The Communication Studio

Redesign of Public Park Area

Project for Public Spaces / Funded by W R Grace

Bryant Park, the large, lovely park behind the New York Public Library at 42nd Street was a popular spot for drug dealing. The W R Grace corporation, whose headquarters also faced onto the park, funded an effort to make the space more attractive to the general public.

The Value Proposition

The Challenge

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) was brought in to perform research on the problem and propose a redesign of the park layout.

Wide view, time-lapse, static cameras capture the usage dynamic as a fluid dance:  The volume, flow, eddies and pools that emerge show how we use the space.  But not necessarily why.

As my graduate project for the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, I directed a media crew for the Project for Public spaces research team in the spring of 1981.

We used handheld video to interview a broad range of visitors throughout the Bryant Park area. Our focus was on their motivation for using the park.

The Project

Our interview records and advocacy document helped both the designers and their sponsors to better understand the social dynamics of the space from the perspective of the participants.

The Case Study

Located between Times Square and Grand central Station in the very center of the midtown business district, Bryant Park was a convenient spot for midtown on-street drug sales.

The north side of Bryant Park faces onto the WR Grace Building.  WR Grace is a huge chemical conglomerate that actively resented the public drug sales at - literally - its front door.  The drugs were soft - marijuana for the most part - and there was little related crime (robberies and violence in Bryant Park were not an issue), but the presence of the drug traffic was a visible affront.  Racial and socio-economic dynamics were undeniable:  Young black men from uptown were present and active in business-centric white-collar midtown.

WR Grace wanted this activity documented and brought to the city government's attention.

Our Role

The Project for Public Spaces "social surveillance" technique recorded how people used the park. We were a more proactive and interactive documentary video component of the research team.  We captured spontaneous interviews with people who were using the public areas of the park. We spoke with pretty much the full range: from cluelessly innocent tourists taking a break from sightseeing, to casual metropolitans who enjoyed a bit of sunlight and solitude in the middle of the city, to young salarymen looking for a little weed to mellow out the workday, to the pot dealers who serviced them.

The focus for our interviews was their motivation for being in the park and their comfort level with the surroundings.  Our findings were informal, but consistent.

The Tourists/Novices were blissfully unaware of the drug-dealing going on around them.

The Casual Metropolitans were aware of it, but it didn't involve them and didn't bother them.

The OfficeWorker Customers appreciated the convenience of the drug trade.

The Dealers were - not surprisingly - the most "street aware" of the economics, politics, and social dynamics of the situation.  They were - surprisingly - unreserved in their comments to us.   It was counter-productive to their business for there to be violence or muggings in the park.  They were there because that's where the business was.  The business was office workers.

The Upshot

We compiled hours of interviews and edited them into a short videotape that echoed the most consistent insights.  By agreement, we arranged to have it viewable on public monitors in the lobby of the WR Grace building.  Our research did not reinforce Grace's agenda. The public showings quickly ended.

Bryant Park itself received a design makeover in 1983.  Obvious drug-dealing was "engineered out" by a conscious restructuring of the physical environment.  More recently it's become more of a marketplace.  I guess we were successful.

That was then.  This is now.

Since Then

The New York Times Magazine Sunday, 01/17/2014

A featured article, Technology Is Not Driving Us Apart After All, describes the efforts of a researcher to follow up on the original PPS studies. This article references a 3-decades-old study by the Project for Public Spaces technique (pioneered by William O White) to demonstrate through "socio-surveillance" (my term) the interactive ergonomics of a public space. 

The researcher's revisitation uses the same socio-surveillance observational techniques to look at perceived behavior today. 

I appreciate the value of "neutral" data, but know that it gains in value when we have some "participatory context" for our data points.  And, as ever, it behooves us to understand our research agenda.  Especially in an era of massive surveillance and systemic data-gathering.