urbanter

Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

How to Turn a Place Around

Placemaking.  It’s a process, a way of thinking, a rousing and powerful call to action.  It’s a vision for how to elevate community life around the world, starting one public space at a time.  As a living and evolving concept, Placemaking is exciting—and also challenging to explain and grasp.  That’s why I’m so grateful I was able to witness Project for Public Space’s entire Placemaking process, start-to-finish, this summer.  In a piecemeal way, all my projects added up to a wonderfully comprehensive and informative encapsulation of PPS’s core work: how to turn a place around.  So, how does one actually turn a place around?  I’ll tell you how!

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  1. Meeting with stakeholders about the place in question. Identifying issues and opportunities.
  • I met with Harvard’s campus planners and Common Spaces Project managers to discuss Phase III of the Common Spaces project. 
  1. Developing hypotheses about the site based on the issues and opportunities (such as, “This is an unsuccessful public space because it lacks shade”). Developing a work plan.
  • Based on my knowledge of the Stanford campus and the goals laid out by the campus planners, I identified the issues (i.e. uninviting space) and opportunities (i.e. potential to interact with the streetscape) of Herrin Lawn and White Plaza.
  1. Collecting on-site data using PPS’s observational techniques such as behavior mapping, tracking, trace measures, interviews, questionnaires, and lots of photographing.
  • I collected field data during my community outreach in Marcy Plaza, Brooklyn.
  1. Analyzing collected data, reviewing initial community input, brainstorming ideas for implementation. Creating summaries of the data, revising the hypotheses.
  • These were critical parts of my Stanford project—I have long, messy lists of potential ideas and amenities as proof of my brainstorming!
  1. Hosting a public forum to solicit community feedback. May involve pop-up workshops, the Place Game, a community voting system, a mock event or activation. Based on this data, break the site down into potential zones of activity.  Public forums may be repeated throughout the entire process.
  • The pop-up workshop I helped with in Crystal City, VA, provided valuable community input. I also attended design workshops PPS was hosting in Los Altos, CA during the winter.
  1. Make a conceptual plan that includes the bubble diagram, benchmark images for each bubble, a schedule of amenities and a cost estimate for the amenities.
  • I completed this process start-to-finish for the Stanford project, and I made a schedule of amenities and cost estimate for Balboa Park in San Diego.
  1. Make a draft report presenting these recommendations. Dialogue with the stakeholders about any changes and make revisions.
  • Over the past few weeks I’ve been communicating with the Stanford planners based on my draft report.
  1. Order the amenities, implement them into the public space, gather feedback from the community. Take pictures of the activated space and note successes/failures for future projects!

These steps are meant to serve as a framework and not a rote tactic for success, however, they boast a track record of transformed public spaces.  And after following the formula for the Stanford project, I’m thrilled to say that the campus planners began ordering my recommended amenities on Friday so that Herrin Lawn will be activated by the time school starts in a month.  That’s the beauty of PPS’s “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” approach: things turn around with gratifying rapidity.  WOOHOO!!  

Giving my final presentation to the PPS Staff on Friday.

Giving my final presentation to the PPS Staff on Friday.

 

After a whirl of finishing up my projects, sending off final recommendations, and preparing for my departure, I was happy and relieved to share my final presentation with the PPS staff on Friday, hours before I left 419 Lafayette Street for the last time!  The presentation went wonderfully, and I was especially thrilled to have Deland Chan, the Program Manager for Service Learning for Stanford Urban Studies—and the incredibly patient coordinator of this Fellowship—in attendance, as she coincidentally happened to be in New York last week.  All summer, my worlds of PPS and Stanford had been strangely parallel, and they finally met on Friday in the perfect closure to my work.

With PPS's founder and President Fred Kent, my amazing supervisor Casey Wang, and the Stanford Urban Studies Fellowship coordinator Deland Chan.

With PPS’s founder and President Fred Kent, my amazing supervisor Casey Wang, and the Stanford Urban Studies Fellowship coordinator Deland Chan.

 

In leaving PPS, my mind cycled back to the questions I’d asked myself at the beginning of the summer.  I’d written in my first blog post:   

What makes a great public place?  Is it the buildings, framing the action with grandiose architectural form?  Maybe it’s the street-level activity of markets, sidewalk cafés, and well-used parks on a hot day.  Or perhaps what makes a place thrive are the people who give it character and identity.  How can we create public spaces which are vibrant, inviting, and beautiful?

 In its simplicity, it’s startlingly clear to me now that great public spaces are the result of the conscientious interplay of all these factors.  Public spaces are the heartbeats of both the megacities and the picturesque villages, those unifying zones where people and place meet and interact with harmonizing energy.  We need to be stewards of these spaces because they mean so much more than just some colorful chairs.  Thank you, PPS, for showing me how.   

 Many thanks also to the Stanford Urban Studies Fellowship, Deland Chan, and the other wonderful Fellows for teaching me so much this summer!

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Money madness & furniture “shopping”

Like basically any project anywhere, public space improvements depend on well-structured budgets.  Without the money to activate a space, any plan, no matter how savvy, will flounder.  After the fun of pop-up workshops, photo roundups, and user analyses is over, it’s time to hunker over a desk for some serious number crunching.

Which is what I’ve been up to for the past few days.  With just one week left at Project for Public Spaces—unbelievable!—I’ve been busy compiling cost estimates for my main projects, namely the Stanford Public Spaces and Balboa Park in San Diego.  That way, I can send off the final recommendations before I depart in a weeks’ time!

The trial-and-error task of cost estimating takes patience, good communication skills, and a creative dose of exterior (as opposed to interior) design.  Or, as I’ve come to think of it, a willingness to play “dress-up” to some of the country’s most iconic public spaces, which is actually quite fun.

An excerpt of the cost estimates for Herrin Lawn.

An excerpt of the cost estimates for Herrin Lawn.

But first, a word about funding.  PPS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose funding comes from a variety of sources including private donations, grants and, recently, a first-ever corporate partnership with Southwest Airlines.  However, the majority of projects are directly commissioned by municipalities or private entities such as Harvard University’s Common Spaces Project who set an upper budget limit for the public space activation.  They also cover the cost of PPS’s site visits, workshops, and other incidentals.  As expected, this can either afford flexibility or parsimony in just how “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” our recommendations become.

The Power of 10 bubble diagram I made for Herrin Lawn at Stanford demonstrates how successful spaces should have at least 10 different zones or activities to engage all visitors.

The Power of 10 bubble diagram I made for Herrin Lawn at Stanford demonstrates how successful spaces should have at least 10 different zones or activities to engage all visitors.

In the case of Herrin Lawn at Stanford, the initial activation plan is benchmarked at $20,000—which isn’t a whole lot considering the size of the space and the vast potential for improvement.  Before costs even came into play, however, I spent the past few weeks breaking the space into a Power of 10 diagram, which denotes major zones of energy/activity.  This will serve as a conceptual plan to guide the rest of the activation.  I also identified issues and opportunities for the site and then devised overall recommendations accordingly.  PPS has a massive database of benchmark images from great public spaces around the world which are used as inspiration for current projects.  It’s always entertaining to take a virtual trip to the streets of Paris or Perth.

Benchmark images for improvements at Herrin Lawn include scenes from the Paris Plage and Bryant Park.

Benchmark images for improvements at Herrin Lawn include scenes from the Paris Plage and Bryant Park.

When selecting amenities, cost is an obvious factor, as are basic principles of color and style.  However, the job is much more intricate than simply admiring pretty pictures of furniture and contacting manufacturers’ representatives.

Will these chairs bring a space to life?  Do these colors create synchronous harmony or do they distract from the historic buildings which frame them?  Are these tables designed for the comfort of people or the pursuit of image?

These are some of the many questions I’ve asked myself from my desk in New York while my mind is focused somewhere under the California sun.  Put together, it’s these little considerations that attract or deter people.  And a great public space should always attract, which means that no detail should be spared in a conscientious plan.  The hard part, then, lies in humanizing the cells of a spreadsheet or the accompanying numbers and envisioning a place of beauty, functionality and spirit.

Picking out a color scheme for the Fermob chairs which will appear in Balboa Park.

Picking out a color scheme for the Fermob chairs which will appear in Balboa Park.

Of course, staying in budget is always beneficial, but sometimes an amenity (say, the colorful mini ottomans pictured below) are just too eccentrically cool to resist.  And that’s how the future of public space evolves!

Don't you just want to hop around on these colorful seats all day?!

Don’t you just want to hop around on these colorful seats all day?!

Check back next week for my final reflections on my summer in New York City!

A plaza grows in Brooklyn

The best way to observe a public space is to simply sit in it.  That’s what William “Holly” Whyte, the famed urban sociologist and analyst, did in New York City’s plazas back in the 1970s with a slew of research assistants.  They took time lapse films, countless photos, and interviewed passerby in an attempt to decipher user trends and preferences.  These days spent in parks and plazas informed Whyte’s many books, including The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (a key fixture in most modern-day Urban Studies curriculums), and inspired a movement towards public space revitalization.  It was Fred Kent, one of Whyte’s research assistants, that would go on to found Project for Public Spaces in 1975—and so here we are today.

While there are now “smart” parking meters that calculate fare based on peak-time demand and e-mail survey blasts to keep track of the changing cityscape, modern plaza analysis methods remain remarkably straightforward, old-fashioned even.  The so-called technology needed to observe a plaza include a camera, a clipboard, and a cheerful attitude with which to survey plaza users. 

The classic plaza audit, which I used.

The classic plaza audit, which I used.

This week, armed with these tools, I followed in the legacy begun by Whyte to analyze some plazas on my own.  The NYC Department of Transportation has commissioned 27 new plazas in the past year in an effort to create a more livable city, and PPS was brought on to evaluate the effectiveness of these additions.  My destination was Marcy Plaza, a bustling street-corner in Brooklyn smack between Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights.  The neighborhood is historically African-American, but social and economic demographics are changing here as in much the rest of the city. 

A rendering of Marcy Plaza in Brooklyn.

A rendering of Marcy Plaza in Brooklyn.

My task was to stay in the plaza for two blocks of two hours each, taking a behavior mapping audit every 15 minutes and interviewing as many people as I could.  The surveys proved more difficult than expected, mostly because of language barriers and because of the plaza’s transience due to its street-corner location.  Unlike a quiet neighborhood park, Marcy Plaza lacked a critical mass of “regulars” who shoot the breeze on protected benches all day, away from the street and its rushing traffic.  

Marcy Plaza, as seen from Fulton Street.

Marcy Plaza, as seen from Fulton Street.

Western view of Marcy Plaza.

Western view of Marcy Plaza.

Except, that is, for one extraordinary older gentleman.  I came across him early in the morning while he sipped coffee and calmly watched the plaza.  He seemed so natural there, it was as if he did this every day—which, as I found out, he did.  Our interview was full of skepticism at first—I could tell he didn’t quite trust me, and I did stick out like a sore thumb—but he slowly opened up about not only his well-informed opinions of the plaza but also his 50 years of experiences as “a Brooklyn man!” (his own proud declaration) after emigrating from Barbados. 

The man's favorite part of the plaza is this mosaic, which was a recent DOT addition.

The man’s favorite part of the plaza is this mosaic, which was a recent DOT addition.

The man wouldn’t tell me his name and declined to have his picture taken, but he was a most helpful companion through my whole analysis block, calling people over for interviews and explaining plaza dynamics to me.  As the day progressed, I started to feel the plaza’s pulse palpably, in the faces scuttling around and the well-worn benches.  It was so clear to me: no technology could record the energy, the peaks and lulls of that plaza better than my own eyes and pen.  Despite the specificity of the audits and the tedium they incurred, ultimately they painted an honest and accurate picture of life at Marcy Plaza (and yielded some valuable recommendations for how it could be improved).

From these steps, I  had a great vantage point of the whole plaza.

From these steps, I had a great vantage point of the whole plaza.

During a break between sessions, I walked about half an hour to Prospect Park, where I explored the beautiful Brooklyn Botanical Gardens (free on Tuesdays, no less!).  When I returned to the plaza for the afternoon session, there was my friend, ready to help out again.  Now that’s Placemaking in action: taking ownership of one’s favorite places to make them better for everyone. 

Exploring the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens was such a treat.

Exploring the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens was such a treat.

The Japanese Zen Garden at the BBG.

The Japanese Zen Garden at the BBG.

At the end of the day, I shook my friend’s hand, thanked him for all his help, and was rewarded with a formal introduction—as well as his endearing offer to bring me some tomatoes from his garden if I ever came back.  And if I ever do return to Marcy Plaza, I’m sure he’ll be there in his favorite public space, sipping his coffee, under the shade of a new umbrella that he himself recommended.  

Creating Common Spaces, at Harvard and Beyond

It seems my career in urban planning is taking a detour through none other than…campus planning!  Which makes a lot of sense, because:

1. I am a student and therefore the spatial issues facing college campuses are relevant to me and

2. College campuses function as microcosms of cities and can offer many lessons for the broader field of urban planning.

This week, I packed my bags again and headed North this time, to the revered Harvard campus.  While the King of the Ivies is beautiful, yes, and gracefully historic, its Yankee institutionalism has engendered a somber physicality that borders on the austere.  Case in point: Harvard Yard, home of the freshmen dorms and main campus library, among other uses, was transformed from a tourist attraction and passageway to a real destination with the simple addition of colorful chairs.

Harvard Yard, before the addition of colorful chairs through the Common Spaces project.

Harvard Yard, before the addition of colorful chairs through the Common Spaces project.

Harvard Yard, after the chairs arrive.  Now THAT'S a place to kick back and read a book!

Harvard Yard, after the chairs arrive. Now THAT’S a place to kick back and read a book!

The chairs (the same model that appears in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris!) are part of a larger initiative dubbed “Harvard Common Spaces,” which launched in 2009. According to the project’s website,

“The Common Spaces program fosters a stronger sense of community across Harvard by providing students, faculty, and staff with opportunities to share spaces and experiences—from art exhibits and outdoor performances to exciting activities and special events.”

Harvard has activated four spaces so far: The Plaza at the Science Center, Harvard Yard, the Porch at Memorial Church, and the Dudley House Patio.  Check out the live webcam on the plaza here—SO COOL!  See, every place—even the most learned—can use a little Placemaking to shake it up and add some zest!

The food trucks and benches are a popular part of the Common Spaces program.

The food trucks and benches are a popular part of the Common Spaces program.

My trip to Harvard was focused on the next targeted common space, the Great Lawn (located contiguously west of the Plaza), and involved meetings with campus planners as well as preliminary plaza observations.  The Lawn is a tough space—daunting in its size, sweltering in its lack of shade, and aesthetically bland in its cemented hues.

The Lawn looking less than active.

The Lawn looking less than active.

However, its central location on campus and bustling proximate uses like Harvard Yard pose the Lawn to be the next great space at Harvard.  Interestingly, on Tuesdays and Fridays, the Lawn is transformed into a much-loved Farmers Market, which speaks to the importance of activities and amenities over rote design.  When you plan for people and not just for planning’s sake, the results can be transformative.

It was energizing to see the initial success of Harvard’s Common Spaces project (although there can always be improvements), because my other major project at PPS is similar in scope: activating the public spaces at Stanford.  I’ve been working on a Placemaking plan for Stanford’s Herrin Lawn (at the biology quad) using PPS’s trademark Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approach.

Herrin Lawn, facing out to Serra Mall.

Herrin Lawn, facing out to Serra Mall.

With both the Stanford and the Harvard projects, the idea is to dilute the intense academic stress and improve upon existing historic—yet sometimes off-putting—structures through vibrant public spaces.  Campuses, like cities, are shared by many, creating an urbane diversity that should be matched through a mix of uses and activities.

Starting to see a trend?  It’s no accident; Placemaking principles are incredibly intuitive, yet have been so often ignored in the built environments.  Applying the principles to college campuses is especially invigorating because doing so creates not only a public space, but a place of learning and transforming—a place for students to call home.

Dispatch from D.C.

This week, my territory changed as I took Placemaking on the road to our nation’s capital.  Well, almost: my actual destination was Crystal City, VA, a mile-long office and residential park swathed in 1960s-era architecture just across the Potomac from D.C.  Crystal City is a paradox—it is fiscally robust and commercially prominent (the PBS world headquarters make their home there), while also aesthetically and programmatically underwhelming.  It’s public transit-rich and but destinationally poor.  The bare bones have been laid for success in Crystal City, all the usual boxes checked, but the district lacks spirit, human energy, a reason to stay.

The view from Long Bridge Park in Crystal City is a straight-shot to the Washington Mall!

The view from Long Bridge Park in Crystal City is a straight-shot to the Washington Mall!

What Crystal City lacks, it seems, are vibrant public spaces.  And that’s where Project for Public Spaces comes in.

Gateway Park, like most Crystal City public spaces, is devoid of activity because it's BORING and uninviting!

Gateway Park, like most Crystal City public spaces, is devoid of activity because it’s BORING and uninviting!

PPS was contracted by the Crystal City Business Improvement District (BID) as well as Vornado, a large real estate developer with a gargantuan downtown presence, to bring both design and community outreach expertise into the city’s discourse.  As Crystal City works towards a physical facelift that will inspire migration into its core, PPS is the liaison between the private and the public sectors, bridging the gap between the community’s desired outcomes and the developer’s will.

So, I Amtraked down to D.C. last week with a crew of PPS coworkers.  Our imminent goal was to start a dialogue among those who live and work in Crystal City—the people who know it best—which could catalyze a visioning process for the future of their city.  The main objective of our visit, obtaining community input and feedback on community-driven goals for Crystal City’s public spaces, hinged around an interactive paneled display.

Our street-corner setup at an artisan craft market, which is part of an initial effort called "Sparket" to activate the downtown.

Our street-corner setup at an artisan craft market, which is part of an initial effort called “Sparket” to activate the downtown.

Each panel showcased pictures of successful, tried-and-true public space activations from around the world, and community members were asked to vote on which concept they wished to replicate in Crystal City.  As the pictures showed, it’s not just the public space design that mattered, but also the activities that bring the spaces to life and engage peoples’ attention.

 Part of our outreach strategy included this nifty survey.

Part of our outreach strategy included this nifty survey.

Suggestions ranged from the predictable to the truly creative.

Suggestions ranged from the predictable to the truly creative.

 After a day of voting, the panels reflected some interesting trends--people seemed to love the idea of more markets!

After a day of voting, the panels reflected some interesting trends–people seemed to love the idea of more markets!

The voting system was intuitive and engaging, and passerbys were generally excited to participate.  That is, after they were convinced of merit of our work.  Everyone is wary of “solicitors,” including me, so it was no surprise that had to play up our marketing tactics (Free food!  Colorful stickers!) to get people to stop and vote in the first place.

People realized the Placemaking process can actually be fun!

People realized the Placemaking process can actually be fun!

It turns out that many people had strong opinions about Crystal City’s current ambiance, the role of the BID and Vornado, and the future of downtown development.  But of course they did!  People care deeply about the places in which they live and work.  It matters to not only them, but their children and tax dollars.  And even those who denied a true connection to the city—such as the young corporate workers who scoffed at the prospect of hanging around Crystal City after work—lightened up when activities like live jazz and happy hour in the park were suggested.  Sometimes, all it takes is a little creativity to open up a world of possibilities and crack the most consternate doubter.

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The rest of our time was filled out by meetings with critical stakeholders who share an interest in Crystal City’s improvement, such as Vornado, PBS, and Crystal Tech Fund, a hip start-up generator located incongruously in the concrete of Crystal City.  It takes massive coordination, funding, and approval to stage a development project like this, which is why PPS’s “lighter, quicker, cheaper” method of short-term public space improvements that generate support and gratification is an apt place to jumpstart the process.

Fabulous views from the Crystal Tech office.

Fabulous views from the Crystal Tech office.

Repeating the process at the Crystal Tech office.

Repeating the process at the Crystal Tech office.

From our short time in Crystal City, the ideas were already whirling.  A PBS-sponsored winter Downton Abbey marathon with hot chocolate and blankets on a Jumobtron in the park, a dog “yappy hour,” lunchtime swing dancing lessons, an urban beach were just some suggestions thrown around…but let’s not get too carried away.  Sometimes, the best place to start is one colorful bench at a time.

 

The House of Jane (+ new updates!)

555 Hudson Street: the Mecca of Urban Studies (at least in my opinion).  To the urban planning nerd in me, this was it, a hallowed and storied place I had envisioned in my mind’s eye time and again.  What could this place be, you might ask.  None other than the house of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and a pioneer of people-oriented urbanism.  Jacobs fought tooth and nail against Robert Moses’ plans for a highway cutting through her beloved Greenwich Village, and to this day the quaint alleyways of the Village speak to her victory.  She was fearless and articulate, a true champion of cities at a time when an urban voice of reason was most needed.  Her spellbinding tome was an original inspiration for my interest in Urban Studies.

Jane Jacobs lived on the upper floor of this quaint red building on Hudson Street!

Jane Jacobs lived on the upper floor of this quaint red building on Hudson Street!

And maybe it was a little fan girl of me, but I staked out her old home in the West Village and counted down the building numbers to 555 one recent, sweltering day.  I almost passed Jane Jacobs’ house right by, what with the renovations underway and the yuppie boutique below (I wondered what Jacobs would have to say about that), but alas I spent a full few minutes gazing up in awe.  In her writing, Jacobs describes her New York neighborhood in great detail, taking pleasure in the small shops and familiar faces dotting the streets.  Hudson Street itself, with the exception of a few upscale stores, probably looks pretty much the same as when Jacobs lived here–and trod these exact steps!–and I could picture her sauntering around, oversized glasses perched on her nose and notebook in hand.  It was a wonderful day. 

Light streamed down on Jacobs' house as the urban studies nerd in me rejoiced at my discovery.

Light streamed down on Jacobs’ house as the urban studies nerd in me rejoiced at my discovery.

And now, back to my job!  First, here are some snapshots of my daily office duties:

I wake up around 7 so I have enough time to read before work; I love mornings!  My “commute” to work is a lovely 10 minute walk in which I pass some of the same people setting up their shops and starting their days each morning.  

My walk to work starts here on my street (the flag was up for the Fourth of July).

My walk to work starts here on my street (the flag was up for the Fourth of July).

Project for Public Spaces is located on Lafayette Street right next to the Public Theater, under Astor Place, and kitty-corner to Cooper Union.  It makes for such a scenic block!

Looking North on Lafayette Street; PPS is located on the right-hand side before the Public Theater.

Looking North on Lafayette Street; PPS is located on the right-hand side before the Public Theater.

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The view from PPS, on the 7th floor.

I spend a lot of time doing research at my desk, but most days also include meetings with my wonderful and patient supervisor Casey or other co-workers.  In the afternoons, I usually take a walk into the surrounding neighborhoods–my favorite places to explore are SoHo, Greenwich Village, and the NYU campus, all of which are within a 5 minute walk.  Then there are always the surprises, such as when the other PPS interns and I got to help with a Placemaking exercise in Union Square for a grad class at Pratt a few weeks ago. 

My desk at PPS, where I spend most of my time researching, reading, writing, and compiling presentations.

My desk at PPS, where I spend most of my time researching, reading, writing, and compiling presentations.

The office is filled with light and curious objects/photos/memorabilia the staff has collected over the years. 

Check out that book collection!

Check out that book collection!

The front of the office facing the street.

The front of the office facing the street.

As for my projects, after some shuffling around I am now working full-time on a Placemaking project PPS is doing with none of than–Stanford!  PPS has been hired to activate Herrin Lawn, which is the relatively empty green space right next to the Herrin Biology Laboratories, and White Plaza.  I have been breaking down the space into different zones or “bubbles,” each of which corresponds to design recommendations, as well as doing research on benchmarks for similar spaces as inspiration for each bubble.  It’s so interesting for me to be engaged in the transformation of a space which means so much to me–the Stanford campus–while working at PPS.  It’s funny to watch my different worlds align.  I will share more about my projects next week as they progress!  

Tomorrow, I head to Crystal City, VA, which is right outside Washington, D.C., where PPS will be conducting a series of pop-up Placemaking workshops.  I can’t wait to share my photos and on-the-ground experiences from Crystal City next week!

Cheers, 

Amy

Week 3: Beyond the parks & plazas

We all know about the famous examples of public space.  In this city, Central Park, Times Square, and Rockefeller Center take the cake.  Bryant Park is a more recent addition, with its new host of canopied food vendors, outdoor film series, and inviting chess sets.  These public spaces are celebrated because they work, and thus have come to appeal to a culturally accepted rhetoric about what public space should look like, how it should be managed, and for whom it should be intended.

A bustling day at the lovely Bryant Park.

A bustling day at the lovely Bryant Park.

 

That’s all well and good, and the result has been some vibrant and well-loved destinations in New York City as well as cities everywhere.  In fact, these classic public spaces even define some cities, if not only their guide books.  However, I am determined to uncover the other public spaces: the hidden gems, the secret hideaways, the ingenious appropriations of limited urban space.

 

I want to find the unconventional public spaces of New York City.

 

It’s not that these spaces are lost and forgotten.  Hardly!; in fact, the public spaces I’m after are the ones innovatively shaped by the people who know and love them best, the native New Yorkers who create them.  These aren’t the tourist attractions because they wouldn’t mean anything to outsiders who haven’t devoted the time and labor to take charge of their space.  Because ultimately, the unconventional public spaces of New York are examples of something greater than themselves: they are grassroots relics of concerned citizens changing their own city.  I think that’s a beautiful and inspiring notion, this bottom-up reclamation of meaning in a place where anonymity can be so pervasive.   

 

With a little bit of research under my belt and a point-and-shoot camera in hand, I set out on my first round of inquiry this week.  And let me tell you, there are some pretty cool finds out there!  Places that may not command a first look, but that, if you know what you’re looking for, are worth ten. 

 

Such as this historic home at 190 Bowery. 

The wonderfully, eerily mysterious 190 Bowery building.

The wonderfully, eerily mysterious 190 Bowery building.

What a door!  Looks inviting!

What a door! Looks inviting!

The notorious Bowery was once a desolate and dangerous stretch, but has since perked up.  As luck would have it, photographer Jay Maisel fortuitously—and perhaps clairvoyantly—purchased this six-story house for $102,000 in 1972, in what NY Magazine dubbed the “greatest real estate coup of all time.”  No, 42 years later, he still lives and works here (much to the chagrin of real estate developers).  The catch: you would never know 190 Bowery is inhabited by anyone or anything due to its haunted mansion aura and, notably, its graffiti-splattered ground floor.  Maisel’s generosity, or perhaps resignation, to graffiti artists has led to a veritable work of art that doubles as a mask of anonymity for this unique home. 

 

The ground floor of 190 Bowery has been transformed into a street art canvas.

The ground floor of 190 Bowery has been transformed into a street art canvas.

190 Bowery, and especially its adopted uses, are not considered in the general lexicon of public space.  In fact, they’re not even publicly owned (which gets into a whole other realm of privately owned public spaces or POPs, but we won’t go there right now).  However, they are an example of the public using space, and shaping that space for an even larger public realm.  It could even be considered manifest destiny, at the urban level. 

 

Here are some more notable examples of eye-catching street art from my trek:

 

Such lively colors on the Centre-fuge dumpsters!  They really brighten up a street covered in construction materials.

Such lively colors on the Centre-fuge dumpsters! They really brighten up a street covered in construction materials.

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These  trailers are part of the Centre-fuge Public Art Project in response to the persistent construction of the 2nd Ave subway line on nearby Houston Street.  In an effort to “re-beautify this incredible block, but also to encourage the community to express itself in a public forum,” Centre-fuge commissions local artists to submit proposals and paint the construction dumpsters on rotating cycles, thus infusing life into a perennial work zone.  The result is both colorful and engaging, and, in my opinion, it accomplished exactly what it set out to do. 

 

These dumpsters are a great example of an "unconventional public space."

These dumpsters are a great example of an “unconventional public space.”

Who knew dumpsters could be so avant-garde?

Who knew dumpsters could be so avant-garde?

Again, this space isn’t necessarily public nor is it a place one comes to hang out or stick around, as in a park or a plaza.  However, the unconventional public spaces serve subtly powerful functions in that they change the urban landscape according to the needs and desires of real urban residents.  It brings to mind the Margaret Mead quote which has come to be lovingly touted in many activist communities:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  

 

There are such groups changing their worlds across New York City, one public space at a time, and I can’t wait to discover their priceless work.   

 

Cheers,

Amy

 

P.S. Check back soon for an update on my day-to-day life in NYC!

The Fellowship, United (virtually, that is!)

We just finished our biweekly Skype session in which we bridge oceans and time zones to come together and share our experiences, solicit feedback, and brainstorm ideas for the weeks to come.  How great to catch up with the other fellows and get a window into their current work!  What really struck me was how very different our locations and partner organizations are–which is exactly what made the conversation so interesting.  One example: Stefan reported on the freezing 20 degree conditions of the Johannesburg winter (his double-sweater look is proof) while the window of my NYC office was literally steaming up from the toasty weather.  Wow!

The Urban Studies Fellows + our wonderful advisor Deland, checking in from around the world!

The Urban Studies Fellows + our wonderful advisor Deland, checking in from around the world!

Some highlights from our conversation:

  • We kicked our Skype session off by discussing this article, which is part of series on Detroit by the New York Times.  We thought it raised relevant questions to our work about the roles and responsibilities of non-profits and NGOs as they engage with local communities.  Stefan brought up a great point about the difference between integrated urban regeneration versus gentrification, and how this difference can mean everything between positive urban growth and economically inaccessible neighborhoods.
  • We bounced ideas off each other about how to redefine our projects and scopes of work to be attainable in our 8-week internship period.  How to effectively distribute surveys to reach a greater population as well as fitting our independent work into our larger organizational structures were some timely issues that arose.

Despite the vastly different sub-areas of urban studies we’re pursuing, the common thread uniting our work is a shared passion for urbanism and how to make cities better places in which to live, work and play.  It’s so inspiring to hear how each of the other Fellows are accomplishing this.

Until next time, cheers from New York!

On subways & thunderstorms, people & place

Well, I’ve been in New York for exactly a week and by now I’ve picked up on a few essential lessons: the city is HOT in the summer, the subway is only as intimidating as you make it, and the city’s greatest asset, in my opinion, is by far its people. In the thick heat of summer, the near-daily thunderstorms are a welcome relief from the humidity. They don’t seem to stop anyone, though—a million worlds and stories constantly collide on the streets of New York, with every block boasting a new discovery. Human nuances are on full display here for any passive observer to spot, which is at once fascinating and overwhelming. New York is a constant deluge of sights, sounds and smells.

Rewarded with a beautiful sunset after one of the colossal thunderstorms!

Rewarded with a beautiful sunset after one of the colossal thunderstorms!

With this prelude, I began my work at Project for Public Spaces, energized at the thought of studying this very thing: New Yorkers out and about, coming and going through the public spaces which serve as the city’s heart. PPS’s work is not just rooted in place but also in the belief that it is the people that make a place come alive. A place is static, without the human activity—those nuances I’ve observed—which lend it distinction. In homage to the old adage, a physical place is defined by the sum of its parts.

I hope to keep this idea in mind this summer in my work, always looking towards the confluence of human-environmental interaction instead of segregating the pulse of the city—urban dwellers—from their physical environs. I have two major projects I will be completing:

1. A review of the city’s community gardens with in-depth case studies of three community gardens functioning under different management structures.
The city of New York has a complex history with the community garden movement and the urban gardeners who championed garden oases. I see community gardens as microcosms of public spaces like parks, where communities and individuals democratize space and lay claim to common identities. Gardens promote food security, public health, environmental concern, and community building through educational programs, leisure opportunities, and small-scale food production. I hope to evaluate specific city gardens using PPS’s metrics of successful public spaces, which include “The Power of 10” and the “11 Principles of Creating Great Places.” This research addresses my personal interests in food systems and urban agriculture as well as the creative ways nature is integrated into the urban environment. Ultimately, community gardens are important because they are an integral part of the urban fabric just like a street or a plaza, and they have a quantifiable stake in making cities more equitable, sustainable, and beautiful.

Strolling through one of my favorite community gardens, the Liz Christy Garden in the Lower East Side. Christy was a pioneer of the community gardening movement and the founder of Green Guerillas in the 1970s.

Strolling through one of my favorite community gardens, the Liz Christy Garden in the Lower East Side. Christy was a pioneer of the community gardening movement and the founder of Green Guerillas in the 1970s.

2. Creating/updating PPS’s Training Courses walking tours highlighting some of the city’s famous neighborhoods and recent street and plaza improvements.
PPS offers Training Courses to professionals and the interested public who hope to gain insight into Placemaking and stellar public spaces. These include walking tours of the city so trainees can experience New York’s best public space firsthand. New York has experienced a revival of many of its streets, plazas and parks, spurred by former Mayor Bloomberg’s PlanNYC and general interest in making the city more livable. I will be documenting these changes in new and updated walking tours which will serve as a guide to the exciting streetscape changes sweeping through the boroughs.

Central Park on a gorgeous Saturday. This is the view from Belvedere Castle looking East. The Central Park meteorology station is located on the top of the castle!

Central Park on a gorgeous Saturday. This is the view from Belvedere Castle looking East. The Central Park meteorology station is located on the top of the castle!

I can’t wait to share updates on my projects as they progress! As an unofficial task, this weekend I explored one of New York’s most iconic public spaces: Central Park. With the weather almost too perfect to imagine, I walked the entire interior of the park—all 50 blocks of it! The perennial delight (and curse) of the Urban Studies major is to be constantly analyzing cities, and this adventure was no exception. What struck me most about the park was the way people claimed their territory. Space is at a premium in the city, and Central Park is one of the only locales where people can truly sprawl out without limits. I saw the most wonderfully creative arrays of picnics, napping bodies and pick-up ball games on every possible surface. It was a people-watching paradise but more importantly a true celebration of public space, the fantastic ways in which humans use them, and why they are such a crucial part of the urban landscape.

 

 

Exploring Central Park with my sister (and room mate!) Lucy!

Exploring Central Park with my sister (and room mate!) Lucy!

Taking on the Big Apple, one public space at a time

What makes a great public place?  Is it the buildings, framing the action with grandiose architectural form?  Maybe it’s the street-level activity of markets, sidewalk cafés, and well-used parks on a hot day.  Or perhaps what makes a place thrive are the people who give it character and identity.  How can we create public spaces which are vibrant, inviting, and beautiful?

These are some of the questions I hope to answer this summer as I work with Project for Public Spaces in New York City.  My name is Amy Tomasso and I’m a rising junior at Stanford majoring in Urban Studies with a concentration in Urban Sustainability.  Aside from Urban Studies, I’m fascinated by food systems and politics, a personal interest I explore as a passionate cook and vegan.  I am happiest in nature and love to be outdoors, whether hiking, backpacking, skiing, or simply exploring. While this seems oxymoronic to my interest in cities, I assure you it isn’t!; I hope to bring the nature I love to cities through green space and a respect for the urban-rural divide.  I also avidly read, write, and do yoga in my spare time.  After studying cities informally and formally for years and growing up in rural Connecticut, this will be my first time living in a true urban environment!

Image(Exploring a great public space–the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC!)

I believe in the power of public space to define communities and serve as an equalizer between the diverse array of urban residents.  I was first drawn to this idea while visiting my family’s ancestral village high in the mountains of Italy.  Despite my village’s small scale, its central piazza was constantly abuzz with activity and excitement.  The piazza was the focal point of the village from which all social interactions were born; people of all ages flocked to this public space every night to mingle and review the day’s news.  I saw the same ingenious city planning repeated in nearby Rome, which is arguably one of the oldest master planned cities.  This kind of organic, pedestrian-oriented meet-up was so different from the auto-centric strip malls I was so familiar with in the U.S.

 Image

(Abbateggio, my family’s village in Italy, was an original source of inspiration on my path to Urban Studies).

I became captivated by public space and its transformative power on communities, both urban and suburban.  Having volunteered for four years at a Boys and Girls Club in inner-city Connecticut, I saw how neighborhoods lacking public space amenities like parks and playgrounds can become traps for their inhabitants.  Public space can infuse downtrodden neighborhoods with life and common purpose.

I am thrilled to be exploring public spaces firsthand this summer in NYC, a city where some of the most iconic monuments—Rockefeller Center, Central Park, Union Square—are classic examples of public space.  Project for Public Spaces, my partner organization, has pioneered the innovate strategy of Placemaking as a way to engage community members in the creation of projects which directly serve their needs.  I can’t wait to see the Placemaking process firsthand throughout the summer.  PPS was founded in 1975 to expand the work of urban maverick William Holly Whyte, whose works such as The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces changed the way urbanites everywhere interact with their cities.  Now, PPS has worked in 43 countries and all 50 states to uplift communities through a strong built environment

ImageWe interact on a daily basis with the immediate world around us, whether subconsciously or consciously, and the built environment shapes our lives and routines.  I invite you to begin to dialogue with the world around you as you pass through the public spaces you encounter.  What do they mean to you?  I hope in time you too will come to recognize the power of public space, and I look forward to sharing in this discovery.