Nowadays, it is difficult for many people to imagine what Bryant Park was once like. In the early 1980s, the park was unkempt and perceived as unsafe by office workers and tourists. Project for Public Spaces began working in Bryant Park by studying its use through observations and interviews.
The team, led by Fred Kent and William H. Whyte, mapped the location of all activities—both positive and negative—and interviewed people using the park. This methodology revealed that most negative activities, including drug dealing, primarily occurred near the park entrances, which were close to high foot traffic areas and shielded from view with plantings. While actual crime statistics for the park were, in fact, very low, interviews showed that the perception of crime was high. Observations also highlighted a profound lack of activities and amenities in the park. At the time, there was little for people to do except sit on benches in the shade, sometimes beside other park visitors who were mostly sleeping.
Building off of this research, Project for Public Spaces wrote a comprehensive report that provided both design and management strategies that would tackle the park’s largest challenges and create opportunities for programming and sustained revenue for the park. In 1981, Project for Public Spaces delivered this report to the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (BPRC), the park’s management entity supported in part by revenues generated by a business improvement district. BPRC transformed recommendations into reality, eventually making Bryant Park one of the most popular, comfortable, and influential big city parks in the country.
To directly confront the perception of crime in the park, Project for Public Spaces recommended opening up entrances and removing shrubbery that prevented people from seeing into the park. New lighting, both in the park and from a nearby rooftop, also became tools to heighten the sense of security at night.
Once these critical elements were in place, the focus could shift to attracting new visitors into the park. To do this, hundreds of moveable bistro chairs, designed by Fermob, were scattered throughout the park, enabling people to sit wherever they wanted and adapt new configurations depending on weather conditions and the number of people in a group.
Within the Project for Public Spaces report, food was also highlighted as essential to Bryant Park’s success. Based on these recommendations, the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation installed two food kiosks at the main entrance, each operated by private companies. Eventually, a restaurant and outdoor cafe were built at the rear of the New York Public Library, a previously empty area. The presence of food not only attracts visitors to the park, but it has also proven to be essential sources of income for the park’s operations and maintenance. Under an arrangement with the New York City Parks Department, the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation retains all of the revenue generated by concessions and other activities in the park.
Events and activities in Bryant Park also began at this time. The Bryant Park Restoration Corporation began by organizing daily lunchtime performances and games, including chess and pétanque (a French game similar to bocce ball). An outdoor movie series attracted thousands of users to the park at night — something previously unthinkable. Since then, the permanent park activities have expanded to include ping-pong, an outdoor reading room, and a small carousel. But the park management, now Bryant Park Corporation, has also leveraged seasonality and local partnerships to create unique experiences throughout the year, most notably the annual Winter Village that includes holiday shops and an ice skating rink.
Even though this iconic park in Midtown Manhattan has been widely recognized as one of the best public space renewal projects of the last four decades, programming for the space is under constant review, and refinements are made regularly in how the park is managed. While public space managers are generally inclined to keep tight control of their properties — tending to say “no” more than “yes” to potential outside users — the revival of Bryant Park arose from management’s flexibility in allowing outside programmers access to the park. The result is both a range of exciting events at the park and a significant source of earned income that continues to allow Bryant Park to be one of the most successful, welcoming, and innovative public spaces in the world.