In New York City the term public space carries
especially strong, if complicated, meanings that belie the
historical distinction between the phrase and its apparent
opposite, private space. One may think of streets, plazas,
parks and other publicly-owned and operated places when considering
public spaces, with private ownership determining enrollment
in the other category. But in the city's day-to-day operations
a number of legal mechanisms have led to a contesting of the
traditional notions of public space. Primarily these are business
improvement districts (BIDs) arising from public/private partnerships
and privately owned public spaces (POPS) arising from incentive
These and other trends point to a dismantling of the traditional
dialectic between public and private, and a hybridization
of the public realm as it is infiltrated by private interests
at a time when local governments are unable to maintain the
public realm without their participation and concomitant influence.
This fascinating and timely book focuses on public space in
the American city where its existence is exploited to the
fullest and cherished as an important element in urban life.
Kristine F. Miller, associate professor of landscape architecture
at the University of Minnesota, analyzes six public spaces
in Manhattan: the front steps of City Hall and Jacob Javits
Plaza in Lower Manhattan, the "New" Times Square,
and three Midtown skyscrapers (the IBM Atrium, Sony Plaza
and Trump Tower), a few examples of the cities 500+ POPS.
As each space is unique so are the themes explored.
On the steps of City Hall, the public's right to assemble
is presented as a reflection of the city's political interests,
in their decisions on which public may gather and
how that may be done. At Jacob Javits Plaza just north of
City Hall, the redesign of an open space formerly occupied
by an arc of rusty steel is viewed as a continuation of the
restrictions the city enforced at City Hall, this time via
design rather than regulation. In Times Square, graphic design
in the public realm is shown to be a means of manipulation,
a way of skewing the demographic of the place from actual
to desired, as a public relations component of the place's
transformation into the “New” Times Square, counter
to its seedy past. And lastly, in the three Midtown office
buildings a well-designed public space (IBM) is ruined when
private interests take precedence and ignore the provisions
of POPS; another public space (Sony, formerly AT&T) is
transformed via design and legal gray areas into a semi-private
commercial space; bad planning and design at Trump Tower occurs
in a POPS system that values quantity over quality.
Miller's well-researched, if disheartening analyses illustrate
how, in the case of the first two government-owned spaces,
public space extends from the urban design to the public body
enforcing the use of the space, beyond its physical boundaries.
At Times Square the public realm on a much larger scale is
transformed by BIDs, to the delight of tourists but hardly
residents. But the last three places are the most telling
examples of the direction of America's public spaces. They
illustrate the roles of corporations in the shaping of urban
spaces, how their interests are elevated above the general
public via positions of ownership, power and finance.
If design, as Miller contends, is complicit in excluding,
restricting and privileging certain groups in public spaces,
how can design reverse this trend? One might argue that this
trend should not be addressed via design or any other means,
given that public spaces in the post-9/11 urban condition
are increasingly seen as security buffers to the arguably
more valuable building sites of governments and corporations
they border. Evidence that the public has removed itself from
this realm into the introverted household and commercial spaces
also justify this eroding of freedoms. But a more hopeful
and egalitarian response exists, namely that design can be
an antidote to this exclusion, restriction and privilege,
the flip side of its role above, through the careful consideration
of design in parks, plazas, streets and other public spaces.
Miller does not give the reader answers on how to achieve
this. Instead she shows the reader a range of how public spaces
are shaped today, inciting those who care about its preservation
in the process.