorials near the World Trade Center site, crowds with their faces pressed up against television studio windows, the marathon, the Macy’s Parade, and sidewalks packed with commuters and holiday shoppers. We imagine that public life in New York is somehow spontaneous and unregulated—perhaps even dangerous, or at least unpredictable.
Physical barriers and controls on places, such as the fences and security checks at City Hall, seem the clearest form of restricting access to public spaces. Measures put in place purportedly to increase safety are the most obvious evidence that public spaces, as many currently exist, are not open and accessible. But what about a place such as Times Square, which is nothing more than streets and sidewalks? Couldn’t anyone walk though Times Square today? While the streets and sidewalks of Times Square are full of people doing exactly that—walking —not to mention tourists taking in the cacophony of lights and sounds, the history of the transformation of Times Square tells a different story. Times Square may appear open, but controlling access to a public space can be accomplished by restricting who is there in the first place. These constraints can happen over long stretches of time and are therefore much more difficult to identify than police barricades. In Times Square the transformation of the public happened over nearly thirty years and involved condemnation and demolition, massive imaging campaigns, evictions, and a nearly complete recasting of who the real public of Times Square should be.
If public space as it exists today is not open and accessible to all, neither is it necessarily publicly owned. This book’s second half describes three of New York’s 503 Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS), a growing category of public spaces across the United States and Canada.
Also, public spaces are not inextricably tied to the practice of democracy—not even those spaces that are literally tied to important public buildings such as New York’s City Hall. The front steps of City Hall, arguably the most important locale in the civic life of New York, represent an ideal design for a public space as a setting for democratic action. We may think that our right to speak freely in public space is guaranteed, but it is actually highly regulated and therefore contingent, as the history of the steps of City Hall during the Giuliani administration illustrates. Legal battles between Giuliani and a nonprofit group critical of his policies showed that even public spaces that would appear to be ideal platforms for political expression can be shut down through regulation.
Why is our commonsense definition of public space so far from reality? Part of the problem is our preoccupation with the enduring physical qualities of public spaces: we tend to spend more time thinking about the places themselves. This preoccupation is particularly prevalent in design history and criticism. By focusing on the physical and the concrete, we often ignore nonphysical qualities—legal, economic, political, aesthetic—all of which affect a public space. Public spaces do not exist as static physical entities but are constellations of ideas, actions, and environments.
If public space is not as we imagine it, what should it be? Put differently, what would be a normative definition of public space? Public space, if it is going to play a role in democratic life, must be a hybrid of actual physical places and active public spheres.
Over time, public spaces both become and cease to be public. For example, an atrium manager may post new rules that prohibit otherwise legal activities such as sleeping or loitering. As long as those rules are enforced, that atrium is not a public space. A government building’s plaza may be redesigned to make protests and demonstrations impossible or difficult. As
Given the tendency for corporate interests to usurp public interests in American cities, this hybrid may seem nearly impossible to achieve or maintain.
In order to understand public spaces as the sites and subjects of democratic processes, we must ground these concepts in case studies of existing places across stretches of time, and also use a series of methodological lenses: as an economist, to evaluate the distribution of wealth; as a lawyer, to examine the regulations on public spaces as platforms for speech; as a political scientist, to determine who has the authority to make changes to physical places over time; as an environmental and behavioral psychologist, to trace the patterns and habits of sociability that certain spatial configurations might support; and as a public policy researcher, to compare the intentions of public programs with their multivariate effects.
I am none of these. I come to these questions from the discipline of landscape architecture, and I try to map the processes that lead to the development of public spaces and that shape their roles in cities. Designers of the built environment—including landscape architects, architects, and interior, graphic, and urban designers—have a responsibility to understand how their work affects and is affected by the societies they serve. Design researchers can contribute to these efforts by testing, against the actual histories of specific places, what we think the built environment and its production make possible. A vast and growing body of research in fields that include
Design fields tend to define public spaces according to their physical types—parks, plazas, streets, and sidewalks—rather than by their social and political effects. This lack of attentiveness to the politics of public space does not mean that designers view the role of public spaces as unimportant. To the contrary: they view the design of public space as one of the most important contributions of the profession. However, examining the politics of design from within the design fields is fraught with difficulties. It necessitates a comparison of our idea of how public space serves a greater public good with the relation of actual spaces to social, economic, and political inequities. Clients who pay the bills for the development and maintenance of public spaces—city agencies, Business Improvement Districts, and nonprofit parks conservancies, for example—may not want to make their spaces and the processes that govern them open and accessible. But however difficult it may be in practice for designers to challenge their clients, design is crucial to the development and maintenance of dynamic public spaces.
Design is a way of representing ideas, imagining futures, and transforming the built environment. Design shapes physical spaces, creating settings that produce aesthetic experiences for those who move through and occupy them.
Existing design-based studies of public space offer some clues, but most do not value public spaces for their ties to public spheres. Constrained by incomplete definitions, the scope and findings of their research are limited. Most scholarship from design fields emphasizes the role of public space as a site for relaxing, recreating, and enjoying everyday social encounters. The goal of many of these studies is to examine spaces that “succeed” in providing settings for such activities and to offer pattern books for practitioners and communities in order to reproduce them in locations. They use case studies to extract successful physical and programmatic qualities so that they can be applied elsewhere; they extract, distill, and apply rather than
In How to Turn a Place Around: A Handbook for Creating Successful Public Spaces, the nonprofit organization Project for Public Spaces (PPS) presents the results of their research on “more than 1,000 public spaces around the world.”
through the deployment of certain place representations and not others, real estate investment actions and state development policies are presented as compulsory, the subsequent social costs are exculpated, and the resident’s resistance and counterclaims to neighborhood changes are also disregarded.
So long as we live in a society in which increases in land value benefit a few landowners and lead to rising rents for everyone else, the PPS’s description of this “benefit” to cities remains suspect.
Even if we do acknowledge a role for public space beyond relaxation and recreation, it is difficult to trace the ways in which public spaces relate to immaterial concepts like democracy. Public Space, by Stephen Carr, Mark Francis, Leanne G. Rivlin, and Andrew M. Stone, describes the role of public space in public life as providing for “basic human needs” in being “responsive, democratic and meaningful.” The authors describe “democratic spaces”
Michael Sorkin’s book Starting from Zero examines the World Trade Center (WTC) site in order to understand the role of design in public space and public life. Sorkin takes apart the planning process, highlighting how private interests shaped the methods of public involvement in decision making to suit their own objectives. Sorkin also proposes design schemes that look beyond the boundaries of the WTC and address issues of uneven development in the city at large. In one of these schemes, Sorkin proposes that development money be spent in locations like the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, areas that have seen much less investment than lower Manhattan. In this way, Sorkin seeks to understand the WTC as a place in need of an active public sphere and as a potential subject for renewed discussions about development across the city.
In Placemaking: The Art and Practice of Building Communities, Lynda Schneekloth and Robert Shibley, like Sorkin in Starting from Zero and Carr et al. in Public Spaces, delineate the relationships between design and democracy and argue for sustained public involvement in decision making about the built environment. Like Sorkin, Schneekloth and Shibley are researchers and practitioners. They define the role of the design professional as “emphasiz(ing) the process of building relationships among public, private, and not-for-profit entities to overcome the fragmentation of official agency.”
These few examples of design-centered research on public space illustrate a range of definitions and approaches—from the PPS’s notion of public space as comfortable sites of sociability, to Shibley and Schneekloth’s
The definition of public space that has guided the case studies in this book—that public space is a kind of hybrid of physical spaces and public spheres—is itself a kind of hybrid. It draws from the work of scholars from varied disciplines. It is based on the assumption that physical space is important to democratic public life and emerges from a vast and growing body of literature that seeks to understand exactly how this is so.
Of course, saying that physical space is necessary to human life does not explain why it is necessary to democratic life. While writers, including art critic Rosalyn Deutsche, have argued that public space is the place where democracy happens, issues of how and why it happens there and under what conditions have received less attention. Scholarship on regulations governing public protests in public spaces offer clues to the connections between public spaces and larger public spheres:
public space is a place within which political movements can stake out the territory that allows them to be seen (and heard) … In public space—on street corners or in parks, in the streets during riots and demonstrations—political organizations can represent themselves to a larger population, and through this representation give their cries and their demands some force.
The links between public spaces and democracy are more complex than the former being the physical location for the latter. Public spaces are not mere backdrops for democracy. While public spaces can be settings for demonstrations and protest, they must also have concerned publics who formulate
My understanding of the public sphere as a dynamic relationship among publics formed around issues of concern and bodies accountable for addressing these issues is based on the work of Nancy Fraser, in particular her work that challenges and complicates the definition of public sphere laid out by Jürgen Habermas. Fraser argues that there is no “public”; rather, there are multiple publics, and therefore multiple public spheres. Her recent work on transnational public spheres argues that the nation-state is not the only logical accountable body to which publics must formulate their messages: international or even private corporate bodies may be accountable. This fact makes it difficult to identify accountable bodies, formulate messages, and hold them accountable. The cases in this book indicate how, even in one geographic location, identifying the appropriate body is complicated. It is perhaps clearest in a location like City Hall, but what about across larger geographies like Times Square? What about cases where a public space is privately owned but managed by a city agency, as is the case at the Sony Atrium? In many American cities, direct government management of public spaces such as parks, streets, sidewalks, and even neighborhoods is shifting to quasi or private management. Business Improvement Districts, privately owned public spaces, and parks conservancies are just a few examples of this trend; all point to the challenges of mapping and maintaining public space–public sphere hybrids.
The book is divided into two sections. The first section examines a set of exterior public spaces: the front steps of City Hall, Jacob Javits Plaza, and Times Square. The second half examines a set of interior POPS: the former IBM Atrium, Sony Plaza, and Trump Tower. The chapters do not present histories of these places; rather, they take as their points of departure controversies in each site’s history. Some controversies were fought in the courts, others in the fields of art or design criticism. They each implicate a different set of issues that either bind or cut the relationships among public spaces and public spheres. Each raises very different questions about what is good and right when it comes to public space: how it should be managed, designed, used, and even debated.
At City Hall, legal battles such as those over freedom of speech between Mayor Giuliani and one of his most outspoken critics, Housing Works, revealed the fragility of public spaces as sites for public spheres: even public spaces that appear to be ideal platforms for representing ideas can be shut down through regulation. And access to public spaces is not just limited by regulation. Design and rhetoric are also powerful tools for determining who may act in public spaces and for what purposes. Chapter 2 examines the ongoing design history of Federal Plaza.
Over a ten-year period, Federal Plaza was redesigned twice: as the location for a controversial work of public art, and as a controversial work of landscape architecture. Both projects—Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc and Martha Schwartz’s Jacob Javits Plaza—generated individual maelstroms of debate. This chapter brings those debates together to understand the ways in which design and the processes that lead to redesign are shaped by conflicting values about the role of public space in public life. While art critics Rosalyn Deutsche and Douglas Crimp argued that public officials manipulated public discourse about Tilted Arc in order to gain control over a public space, landscape architectural critics almost never mentioned Tilted Arc or the issues raised during the eight-year legal battles that preceded its removal from Federal Plaza. When Tilted Arc was mentioned in articles on Jacob Javits Plaza, design critics and Schwartz repeated without question government officials’ arguments that Tilted Arc prevented public use of the plaza and had to be removed. In this way, Schwartz’s design and the content of debates over its success gave concrete form to a government agency’s implicit and unchallenged definitions of the public of Federal Plaza.
Removing the “bad” public from Times Square was only half the process. The new public had to be drawn in. Proving to commercial investors and consumers that Times Square was really clean, safe, and friendly required a massive imaging campaign, which was led by one of the most famous designers of the late twentieth century, Tibor Kalman. Kalman’s campaign, when looked at in the context of the larger redevelopment process it was part of, shows that design as a means of representing futures and of representing public bodies can mask processes that sever public spaces and public spheres.
Unlike government plazas, streets, and sidewalks, POPS result from complicated legal arrangements between government agencies and private developers. Because of the complexity of these arrangements, understanding exactly who is accountable for their management and regulation is anything but transparent. In addition, these spaces are often embedded within private buildings, making their role in public life difficult to decipher. How do law, regulation, discourse, and design affect the public lives that happen there? Each of the three case studies in this book explores POPS that are held up by the New York City Planning Department as the best of the program. The question that underlies chapters 4, 5, and 6 is whether or not a privately owned public space can ever be a dynamic site and the subject of public spheres. New York is not alone in developing private partnerships to provide public spaces. Designers and program coordinators have taken the
Chapter 4 describes the transformation of the IBM Atrium in Midtown. When the IBM Atrium first opened to the public in 1983, it received glowing reviews from architecture critics, arts organizations, and visitors. It was called “exuberant,” “elegant,” an “oasis,” and “a tree filled conservatory and public living room rolled into one.”
Sony Plaza, the focus of chapter 5, sits across Fifty-ninth Street from IBM. Of all the POPS in New York, Sony Plaza presents the most intense mix of retail space and public space and includes amenities like air conditioning, movable tables and chairs, and a public museum of technology. The museum, however, is a thinly veiled marketing tool for Sony. One of Sony’s most lucrative markets, and by far the largest portion of the summer “public” of this space, is children.
The role of aesthetics is the subject of chapter 6. Trump Tower, a publicly funded building with a lavish appearance, conveys to visitors the sense that they have entered a private realm. Interestingly, design critics have for the most part ignored the building. Perhaps it has been overlooked because it is considered too garish even to begin to criticize. But the building’s lavish style points to fundamental problems with design, aesthetics, and dynamic public spaces. The design of Trump Tower makes it seem as if Trump allows access to the public, not that access is a public right. The private style of the public spaces of Trump Tower also masks the fact that the enormous profits Trump made from the sale of the building’s luxury condominiums and from the rent of the office and retail spaces are built on a complex set of public funding sources. Whereas the story of IBM reveals the institutional lack of provisions for public participation in decision making and the Sony story reveals the casting of the public as either insiders to be courted for consumption or outsiders to be removed, the aesthetic experience of Trump Tower transforms members of a public body into visitors enjoying the hospitality of Trump’s private empire.
How have public spaces in New York changed since 9/11? This question is an obvious one given the premise of this book—that physical spaces matter to public life, and vice versa. All of the cases presented in this book were researched and developed between 1999 and 2005: two years before and four years after 9/11. The answer to how public spaces in New York have changed since 9/11 is that they have changed completely and not at all. For example, at Federal Plaza and City Hall, security increased much earlier than 9/11, in response to the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building and the U.S. bombings in 1998 in Afghanistan and Sudan. The ongoing design history of the WTC site indicates that the redevelopment process has been guided by forces set up before 9/11—patterns of ownership and control based on values of property and rent—and that these forces are so intractable that even focused public attention can do little to shift them.
If we look at broad changes to U.S. domestic policies regarding individual rights, then every public space in the country has changed completely. New laws created under the Patriot Act allow the imprisonment of people without charge, making moot the idea of a “right” to public space. From City