America, in a stuporous hangover from a decade-long party of indulgence, seems to be recovering in a cultural rebellion against the drink that ailed us.
In a highly prescient move to invest in the future of New York City, the closing of Times Square to automobiles marks the first large step towards what could be a new brand of American urban planning.
The experiment to close down Broadway between 42nd and 47th streets and around Herald Square is an attempt to not only decrease congestion on sidewalks, but also to see what will happen when such a famous American space is entirely devoted to people that use their legs.
In the most courageous step of urban planning in the last ten years, New York has made Times Square a pedestrian-only area. That is, a public place without cars.
If you were to walk through Times Square a few weeks ago, you would have had to wade through a jam of tourists. From a pedestrian’s standpoint, it was the annoying tourist trap of the city, where elbows were bumped, solicitors of entertainment were relentless and obtrusive, and busy New Yorkers lost valuable time. It was still a fascinating area, with plenty to get excited about. But at times the congestion felt as if all of a sudden something terribly violent could happen, and a sea of civilians would engage in a frenzy of savage behavior. In cities, this type of neurotic claustrophobia tends to lead to the over-commoditization of an area in which innovation loses out to mass quantity/low quality commercial goods and the area invariably ends up imploding giving way to crime and more plastic (see: Times Square circa 1974).
Times Square has been steadily improving since its days of grit and grime in the seventies. To say the space has just “gotten better” would be like saying the discovery of fire was “kind of cool.” The area used to be a bastion of debauchery, with the type of folklorish urban wickedness that you only see in Kurt Russell films from the eighties.
Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic for the New York Times, described the new pedestrian-only Times Square as such:
“A large part of the design’s success stems from the altered relationship between the pedestrian and the structures that frame the square. Walking down the cramped, narrow sidewalks, a visitor could never get a feel for the vastness of the place. Now, standing in the middle of Broadway, you have the sense of being in a big public room, the towering billboards and digital screens pressing in on all sides.
This adds to the intimacy of the plaza itself, which, however undefined, can now function as a genuine social space: people can mill around, ogle one another and gaze up at the city around them without the fear of being caught under the wheels of a cab.”
It is this sort of remarkable open space, in the midst of a densely crowded Manhattan, that gives Times Square such potential. If the space is upheld (they will try the experiment until December), New York has the opportunity to set a precedent for new urban centers in America, where commerce can thrive because of the absence of the automobile.
Removing cars from Times Square seems to be as much of a revolutionary statement for America as creating a public space. The philosophy is no longer that the automobile is a tool of freedom, but rather a hindrance in a world that needs to figure out how to live more sustainably. It is the resurgence of density over sprawl, quality over quantity, that is picking up steam in our beleaguered economy. And with an administration in the White House that has the opportunity to re-evaluate the transportation authorization bill in September for the first time in six years, hundreds of billions of dollars could be routed towards innovative modes of transportation that lead to more sustainable and dense urban centers.
This new philosophy, adopted by Mayor Bloomberg and the proponents for a car-free Times Square, seems to be saying that an increasingly wireless marketplace, defined by the emergence of a creative class, has lesser need for the automobile. Mobility in commerce can now happen on all levels, from a device in our pocket to a satellite in space. All of this is to say that the move in making Times Square a public space is a step in the right direction, in keeping American cities out of the business of ancient ruins for possibly a few more centuries.
New York’s other brave public works project, the High Line, is a great example of how public spaces positively effect the commerce around pedestrian-only areas, as commercial real estate prices around the High Line have skyrocketed and dug the lower west side out its “dilapidated” status.
But Times Square is unique in that it needs no commercial boost. It is already the symbol for American ingenuity. So how do we transform a space that will maintain its hard-working American grittiness, yet still become the highest standard for urban pedestrian sanctuaries? This will be the question that the city of New York must carefully answer if they are to be the example for the New American City.
It is not as if America can attempt to transform Times Square into a European socialistic space where local farmers could sell their goods and trees could provide a sense of natural tranquility. That would be foolhardy. That is not the spirit of Times Square. The space itself is paved and futuristic, the living and breathing image of capitalism at its best. With more room to breathe and walk, Americans can now witness the wonders of commerce happening around them, amazed at the brilliance of each piece of advertising, each technological development, and each news ticker announcing the progress of the information age. It is a place where they can experience high art and hundreds of different ethnicities at the same time.
New York will have to bank on this infrastructure to design Times Square in such a way that these strengths can be exploited and enjoyed. The arts will play a major role in this and Broadway theaters need to rise to the occasion of this rare opportunity if they want to be at the cusp of this potentially lucrative wave. Broadway theaters have somehow stayed afloat over the past few months, some even increasing their revenues from this time last year, and more people interacting with each other in an open space – without the hindrance of congestion – has never been a bad thing for the arts community.
To those concerned about how they’ll deliver goods to the five blocks closed to vehicles, or how they ought to navigate the new streams of traffic on adjoining avenues: Figure it out. You’re running out of gas. This is the time for architects and urban planners to step up. It is time for us to make new strides in mobility, yet be willing to go back to that ancient pastime of “walking.” It would do us all some good to shed a few pounds and make eye contact with a person of a different race.
The continual decline in popularity of America’s greatest invention, the automobile, is sure to be a contentious topic for decades to come. Its greatest rival will be a New Urbanist way of thinking that esteems walkability and encourages a newly creative marketplace where home and the workplace once again come together. It is not only dense urban spaces that could combat the automobile, but also the way we do business altogether.
This is not meant to be a highfalutin’ utopian dream or nostalgic musing, but rather an attempt at practical steps towards greater civility. The autonomy of a vehicle has given the individual freedom of mobility, but also created an insular community of strangers that have the freedom to throw temper tantrums without consequence and rebuke their fellow travelers from the safety of a large metal box. These can be combative elements to the audacious social optimism of urban spaces, making honking a 100-decibel car horn amidst a sea of innocent pedestrians a selfishly irresponsible and uncivil act. To say the resurgence of public car-free spaces is a step towards higher personal responsibility and a culture of greater civility is no “dreamy” thing.
Ouroussoff wrote an article recently in the New York Times called “Reinventing America’s Cities: The Time is Now” in which he lays out practical steps towards a new urban center. Anyone concerned about the future of their own city should read his thoughts.
Barring any setbacks, Times Square has the chance to be a model for the new way we build cities and, without the danger of some angry SUV blaring its horn and zipping past kids, could be the place where the strengths of capitalism and the beautiful intricacies of the American marketplace could stretch its legs and flex its muscles.