"Plan for cars, you get traffic": Why de Blasio would be wrong to depedestrianise Times Square

New York City's Times Square at night in 2013. Image: Chensiyuan/Wikimedia Commons.

This is a guest post, written by New York's Project for Public Spaces.

Mayor Bill de Blasio caused quite a stir around New York City on Thursday as he floated the idea of tearing up the pedestrian plaza in Times Square.

This statement was the culmination of several days of debate centered around predatory panhandling and the square’s growing number of “street performers”. Most recently, the debate has focused on a group of topless women, covered in body paint, called desnudas. Reports of aggressive solicitation and the continued harassment of pedestrians and tourists even reached Albany this week, as New York governor Andrew Cuomo chimed in, calling for the womens’ removal.

While the desnudas are certainly the most sensational and therefore tabloid-friendly offenders, Times Square is filled with many other (fully-clothed) people taking advantage of eager tourists – from teenagers pushing their debut albums to shaggy Sesame Street characters eager to pose for a photo and, of course, a price.

These practices are obviously not unique to Times Square. You can’t visit the Duomo in Milan or Montmartre in Paris without being harassed by locals looking to make a quick buck off of tourists. However, the city government of Milan would never suggest allowing cars back into the Piazza del Duomo.  

“Sure, let’s tear up Broadway! We can’t govern, manage or police our public spaces, so we should just tear them up. That’s not a solution. It’s a surrender.”  

Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance

Times Square will continue to be a tourist destination, and forcing pedestrians back onto narrow sidewalks is a recipe for certain danger and disaster. Even the suggestion of eradicating the plaza is a terrible move for de Blasio – and it is clearly in opposition to the Vision Zero road safety goals which he has made a cornerstone of his administration. As Paul Steely White, director of the Transportation Alternatives pressure group, has said: “To suggest that cars and trucks be reintroduced into the most pedestrian-rich intersection in North America is just unbelievable.”


Once known as “Crime Square,” Midtown’s theater district was a hotbed for drugs, prostitution and criminal activity in the 1970s and 80s. By increasing police presence and launching a comprehensive redevelopment plan for this five-block stretch of Broadway, the Giuliani administration is largely credited with the rebranding of Times Square from a seedy urban zone to a thriving tourist hotspot – the “Crossroads of the World,” as it has since been dubbed.

But while Giuliani’s redevelopment plan helped to improve the area’s image and increase perceptions of safety among visitors, it did little to address an underlying problem. Not only do people need to feel safe in a public space, they also have to want to be there. To want to be there, the place needs to have a range of activities, amenities, and users.  

And while Times Square saw significant drops in violence and crime during the 1990s, its aggressive automobile traffic and meagre sidewalk space made it one of the world’s most dangerous and unwelcoming places for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Traffic congestion in Times Square. Image: PPS.

In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with Department of Transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and a group of local businesses and community advocates, joined together to reclaim this historic public space for pedestrian use, and the NYC Plaza Program was born. Broadway officially went car-free in 2009; since then, the city has added 49 pedestrian plazas. 

In addition to our longtime advocacy for streets as places, the idea for closing Times Square to automobile traffic came directly out of PPS’s NYC Streets Renaissance Campaign and our work with the Times Square Alliance.

The plan is clearly not working well in its current state, however. The swirl of issues that have pushed Times Square into recent headlines and culminated in Mayor de Blasio’s and police commissioner Bill Bratton’s abrupt and regressive “solution” is further proof that a design-led approach to any public space issue will not be effective or sustainable in the long term.

Visitors roam freely throughout a newly pedestrianised Times Square. Image: PPS.

In many public spaces busking adds life and diversity, but the unregulated (though certainly not new) prevalence of semi-naked hustlers and pandering superheroes in Times Square is just a symptom of a larger issue. PPS estimates that 90 per cent of the success of a space will be due to its management and programming, and the Times Square pedestrian plaza has not yet had the chance to fully develop these components.

“Eradicating a pedestrian plaza because you don’t like who’s walking there is like blasting away a beach because you object to bikinis or paving a park because you hate squirrels. It represents a profound misunderstanding of public space.”

Justin Davidson, nymag.com

Digging up the pedestrian plaza at Times Square would be a travesty for the city. It’s reminiscent of another ludicrous call, in the 1970s and 80s, to close nearby Bryant Park in a misdirected attempt to combat high crime rates.

Fortunately this call went unheeded, and a classic PPS analysis informed a redesign and strong management presence from the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation transformed the troubled park into the well-loved landmark that is today.


Rather than debating the presence of automobiles, Elmos, and partial nudity in Times Square, let’s focus instead on determining what New Yorkers truly want out of this iconic public space. How should it look? What can it offer? What would bring people to the area – office workers, locals, and tourists alike – and encourage them to stay?

Times Square is a cultural and historic landmark as well as one of the city’s most treasured destinations. It can and should be a source of local pride. And it should continue to reflect the unique identity of the ever-changing city and its residents.

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is a nonprofit planning, design and educational organisation based in New York City.

This article was originally published on the PPS’s blog, and appears here with permission.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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