Dear Mayor de Blasio,
2 weeks have passed since New York’s Police Commissioner William J. Bratton suggested ripping up the plazas of Times Square in an effort to curb the proliferation of “desnudas” and street performers panhandling in the area. By now, I trust that you have taken the time to consider the terrible effect such a move would have on this vital slice of public space. If you are still in any doubt that the destruction of the plaza would be unwise in the extreme, please take a moment to consider the following.
As Streetsblog Editor Brad Aaron notes, the pedestrianization of Times Square in 2009 — an urban planning masterstroke being made permanent by Norwegian firm Snøhetta — has seen this world-famous intersection transformed “from a car-choked mess into a space filled with people and human activity.” Prioritizing pedestrians over cars has proved popular with tourists and locals alike since the idea was first tested, as this video illustrates. Measurable benefits back up those anecdotes: pedestrian injuries have been reduced by 35 percent since the change, and retail rental rates have increased by 30 percent as greater foot traffic has helped shops in the vicinity to thrive.
Of course, such a radical change brings with it some problems. As the New York Times reports, an influx of street performers has begun populating the Square in recent months, with incidents of unsavory behavior making the news: “First came an anti-Semitic Elmo, ranting outside Toys “R” Us. Super Mario groped a woman. Cookie Monster shoved a two-year-old. Con artists began pressing CDs on teenagers. The painted desnudas arrived.” When reflecting on ways to put a stop to these activities, comparisons can be made with a renowned public space across the Atlantic.
Barcelona’s La Rambla, one of the most popular pedestrianized streets in the world, has more than its fair share of pickpockets and con artists, an ongoing issue within many of Europe’s largest cities. Few would argue that this undesirable population has a negative impact on the wider city. Would it be logical, then, to advise the removal of La Rambla’s paved surfaces, merging this vibrant quarter with the rest of Barcelona’s frenetic streets full of traffic, noise, and exhaust fumes?
Such an act would amount to sacrilege in urban design terms, and dismantling the Times Square plaza would be no less nonsensical simply because it was created more recently than Barcelona’s famous avenue. It’s the architectural equivalent of chopping off your arm because you have a paper cut on your finger.
Clearly, mitigation measures for crime or unwanted behavior must revolve around regulation, not destruction. Tighter rules on street performers and an increased police presence may be necessary, along with designated areas for entertainers where public safety can be more easily monitored. Potential solutions to reduce crime and congestion are wide-ranging, and the assembly of a task force to discuss such matters is commendable. Let us be clear, though, the first option to be removed from the table should be the insane proposal to confiscate this plaza from the very people you are trying to protect.
By now, you will be aware that I am not alone in my concern: esteemed critic Michael Kimmelman expressed his dismay at the saga, declaring that Snøhetta’s conversion of “one of the democratic crossroads of the world” has helped make New York “the most progressive city in the country.” Furthermore, a petition created by the Design Trust for Public Space calling for the plaza’s protection amassed 1,600 signatures in just six days, with more to follow.
This is something both the professionals and the public have reached consensus on: they value the increased walkability, improved safety, and vibrant atmosphere created by the plaza, and to perform an act of urban regression after just six years would amount to the ultimate lack of foresight by this great city. With these facts in mind, Mayor de Blasio, please think long and hard before ushering the bulldozers in.
The Angry Architect