By Sarah Ripplinger
Navigating through the busy streets of any major city is a harrowing undertaking. Taxis race through intersections; there is a general melee of honking horns, screeching brakes; and pell-mell sounds from stores and people. It’s little wonder that, for many urbanites, the focus is getting to their final destinations as fast as possible, not lingering on city streets to take in the view.
That’s where Fred Kent and Project for Public Spaces (PPS) step in. For Kent, president of PPS, city streets are an untamed wilderness rife with opportunities for a new and pioneering form of public engagement.
“In the US, there seems to still be a lid on openness and creativity [in the public realm],” said Kent, who headquarters in NYC. “In this country we are defined more by disciplines than by community actions.”
Kent and PPS are working to redefine the idea of a city as an organic whole – and not only a commercial Mecca – by uncovering the civic centers lying dormant below looming buildings and crowded roads. A tall order, Kent said, for projects that don’t follow the typical rules of the road in city planning.
“The biggest obstacles are designers, traffic engineers and managers that insist that you have to do it by-the-book. The book is always defined by a narrowly focused discipline that wants to control outcomes and limit public engagement and use.”
PPS does the exact opposite: it pushes the limits and dispels common perceptions of how city infrastructure: streets, sidewalks, squares and buildings, should look and function.
Farmers markets form part of PPS’s vision for the establishment of more inclusive public spaces. They are one example of groups and individuals reclaiming the streetscape and transforming it into an open-air commercial and community space.
“Markets, starting with farmers markets, have increased exponentially in the last 10 years,” said Kent. “But that kind of special market is just the tip of the iceberg. There are all kinds of markets happening everywhere… The other area we see a resurgence is in town/ community squares. Watching a community regenerate itself around the community gathering space is off-the-charts exciting. That is also happening world-wide.”
PPS is a key player in the global movement that’s transforming urban landscapes from lonely places of concrete and congestion, to places where people can gather, commute, exchange goods and ideas and celebrate. A not-for-profit organization established in 1975 and based in NYC, PPS works to influence policy and policymakers to support community-friendly planning and development. So far, the organization has worked on projects in over 2,500 communities in 40 countries.
Thirty-five years ago, NYC was plagued by economic problems and high crime rates. In Bryant Park, the problem was obvious. Drugs and gangs had taken over the area located near Times Square – between 42nd and 40th streets – to such an extent that, by 1979, local authorities had pretty well given up any hope of reclaiming the park as a public amenity.
In a 1981 report, William H. Whyte, a mentor of PPS, raised the alarm about the severity of the drug-trafficking problem in the park and the need for changes to the park’s design. As a result, PPS did a master plan and several improvements to the park infrastructure were made, including clearing away hedges to make the park a more open and well-lit space, and introducing commercial uses, such a food and beverage stands.