By Barry Benepe
Public space in New York City is largely contained in its 5,000 miles of streets. Many of the largest park lands lie far from where most people live and work. A few, like Washington Square and such West Village parks as Bleecker Playground and Abingdon and Jackson Squares, are visual and functional extensions of their boundary streets. Hudson River Park and the High Line are essentially pedestrian promenades. Then there are those traffic calming measures largely undertaken under the Bloomberg Administration by DOT commissioner Jannette Sadik-Khan, and being continued by her successor, Polly Trottenberg.
Streets are shared by two incompatible users: pedestrians and drivers of cars, though they exchange roles after drivers park or pedestrians hail a cab. Writing in the March issue of WestView, John Wetherhold expressed a sole concern for automobile owners. He opposes all that the city has done for those of us on foot and, sounding like Donald Trump on “The Apprentice,” wants to tell commissioner Trottenberg to get bicycles, pedestrians, and landscaping out of the way or, “You’re fired!”
Arthur Schwartz wants us to spend our money to hire lawyers to defeat the city’s plan to address congestion due to the closing of the L subway line. The plan would create a “peoples’ way” on 14th Street to provide a safe and attractive environment for those of us who walk and ride non-polluting bicycles.
This brings us back to our concern for public space as we experience it on foot. The most congenial spaces are those free of cars, which form ugly walls of steel. Here, private cars are stored in public space for 8,760 hours a year, most at no cost to their owners. As a result, our streets are deprived of funding to meet open space and transportation needs which serve the comfort of all people, young and old.
Our public spaces are experienced by several senses. First is visual. We perceive the outdoors as an extension of the indoors. As we walk outside to a public sidewalk we enjoy at no cost the often tree-lined blocks bordered by familiar buildings that are steeped in history, owned privately, but viewed publicly. The street is defined by the light from the sky, which brings out colors, shapes, architectural details, and signs, making the city legible.
Hearing plays an essential role as well. The sound of traffic alerts us when it is safe to cross the street, especially for those whose vision is impaired. We also hear the incidental sounds of wind, birds, human voices, sirens, and back-up beepers. Building walls reflect and attenuate sounds; trees soften them.
Street life means exposure to the elements of climate as well: cold, heat, wind, rain, snow. In the winter we walk in the sun, sheltered from the wind by building walls. In summer we walk in the shade of building walls and trees.
Smell and aroma can both alert us to pollution from automobiles and comfort us with the presence of flowers in nearby planters, such as those north of Union Square along Broadway, where tables and chairs are provided for rest and relaxation as well as a noontime nosh to enjoy a fresh peach from the farmers market nearby.
Most of all, our public spaces provide the outdoor living rooms where we engage with others—both anonymously as observers—and personally, with friends at the street corner before passing our separate ways to other destinations. They expose us to the beauty of our city. As so eloquently stated by Gilbert Castle in the October 2015 issue of Planning, “We say ‘beautiful’ when we experience a spontaneous deep connection between our true inner selves and our surroundings—physically, emotionally, intellectually and soulfully.” That is the true value of open space.