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The Secret Recipe for Dynamite Urban Parks

New York's Bryant Park was once an outdoor drug market. Now it is a textbook for flourishing public spaces.

John Gillespie/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Learning from Bryant Park: Revitalizing Cities, Towns, and Public Spaces, Andrew Manshel, Rutgers University Press, 302 pages

In the 1980s, Bryant Park was an uninviting place, according to essentially every observer. It was rundown, and visibility was poor. The only vibrant thing about it was the drug trade. Its reopening in 1992 and transformation into the well-populated oasis that it is (or was until recently) seemed inconceivable and left many shocked. 

Recent months of Corona lockdown have provided a potent reminder that it’s not generally an active security presence but simply normal urban hustle and bustle that keeps you safe. Busy urban spaces seem safe, while empty ones often do not. The 1990s rehabilitation of Bryant Park might seem a moment from a distant century amidst the recent urban chaos. But Andrew Manshel’s Learning from Bryant Park is a useful blueprint for how public spaces can be made inviting, accessible, and safe again—even after currents of pandemic and protest have passed. 

Manshel knows a thing or two about this. He was associate director of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation for ten years (starting in 1991) and later vice president of another Business Improvement District in Jamaica, Queens.

Today Bryant Park is an elegant space, one more reminiscent of many European plazas than even handsome American parks, but one repeat stress of Manshel’s is that its turnaround, and the turnaround of any similar public space isn’t about particular design elements—flagstone walkways or London Plane trees, or Beaux-Arts restrooms or French bistro chairs—and rather about close attention to just how citizens used the space.

Bryant Park, 1973 (Wikimedia Commons)

Design is of course important: eliminating seven-foot Boxwood parterres that largely blocked the park from street view and creating broader and more frequent entrances was important. Many parks and public spaces feature expensive or meritorious designs when they open but what’s most important is what happens afterwards. Manshel writes “Our success was based on close observation of how people behaved in the park once it was reopened.” It’s not an initial plan, he attests but operations, maintenance, and successful programming that make all the difference in terms of how a space is used.

A crucial early effort with Bryant Park was simply providing events to ensure that the park would be populated at a variety of times. An HBO-sponsored comedy series was one early program, as were a variety of concerts, and eventually the summer film series. The key to these is reliability. It must be known that such events are happening and that they will be occurring in the future. Occasional events will generally prompt even more occasional visits; reliable fixtures in the schedule undergird much more.

One impressive testament to Manshel’s thesis about the importance of frequent changes is his litany of things that went wrong (or not quite well enough) at Bryant Park and were accordingly changed or ended. Fancy early planters were easily damaged and abandoned. Lawn soil was initially overly sandy, liable to be overly dry or swampy; a different mix heavier in clay was eventually adopted. Soil aeration to prevent compaction became a routine practice. Early gravel paths were often a mess and prompted a return to simple dirt. Some music programming was difficult to hear or didn’t draw crowds (after runs of moderate length) and was accordingly changed. Outlets were inadequate in the park in its early years. The placement of a stage was a repeat quandary until a more easily adjustable frame was found. Other things could still stand to be improved: the absence of permanent concrete footings for temporary structures is a continued problem and additional stress on the lawn. He encourages others to implement ideas inexpensively and to test them gradually, “New ideas for capital investments need to be put into place as incrementally as possible, observing how they work in the real world and then adjusting plans accordingly.”

One droll such story: “One day in the spring of 1994, [their PR rep] got a phone call from a reporter at the New York Daily News who was working on a story, based on a tip from an animal vet, that BPRC was poisoning the Bryant Park pigeons, which we sort of were.” Pigeons were a problem for plants in the park, and they had turned to a poison to make an example of some of these ruffians. “The bad part was that the death of those birds was visibly dreadful.” This avian slaughter was eventually averted with new flowerbed nets, to the benefit of everyone involved.

What’s more important than luxe items is that any fixtures should be visibly and rapidly maintained. (Manshel cites Broken Windows principles repeatedly). The important thing is not any initial expenditure but the maintenance of whatever you’ve put up after that. Broken items send a signal of inattention. A particularly welcome park amenity is intrinsically ephemeral: the park’s flowers. It required trial and error to determine ideal flowers for the space. The lovely Pink Impression tulip was eventually a highlight. “The very presence of the flowerbeds transmitted to people that someone cared about the space.”

There will be problems. Some flower thefts are inevitable. The key was simply to keep an adequate supply of flowers to replace any that end up stolen, damaged, or dead such that beds never look empty or haggard. 

Ed Yourdon/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Attention to the space was important in other ways, especially in the park’s earlier years. The Bryant Park restoration corporation made a sustained effort to ensure that park employees were highly visible, a sign that the space was being tended to and observed, and a deterrent to nefarious behavior. He argues that unarmed personnel are more helpful than armed security in this sense, removing the sense that deadly threats might prove imminent. 

Restroom attendants are permanent at the park’s two historic restrooms, unquestionably more important than their physical condition; everyone has used historic restrooms that seem to harbor every moment of odor from their lifespan before in public spaces. It’s constant care that sets these apart. 

Security is occasionally necessary in any location, but they rapidly found that attracting a crowd mainly resulted in drug-dealers and similar characters leaving on their own accord without any force necessary. “Bad actors don’t want to be around positive social behavior.” Actions by homeless persons are an occasional problem but Manshel stresses the importance of repeat trained outreach. It’s not adequate to ask someone occasionally; it’s better to have trained staff inquire about their well-being and offer help frequently. They also established a homeless drop-in center and made strong efforts to connect these persons to resources.

One core of activity that flourishes today was quite difficult to launch: the Bryant Park Grill. Today the ninth-highest grossing restaurant in the country, it didn’t turn a profit for five years. Today it’s a great urban asset. Manshel explains that food kiosks are an even riskier financial proposition. Commerce in parks has long spurred philosophical debates about appropriateness, but Manshel argues strongly for some amount of commerce as extremely helpful in generating park activity. He does caution that there are limits, “An excess of private activity can turn a public place into an exclusive reserve for those who can afford it—which is the antithesis of what a park should be.” This seemed to be the definition of hosting fashion week in the park before its move to Lincoln Center. It’s welcome to see Manshel agreed (although it also generated substantial revenue for the park, another part of such tradeoffs).

The book also offers a strong argument for Business Improvement Districts (BID) as a tool for improvement both for parks but of utility in many situations. He argued strongly against accusations of elitism in these BID situations, making the case that these are intrinsically highly local (There are now 70 across New York City, mainly in locations far less luxe than Bryant Park). In the case of Bryant Park and other parks, they also free city parks dollars to be used elsewhere.

Manshel’s work with the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation offered a somewhat different challenge of coordinating a variety of local institutions for good. Some retailers objected to trees as they might obscure their signage, despite benefits of generating a more pleasant pedestrian environment and very likely increasing foot traffic and business.

Much of this work anywhere comes down to assembling a critical mass of activity, or tweaking that mass to ensure that it occurs for more of the day and night. This can be harder to effect in some locations but Manshel’s set of principles is worth applying anywhere. He points to public spaces that haven’t applied such lessons. An esteemed design in Pershing Park in Los Angeles failed to generate activity; Cleveland’s recent Public Square redesign remains empty. This is not fated and can be changed. 

Smaller towns might have more of an uphill climb, though even small business districts can benefit from such tactics, he explains repeatedly. The overwhelming key is not a one-time intervention, but sustained management over time. “We can’t just make recommendations and go home.”

Manshel’s credo is an extremely valuable one, just as useful for repopulating public spaces in the post-pandemic future as it was for filling them beforehand. “Plans for a public space have to be based on how real, living, breathing human beings interact with the physical and programmatic aspects of a park or plaza and not on some abstract political, philosophical, or aesthetic principle.” 

Anthony Paletta lives in Brooklyn.

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