7 The Design of Spaces

From: City

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7 THE DESIGN OF SPACES We began our research on spaces by looking at neighborhood parks and playgrounds. One of the first things that struck us was the lack of crowding in many of them. A few werejammed, but more were nearer empty than full, often in neighborhoods that ranked very high in density of people. Sheer space, it was obvious, was not of itself attracting children. But many streets were. It is often assumed that children play in the streets for lack of playgrounds. But many children play in the streets because they like to. One of the best play areas that we came across was a block on 101st Street in East Harlem. It had its problems, but it worked. The street itself was the play area. The adjoining stoops and fire escapes provided prime viewing across the street and were highly functional for mothers and older people. There were other factors at work too, and had we been more prescient we could have saved ourselves a lot of time that we spent researching plazas. Though we did not know it then, this block had within it all the basic elements of a successful urban place. As our studies took us nearer the center areas, the relative underuse of many spaces was even more apparent. There was much crowding, certainly, but most of it could be traced to a series of choke points—subway stations in particular. In total, these spaces are only a fraction of the center, but the crowding is so concentrated, the experi- [iQ4] CITY ence of it so abysmal, that it disproportionately colors our perception of the center. The space feels crowded, even when it is not. By all odds, the center areas should have had many more pleasant spaces as relief. Since 1961 New York City had been giving incentive bonuses to developers who would provide plazas. If they did so, they could add twenty percent more floor space over the amount normally permitted by the zoning. So they did—without exception. Every new office building qualified for the bonus by providing a plaza or comparable space; in total, by 1972 some twenty acres of the world's most expensive open space. Some plazas attracted lots of people. One, the plaza of the Seagram Building, was the place that helped give the city's planners the idea for the plaza bonus. Constructed in 1958, this austerely elegant place had not been designed as a people's plaza, but that is what it became. At lunchtime on a good day, there would be 150 people sitting , sunbathing, picnicking, and schmoozing. People also flocked in great numbers to 77 Water Street, known as "swingers' plaza" because of the raffish young crowd it attracted. But on most plazas there were few people. In the middle of the lunch hour on a beautiful day the number of people sitting on plazas averaged four per thousand square feet of space—an extraordinarily low figure for so dense a center. The tightest-knit central business district anywhere contained a surprising amount of open space that went empty. If places such as Seagram and 77 Water Street could work so well, why not others? The city was being had. For the millions of dollars of extra floor space it was handing out to developers, it had every right to demand much better spaces in return. I put the question to the chairman of the city planning commission , Donald Elliott. As a matter of fact, I entrapped him into spending a weekend looking at time-lapse films of nothing happening on plazas. He felt tougher zoning was in order. If we could find out why the good places worked and the bad ones didn't and come up with tight guidelines, there could be a new code. Since we could expect the proposals to be contested, it would be important to document the case to a fare-thee-well. We set to work. We began studying a cross section of spaces—in all, sixteen plazas, three small parks, and a number of odds and ends of space. I will pass over the false starts and the floundering, save to note that there was a lot and that the research was nowhere near as tidy and sequential as it can seem in the telling. Let me also note that some of our most logical theories turned out to be wrong; indeed, our research could fairly be termed a string of busted hypotheses...


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