The pedestrian piazzas being carved out from vehicular thruways at Times Square and Herald Square in New York City are testimony to the critical need for public space in our cluttered mega-cities. But public space is not merely the passive residue of a decision to ban cars or a tacit invitation to the public to step into the street. It must be actively created and self-consciously sustained against the grain of an architecture built as much for machines as people, more for commercial than common use.
In a word, public spaces are built, not natural; they are the result of constructive intervention rather than laissez-faire disinterest. There is an “art of public space,” which requires more than no-car signs, traffic cones, concrete barriers, tables and chairs. Happily, New York possesses an urban resource ideally suited to creating public space: artists. Now that the Department of Transportation has temporarily liberated some space from automobiles–city officials will decide at the end of the year whether to extend the traffic ban–it needs to shape that space in ways that invoke democracy, attract usage and make it “public” in the deep sense of commonality, interactivity, connectivity and community. The idea of creative public space will not fail, but New York may fail to realize it.
To succeed, public space will demand greater public investment and better understanding of the role artists and the arts play in putting such investment to imaginative uses.
These notions yield two mandates. First, they call for greater public investment in public space and in the arts that help shape such spaces. And second, they call for greater understanding of the role artists and the arts play in putting public investment to imaginative uses.
The role of artists here is not just to install a sculpture, plant a garden or make a mural (although these would be nice). Rather, it is to envision a space where visitors are encouraged (but not constrained) to move in certain ways, inspired (but not forced) to use the space creatively, pulled (but not pushed) to feel they are helping to shape the space even as they enjoy themselves in it. The ancient agora, or civic marketplace, of democratic Athens and the covered arcades of nineteenth-century European towns exemplify a spirit where public things (literally res publica, the origin of our word “republic”) become paramount. Entertainment and commerce are necessary and important, but they “work” because people are drawn into public spaces for other reasons: to play in the company of others, to watch one another and see others with fresh vision (here the fabulous red stairs atop the TKTS booth at Forty-seventh Street make a splendid start), to interact with strangers, to get out of private space and into common space.
Think of Las Ramblas in Barcelona, the carnivalesque pedestrian esplanade that is the heart of the city’s cultural and commercial district, teeming with street artists and mimes as well as pickpockets and tourists, equally welcoming to the opera house and the old market (La Boqueria). Or visit the Hackesche Höfe in Berlin, where linked buildings rise around a warren of courtyards that permit small crafts factories, theaters, art galleries, restaurants and residences to coexist in an atmosphere of energetic conviviality that is both a reminder of the nineteenth century and a harbinger of the twenty-first.