Case Study: Bryant Park, New York City

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Introduction

Bryant Park has been through many cycles of splendour and decline. In times of decline, it has been called a “dump-heap” and “a disgrace to the city” and “one of the city’s most frustrating open spaces.” The presence of drug dealers has led to space being informally referred to as “Needle Park.” However, since its restoration, it has been called “the quintessential urban park,” a “Manhattan landmark” and “the most striking symbol of NYC’s turnaround. How did they do this? 

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Why is NYC a good case study?

Location: Bryant Park is located in the Midtown Manhattan area.

New York City is the largest urban area in the US with a population of over 8.4 million. It is famous for its global city profile, numerous attractions and safety. Still, that was not always the case. In the 1970’s, a decline in NYC’s population coincided with increasing crime rate. Interestingly, in the late 1980’s and 1990’s a trend was noticed across the city as crime began decreasing. This surprised many criminologists and sociologists who had predicted the crime rates to worse. This was also around the time the city implemented policies for more aggressive enforcement of misdemeanour laws (see Broken Windows Theory), which many have attributed to city’s crime decline. Other correlations have been made as well, but none have been strong or definitive to enough to explain how crime was also decreasing across the entire US – in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, the three largest US metropolitan areas. Nevertheless, New York City provides us with a good example of a city that has recovered from its violent past and offers its citizens urban spaces today that are much safer than they used to be decades ago. In addition, redevelopment projects to revitalise spaces and neighbourhoods, like Bryant Park, illustrate that city controls and also services can change and shape human behaviour in a positive way.


History of Bryant Park
  • Midtown Manhattan was a vibrant entertainment district at turn of the 20th century
  • Decline in NYC after World War II
  • Restaurants, bars, and theatres closed and sex shops opened, mainly in the Times Square area
  • Used as public park since 1846
  • Redesigned in 1930’s with high walls and elevated street level
  • This redesign resulted in an isolated area that was perfect for illicit activities and increased presence of drug dealers, prostitutes and homeless people in 1960’s
  • 9-acre Bryant Park nicknamed “Needle Park”
  • The decline of the park and neighbouring district caused New Yorkers and tourists alike to avoid it, especially after dark.
  • There have been many unsuccessful attempts to close down park in the 1970’s but they all failed as the park still offered a retreat from the commotion of Midtown Manhattan in the daytime, even though drug deals were taking place in the park during the nights
  • It was designated an NYC landmark in 1974.

Design Issues
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Turning Point

As shown on the map, Bryant  Park is bordered by the New York Public Library public library and 3 streets, 2 of which are heavily trafficked.

There was a low percentage of women visitors in late 1970’s which was an indicator to many as a lack of perceived security. During the 1970’s and 1980’s an average of 150 robberies and 10 rapes a year, in addition to 1 murder every other year. So the park had reached a low point and something had to be done to fix it. In 1979, the bordering NY Public Library began a renovation project which acted as a catalyst for the regeneration of the park. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund who were spearheading the library renovation decided that they had to do something about the activities taking place in their very own “backyard”. As a result they hired urban planner and sociologist William H. Whyte so that he could analyse why the park was a haven for criminals and to also recommend viable solutions. It was determined that many of the social problems were a direct result of the park’s historic design which isolated it from its surroundings. In 1980, the Bryant Park (Restoration) Corporation (BPC) was formed and a master plan to transform Bryant Park was proposed. The plan was to redesign the park, to clean it up, remove graffiti and repair damaged architectural elements. Among Whyte’s recommendations were: removal of the iron fences and shrubbery, improvement of visual access up the steps and introduction of ramps for the handicapped, opening up of balustrades and access to the terrace for easier circulation.

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Design Interventions

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Several renovation processes took place. The redesign included numerous small changes that would yield significant results. The landscape architect assigned to the project modified and added entrances, ramps, stairs, and pavements while cutting through walks and railing to configure free circulation. One of his specific suggestions was to have loose seating as well as fixed benches, a style seen in French parks. As many as 2,200 folding chairs have been reported and it is reported only one or two are stolen each month. In the first two and a half years after re-opening, police reported a sharp decrease in crime. In seven years, crime had been reduced by 92 percent.

See photos in galleries below.

Maintenance and Operation

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Construction of the new Bryant Park began in 1982 and took ten years to complete. The project was financed by a combination of private and public funds and the Parks Department maintained veto power over the BPRC’s plans. Today, Bryant Park is managed by a not-for-profit, private company, originally formed to raise private funds for the restoration of the park. The company is responsible for maintenance of the space, which is financed entirely by private funds with a large portion coming from local merchants, property owners, neighbours and citizens. It is the largest organisation in the nation to manage a public park with private funding.

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Stakeholders involved with Bryant Park’s operation and maintenance.

Once the restoration was concluded, BPRC’s maintenance budget was $1.7 million; these funds came from the City Parks Department, private donors, sponsorships, concession and event revenues, and businesses in the neighbourhood. Bryant Park’s success has spread to the rest of the neighbourhood as well.

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Two years after its renovation, rental activity around the park increased by 60 percent. Rent rates were going up with every contract that was drawn up. Bryant Park demonstrates the direct correlation between open space and land value. After the restoration, building leases and land values of properties near the park increased dramatically.


Perceived Safety

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The increased access and visibility of the park, improved lighting, and signage that indicates park rules and regulations, have all contributed to making the park safer. The presence of uniformed and unarmed security guards discourages crime and vandalism by making it clear the park is important and cared-for.

Critical Standpoint
  • The redesign of the park has attracted an upscale clientele which may discourage lower-income and homeless from visiting.
  • While Bryant Park is open to the public, it’s official rules make it clear that ‘unsavoury’ or ‘street’ people are not welcome in the park.
  • Maybe the crime rate in the park declined, but it just means that the “criminals” have been relocated to other areas
  • The over all effect of the park has been positive
  • But the effect has been targeted at a specific category of people
  • with the increased involvement of developers and building owners in park development has come increased concern over the degree of control they exert over what was historically publicly owned and managed spaces
  • Whyte’s basic idea was to make public spaces safe by attracting more “normal” users. in some way this makes the public space more exclusive
Bryant Park is closed to the general public for one week every year to host the popular Mercedes-Benz NY Fashion Week

Bryant Park is closed to the general public for one week every year to host the popular Mercedes-Benz NY Fashion Week

 

References:

  1. Biederman, D. (2014). [Online] Interview available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWzO2KWpaaw [Accessed Apr. 2015]
  2. Bryant Park. (2015). [Online] Available at: http://www.bryantpark.org [Accessed Apr. 2015]
  3. Francis, M. (2003). Urban open space. Washington: Island Press.
  4. Sheftell, J. (2015). Inside the transformation of Bryant Park. [Online] NY Daily News. Available at: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/real-estate/transformation-bryant-park-article-1.1043433 [Accessed Apr. 2015].
  5. Kelling, George L. (2009). “How New York Became Safe: The Full Story”. City Journal.
  6. Macedo, J. (2007). Effective Crime Prevention in New York City, USA.
  7. Thompson, J. W. (1997). The Rebirth of New York City’s Bryant Park. Washington D.C.: Spacemaker Press.
  8. http://www.pps.org/projects/bryantpark/
  9. http://www.asla.org/2010awards/403.html

 

Dana Barqawi

Anthony Jaganaught

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