how Times Square inspires the urbanist ‘little engines that could’

Last week, Island Press Field Notes featured a perspective from several Island Press authors on why Times Square should remain a pedestrian plaza.  I was honored to take part, and I wrote the following:

In downtown Seattle last night, I saw the soft glow in the dark of Westlake Park’s evolution from a “little engine that could” to the real deal. The evolution, you may ask? A one-year experiment in private management of a public place, partially inspired by Bryant Park, a New York City example. Yet this particular darkness said, in effect, worry not, for this is just a Friday night off for the Downtown Seattle Association/Metropolitan Improvement District management scheme.

Another New York City example has recently been at least a bit under siege. Like Bryant Park, the conversion of Times Square to a pedestrian plaza has become a model for the American experience. In civic discussions around the country, it is touted as proof of the possible, a domestic shining light of how every city can recreate places for people. Who needs to cite to Mayor Jaime Lerner’s similar accomplishments in Curitiba, Brazil—or to evoke European forbears—when you have an American story for local consumption that easily translates to “why not here”?

Chuck R. Wolfe - Westlake Night

So, whether panhandling, or other tourist-oriented aversions drove (no pun intended) a late summer New York re-examination of the pedestrian concept, a “return to what was” for Times Square risks unintended consequences for the rest of us. As Seattle’s Westlake example shows, we covet the emblems and icons of big cities that lead, and for many Americans, the lessons of New York ring truer than Las Ramblas of Barcelona ever will.

If New York slides backward, so may also a multitude of “engines that could” who need the confidence that feeds the Little Engine’s immortal words, “I think I can”.

Image composed by the author in Seattle. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

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