Great Public Spaces of New York

Dec 31, 2008
May 1, 2024

New York's great public spaces provide a forum for residents to connect to each other and the city they call home. These are the places that uphold the lofty expectations of people coming to the city for the first time. They maintain New York's reputation as a thriving urban center and a bastion of American streetlife (although surprisingly few are actual streets). Many are great turnaround stories, places that have come all the way back from the brink of abandonment. These successes provide beacons of hope for destinations in New York and elsewhere that have lost their way as public spaces, evidence that the commitment of impassioned individuals can lead any place along the path to greatness.

Paley Park

This small, elegant park, just east of Fifth Avenue, is a real surprise to every passerby. It is so simple in its sparse beauty -- it's hard to believe that such a space could be so close to a bustling avenue. Paley Park's appeal comes from the fact that it puts people first. Everything about it serves the users' needs, from the moveable chairs, to the white noise of the waterfall, to the lacey trees that filter light in gentle rays even though the sun never reaches them. It is a spiritual place that proves New York has a softer side.

Paley Park is the kind of place William H. Whyte had in mind when he concluded The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces with these words: "I end in praise of small spaces. The multiplier effect is enormous. It is not just the people using them, but the larger number who pass by and enjoy them vicariously, or even the larger number who feel better about the city center for knowledge of them. For a city, such places are priceless, whatever the cost. They are built of a set of basics and they are right in front of our noses. If we will look."

Greenacre Park

Modeled after Paley Park, this space is also a small treasure. Greenacre Park is bigger than Paley and has more nooks and crannies. But the main difference is that it borders a residential neighborhood and consequently gets a regular clientele, especially from the retirement community across the street. Some elderly park regulars have even taken it upon themselves to develop rules of proper use, which they gently remind other visitors to abide by.

Rockefeller Center

In addition to housing an extraordinary public space within one of the world's most prominent office building complexes, Rockefeller Center provides a study in transformation. Thirty-five years ago, this complex was insular and almost privatized. It had a skating rink, but most of the retail was just services for the tenants. The Channel Gardens were planted mainly with dreary yew bushes. Around that time PPS was asked what kind of spikes would be appropriate to keep people off of the yews. Instead, we suggested politely, "Try benches." This was a revelation to the Center's management--a turning point after which they began to see the potential of inviting people into the Plaza, accommodating them, and eventually entertaining them. This transformation has taken many years. There was no grandiose plan, but through constant experimentation, Rockefeller Center has become the most visited destination in New York, and, some might say, the nation's Central Square.

Today, Rockefeller Center's central gathering place has expanded from a fairly small skating rink and Channel Gardens into a much larger destination including the three blocks of Rockefeller Plaza and all the smaller plazas on 49th and 50th Streets. The next step forward should be to diminish vehicle space on those streets so that the Center's allure can be sensed from a greater distance.

Grand Central Terminal

With 67 tracks, Grand Central Terminal is the world's largest train station, and perhaps the best. Its fourteen entrances, including grand staircases on the west and east and a sloping passageway on the south, are part of a masterful circulation system that effortlessly guides over half a million people to their destinations every day. Topped by a vaulted ceiling and celestial mural soaring 130 feet above the floor, the 40,000-square-foot Main Concourse is one of the most well-known and impressive indoor public spaces in the country. It is constantly flowing with people, their freedom of movement impeded only by the famous four-faced clock and information booth in the center, which doubles as an iconic meeting point. Flanking balconies provide excellent sites from which to view the bustling yet remarkably hushed scene. Altogether it is a stirring reminder that rail stations--and all other forms of transit--attain greater civic importance when coupled with dignified public spaces.

New York Public Library at 42nd Street

The city's first truly public library is so elegant it's almost intimidating, but it's a mark of the space's design and management that all are made to feel welcome. Inside, the Library boasts a gorgeous reading room that would make anyone feel like royalty--indeed, it rivals the ballrooms of European palaces. But out in front, along the street, is where this illustrious institution truly connects with the city around it. A series of well-linked spaces--steps, plazas, little nooks and pathways--provide innumerable places for sitting, meeting, eating and chatting. Overall, these places act as a capacious "front porch" complementing the library's "backyard"--which is, of course, the famed Bryant Park.

Bryant Park

Since its restoration based on PPS's recommendations in the 1980s, Bryant Park has become one of the best "new" urban parks in America (it was originally built over a hundred years ago). Its design and amenities support a range of activities and uses for people who work, shop, or live nearby, as well as those who are just visiting. The park's center is a three-acre open green surrounded by tall, arching trees. More than 1000 lightweight chairs can be moved throughout the park during good weather, giving users an infinite variety of vantage points from which to sit and watch the world go by. Other amenities include flower gardens, chess and backgammon tables, food kiosks, and a fountain at the west end of the park.

The park is managed by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, an innovative organization responsible for a multitude of park activities and events, as well as ongoing security, maintenance, and marketing. The park's hosting of large-scale, invite-only ongoing events like the bi-annual Seventh on Sixth fashion shows, however, has caused some controversy as to whether this type of commercial use is appropriate for a small urban park.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met has long been a world-class public building, yet it manages to improve with each addition or renovation. The outside plazas are as grand as any, replete with movable seating, fountains, and vendors. Without a doubt, however, the centerpiece of the Museum is the cascade of granite steps leading to its entrance, a 1975 addition that functions as a destination in its own right: a place to meet, eat, talk, and watch people. Spend some time taking in the scene on the steps, and you can easily enjoy a whole afternoon at the Museum without setting foot inside. (That said, the interior spaces also function very well, with small spaces to pause and rest interspersed among the galleries, creating a very user-friendly experience.)

In effect, the construction of the steps added a new layer to one of the city's premier cultural destinations. It not only garnered greater esteem (and attendance) for the Met, but also gave New Yorkers an exceptional gathering place and benefited the public image of the city. That's a model which other cultural institutions--in New York and elsewhere--should try to follow today.

Central Park

Central Park is a world treasure, not just New York's. It ranks among the world's outstanding public places because of its influential original design -- and its current management.

The vision of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux has proven timeless: It is still highly suitable for today's park users. For example, Olmsted took great care to conceive the pathway and circulation system so that even today, pedestrians and vehicles can easily move through the park without major interference; the park's sunken transverses originally allowed carriages, and now cars, to cross the park unobtrusively. Pedestrian paths guide people through the park via various destinations, such as the Sailboat Pond, Belvedere Castle, and the Dairy; while vehicles are limited on several park roads during certain hours.

The Mall, a wide, tree-lined promenade, is a formal arcade, designed for stately strolls. In contrast, the heavily wooded Ramble creates a feeling of dense forest and seclusion. Open meadows give one a sense of natural expanse and have accommodated a few of the largest outdoor concerts in the country, including a Paul Simon concert that drew an estimated 600,000 fans in 1991. The park also plays host to 275 species of birds and sponsors a large group of avid birders.

The other factor that makes Central Park so extraordinary is its innovative management entity, the Central Park Conservancy. The Conservancy has developed measurable maintenance standards and guidelines (it is responsible for day-to-day maintenance of the park, among other things); established a zone gardeners program; and regulated vending in the park. It has also developed a range of activities, events and educational programs throughout the park, and an extensive volunteer program.

But a list of Central Park's features and events does little to capture Olmsted and Vaux's inspired achievement. According to Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the park's foremost authority, "He [Olmsted] arranged sequences of visual events to climax in stunning vistas...Though every inch of Central Park was shaped and molded by machines and men; the hand of man is never obvious." Today we also see it as a series of destinations, each with multiple activities available during every season.

Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park is one of the best-known and most-loved destinations in New York City. The park is characterized by a slightly off-kilter vibe, which is closely tied to its informal music scene and longstanding use as a performance and protest space. This is arguably the park's most important attribute; residents, performers, and regular visitors care deeply about Washington Square Park because of its history as a magnet for spontaneous gatherings and activity.

PPS was recently retained by a local organization to study the park and make recommendations on a proposed redesign. What we discovered through our observations, surveys and workshop results was that Washington Square Park possesses nearly all the key attributes of a great public space. First identified in the research of William Whyte's Street Life Project (and later refined and expanded through PPS's work), these attributes are:

  • People engaged in a wide range of activities and uses;
  • Diversity of ages and balance of genders;
  • People present in groups as well as alone;
  • Most parts of the park are used (there are few empty or unused areas);
  • Well-used at all different times of day and week, even during poor weather conditions.

Its success can also be measured by other indicators, such as public displays of affection, comfort and safety, stewardship, and the way people share the space to engage in different activities packed tightly together.

Bleecker Street

Bleecker Street's small-scale historic buildings, diverse ground floor uses, and creatively designed storefronts reflect the best qualities of Greenwich Village. With its activity, variety, and informality, Bleecker manages to function both as a destination (for New Yorkers and tourists alike) and as a neighborhood street where residents can still get shoes repaired and buy groceries.

Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge makes an amazing first impression. On approach, the sight of it inspires awe, while traversing its span offers breathtaking views of Lower Manhattan. What makes the bridge a truly great public space, however, is not just its aesthetic pleasures.

Though entry points for bicyclists and people on foot leave much to be desired, the bridge offers the closest thing to a true pedestrian crossing over New York's major waterways: Vehicles are "hidden" for the most part on the lower roadway. Many New Yorkers will go out of their way to make the trip across on foot. Some Brooklynites, for instance, do their produce shopping in Chinatown and walk home across the bridge. Others use it to commute to Manhattan. In an area where there are few options for outdoor exercise, people from both boroughs get theirs on the bridge. These groups of users share the path with copious numbers of tourists. A few well-placed benches provide all with spots to rest and absorb the panoramic scene. Even in the middle of the span, far removed from the bustle of the city's streets, the Brooklyn Bridge is a place central to the public life of New York.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Many of the attractions at the 52-acre Brooklyn Botanic Garden run alongside a "main street" of sorts that extends from the Japanese Garden to the Conservatory. This axis is the busy heart of the Garden, where seasons are marked by the landscape: In the spring, daffodil hill is the first to bloom, then the magnolia trees, followed by the dogwoods and tulips, and finally, the water lilies.

The seasonal changes draw people year-round, even during the winter, when the "Blooming Lights" event attracts visitors in the evenings throughout the holiday season. Flower-shaped lights are located throughout the gardens, and the cafe and Conservatory are open for visitors. It's one of myriad ways in which management lets visitors know that the Garden is a place to enjoy not just for a single visit, but in every season.

Coney Island

Coney Island may be a bit down at the heels, but it remains a one-of-a-kind destination. While the area is easily accessible from all parts of the city (four subway lines terminate there), it feels far-removed thanks to its carnival atmosphere and oceanfront location. The beach, boardwalk, and amusements are jammed with people during the summer months. On Surf Avenue, famous attractions like the Cyclone roller coaster and Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs operate cheek-by-jowl with small food vendors and flea markets. On the boardwalk, locals from Coney Island and Brighton Beach and visitors from all over New York enjoy one of the city's most sociable and walkable environments. The incredible variety of activity gives Coney Island a rare quality: it is a public space where spontaneity flourishes. With so much to choose from, it's never necessary to go there with a plan.

Prospect Park

Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux considered this 526-acre park, completed in 1877, to be their masterpiece. Sublimely beautiful, Prospect Park is a flexible space that accommodates almost any pastime. Its distinguishing features include woodlands and streams, ponds, picnic areas, playing fields, a children's zoo, a bandshell -- and the world-renowned Long Meadow, an undulating lawn stretching across the entire west side of the park. Rather than separating uses into active or passive areas, the design of the Long Meadow allows for all to occur together. Along with sports like baseball, pick-up soccer and volleyball, it welcomes quiet picnics and people-watching along its shady borders and on the grassy hills that provide perfect vantage points. All these activities are well-integrated into one of Olmsted and Vaux's finest landscapes.

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