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Book Review of Designs on the Public

  Published in edited form (PDF) in The Architect's Newspaper  
  March 18, 2009  


  Designs on the Public: The Private Lives of New York's Public Spaces
Kristine F. Miller
University of Minnesota Press, 2007


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 zoning.

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.


:: Text John Hill

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