If a traveller in New York City stopped me in the street and demanded to know one place they should visit in their hypothetically brief, thirty minute trip, I would tell them to just simply walk around Union Square. In my humble opinion as a city native, there are few places that truly capture a city’s heart and soul, while reflecting the desired goals of public spaces that public officials, planners, and urban designers aim to achieve.
Let’s take a walk around the park. As you exit the subway on 14th Street, you’re immediately consumed by the sea of people passing by, many of whom come to shop in the area. The businesses that populate Union Square, spread evenly along its edges, are both large and small. There are street vendors and outdoor markets. Many businesses are recognizable chains, while others are restaurants, theaters and specialty retail stores dotted on each of the side streets. Some are even independently-owned anchors, like Strand Bookstore or Paragon Sporting Goods. Gazing at a few faces, it’s hard to pinpoint why people are there. Students, tourists, shoppers, workers, restaurant-goers, activists, and residents appear to blend in with each other. There are hundreds of businesses to choose, but if you just want to meet up with someone, try the first floor of Barnes and Nobles, where you’ll find people in the first floor’s cavernous space idly flipping through newly released books as they patiently wait for a friend, or possibly a significant other.
Now it’s time to enter the park. Crossing 14th Street, you walk through the main plaza, which is divided by two long rows of steps. These are wide enough for people to sit alone with a plate of chicken and rice or chat in a small group and people watch. You also notice larger groups of teenage skateboarders, not so much skating, but hanging out, joking and being social. You also see activist groups and street performers, each motivated by the throngs of people pausing to see what all the fuss is about. At the street level, the amount of people felt overwhelming. However, as you walk up the two rows of steps, you suddenly feel more at ease and free in your own personal boundary of space, despite the massive flows of people in plain sight.
Entering the park space—with its magnificent maple trees, plots of grass, narrow pedestrian paths and old-style benches—you are struck by the sharp contrast of such a quiet and peaceful setting right in the center of all this activity. In particular, the thick leaves and low-lying branches of the trees seem to be protecting you from seeing the surrounding hustle and bustle, transporting you to a serene place. Finally, as you leave the park and arrive at the northern plaza, you see the block-long, open tile plaza used for the farmers market, concerts and other public events.
Although you didn’t directly meet anyone or had time to buy something, you leave with a sense that you’ve experienced a dynamic space used vigorously by diverse groups of New Yorkers: a space that balances multiple identities, adapts to a wide range of uses, and stands apart from any one store, plaza, landmark, or node.
Would you like to submit your own favorite public place? It’s quick and easy! Here’s how: http://colabradio.mit.edu/what-are-your-favorite-public-places/
Post by Jonah Rogoff