"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.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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