THE CZAR OF PUBLIC SPACE

Lance Jay Brown

Walking along 23rd Street from Chelsea to the Flatiron district I come across an ever more complicated agglomeration of open spaces and attendant furnishings. There are sidewalks, subway entrances, and streets that serve all traffic from trucks to cyclists to pedestrians of all stripes. There are news boxes, parking meters, hydrants, streetlights, waste receptacles, bus stops, and trees. There is the charming hodge-podge of pedestrian plazas at the 5th Avenue-Broadway intersection filled with periwinkle umbrellas, planters, and moveable chairs. To the east is Madison Square Park, a beautiful open space animated by public art, Shake Shack, lawns, dog runs, and a children’s playground.

The pedestrian plazas and Madison Square Park are divided not only by fencing, but also by the authorities that maintain them. The Department of Transportation rules to the west and east of the park and the Parks Department rules in between. The MTA, Con Edison, water, sewer, cable and other utilities rule below. Such is the case citywide.

Who is in charge of all this? How is it that adjoining public spaces are controlled by different agencies? Why is everything so “zoned”? Why can’t utility excavations and modifications be completed simultaneously rather than sequentially? 

Our overriding priority must be the public arena, the actual public space itself, the space we all own. And one department or commission should be responsible for its design, coordination and development. We need a Commissioner of the Public Realm, a Coordinator of the City Surface, a Director of Public Space!

Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, is a New York-based architect, urban designer, educator, and author. He is the principal of the award-winning studio Lance Jay Brown, Architecture + Urban Design, founded in 1972 and is the AIANY President-Elect 2014.

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