Sunday, March 11, 2012

Can good design of public space be the mechanism to change a culture?

Last Monday, during our EBR class, we met with Shaun O’Rourke for an informative presentation on the city’s efforts to develop parklets and public places in New York.
So here we were, we had completed our observations on the parklets, posted them on our blogs and for the most part we seemed to agree that they were generally pretty successful. But what was it that made them successful?  Was it a gut feeling? An impression based on how we think the city should be or look like? Did we feel different depending on where we were coming from? Probably. 
Larry made an interesting comment about the “success” of the TKTS roof-steps where people were enjoying reading a book in the heart of the most visited tourist attraction in the world, Times Square. Now, we all see how contradictory it is to pick up a book and relax in the busiest crossroad of the town. But the facts were here. Who could predict the drastic change of culture in a commercial square known for its (now gone) pornographic theaters and neon illuminations? In any case to answer the question “Can good design of public space be the mechanism to change a culture”, I can’t say that the ingenious steps were entirely responsible.  the bottom line is that good design did not change the culture of Times Square rather the “clean up” that Ed Koch and city councilmen initiated. Design is more of an expression of change not the reason for change. In this case, there is no causal relationship. Design is an expression of whatever is being promoted.  If we look at Paris in its present form, we see the Haussmann Plan which was a modernization program of the city of Paris. It was designed to support the rise of economic growth and industrialization. Can we tell that the design changed the culture or is it industrialization that changed the culture? and iIs the design of the city an expression of that change? I believe design movements like Bauhaus, constructivism, or post-modernism are movements that are more the result of an ethos that is expressed by the people, and/or charismatic leaders and/or governments.  
The history of cultures shows that landmark historical changes are usually the result of strong charismatic leaders that have expressed a common ideal among a culture to enact change. Examples include MLK, JFK, FDR, Miterrand, Napoleon, etc.  

To further illustrate the role of urban design in cities, we looked at how NYC developed the parklets with for vision making a complete experience for all user groups (car, pedestrians, bicycle riders), and not designed for a single purpose. There were quite a few positive news about the parklets; And beside the “out’s and about’s” of pedestrians on the highlighted (painted) delimited so called areas, we were in shock to hear that reducing the speed of cars did not actually reduce the number of cars going down Broadway. 
Though I was not sure if this was good news or not. The good news was that we can have safer places for pedestrians without compromising car traffic. Now what about bicycles traffic? Though bike lanes have been developing extensively in the past decade, there seem to still be a “grey” area when it comes to who should be using them. Bikes still don’t have their own status: pedestrians think of them as great places to stroll and cars love double parking on them.  Is this the result of bad design or just the lack of reinforcement?

For my part, I was majorly disappointed about the fact that we had failed with dissuading people from driving through the city. Identically, when looking at examples of parklets in DUMBO, Brooklyn, where small parking areas were replaced by planters and chairs for pedestrians, I was also let down by the fact that the project had only moved the cars to another area of the neighborhood. 

Now Mayor Bloomberg almost succeeded in enforcing new laws to reduce the number of cars in the landscape of the city but the people (council) voted against it. I guess NYC long history of relationship with the car is not about to change so quickly.  Unfortunately, I also agree with Jane Jacobs “Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.”
What can I say, I love NY and I want a “greener, greater NY”!

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