WikiCity – How Citizens Can Improve Their Cities & On Washington Square

Mexico City

Buckminster Fuller said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Following in that spirit is the WikiCity movement, which I just learned of, happening in cities across the world. At the end of this post, I address how this relates back to Washington Square Park and its redesign.

From the Sustainable Cities Collective:

When governments don’t build infrastructure, citizens usually complain, but can’t do much about it. They pressure public officials and protest against proposed projects, but that’s as far as citizen participation in city building usually goes. It’s reactive, not proactive.

However, this model of citizen participation is being rethought by citizens around the world. They are taking control over what happens in their cities. … Local groups all around the world are taking the initiative and are building the infrastructure that governments refuse or are slow to do. …

In Los Angeles, several different groups have tried to address the lack of seating in the streets. They designed the SignBench and the SignChair that can be attached to existing street furniture to provide a place to sit. Another group designed a whole set of wood benches and planters for a bus stop that lacked any kind of street furniture. …

However, what is most important about this actions is that they open a discussion that hadn’t existed previously about who owns the city and who can improve it. This actions empower citizens to think about their environment and act on it, and that is ultimately more meaningful than the mere creation of infrastructure.

And this can go beyond infrastructure, as this piece, “Welcome to the City of Voice” by Tekijä Roope Mokka illustrates:

UN estimates that by 2050 half of the world’s population will live in “self-built cities” – informal settlements, slums. I hope they’re wrong. I hope we all live in cities that we design and create ourselves. If slums can be built by people with access to almost no resources, imagine what we in the developed world could do.

There is tons of research into why some people feel happier than others. In the all the answers one thing keeps coming up: the ability to guide your own life. We are happy if we feel that we have power over our lives, if we have a voice. Our greatest urban problem is not spiraling property prices, nor the ageing population nor safety. It is not zero tolerance, queues for clubs and bars, it’s not chain restaurants nor is it ugly buildings or clone towns. These are merely symptoms.

The core issue is that cities no longer enable us to live out our dreams. We have changed, but the cities haven’t. They remain the final bastions of modernistic design where users are seen as the masses and individuals are an obstacle. Even suburbia (on the surface a tasteless, mundane, hypermarket-bound high-carbon lifestyle) offers more potential for self-expression. That is why we fleeing cities.

To lure us back we need cities that give us a voice. We need to take democracy to the next level, where it recognises our individual needs and dreams.

How this relates to Washington Square Park:

The problem with Washington Square Park’s redesign is that it’s an example of a city that had a concept that totally negated the value of park users’ and community input. There was a Parks Commissioner, as directed by the city’s Mayor, who pretended that having “listening sessions” was the same thing AS listening.

The problem with Washington Square Park Redesign Phase II isn’t that it doesn’t look nice. As commenter Angela wrote: “the park looks pretty and all but rather generic and bland.”

The problem is that everything about the previous design that the community very much liked was obliterated. It was the ultimate in a slap in the face, a statement: ‘we don’t care what you think,’ we want this park to represent the Bloomberg model, to be homogenized, and to reflect the city WE envision, not the one you want, not the one you loved.’ By their actions, city officials were blatantly saying, ‘this isn’t the ’60s or even the ’70s and we WILL prevail.’ Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. The park will always be special. It’s just a bit tainted now. Unfortunately, there’s no way to get around that fact.

I think that there will be a way, one day in the future, for people to reclaim what was lost at Washington Square or create something new within the design, as people are doing in WikiCity movements, which will provide the lost “voice” in the process. That there will be a way to somehow right what was done and build a new model of governance for the future; a future where the Bloomberg model, in which real estate, Wall Street and corporate interests reign, will be looked upon with disdain, and people will say “This is ours. Don’t mess with this.”

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Blog Update

Hi. Sorry for the lack of posting. Trying to stay focused on life and my book! But I do want to continue posting here now & again so look for a new post on Monday, March 22nd! For more frequent updates, I post other NYC-related news and thoughts on Twitter so you can check me out there. Thanks for stopping by!

-Cathryn, WSP Blog

2nd Anniversary of this Blog!

This is an abbreviated, edited version of the post I ran last year on the blog’s 1 year anniversary – with an update at the end:

I recounted here how I started this blog after going to an exhibit in January 2008 at the Municipal Art Society on Jane Jacobs. Jane Jacobs had been critically involved over the years at Washington Square Park (and, of course, New York City, in general). The goal of the exhibit was to inspire community activism. I recognized that many people in the community had tried the typical routes (go to meetings, talk to politicians, talk to your community board, hand out flyers, etc. etc.). At the exhibit, a little booklet was handed out which stated, basically, if all else fails, if you’ve tried everything, START A BLOG. That got my attention. I thought, why not?

Right around the time I started, I met all these wonderful Brooklyn bloggers at a luncheon. They were all so inspiring, honest, quirky, talented, encouraging. Truthfully, if I had realized how much work it would be, I might have rethought it but this blog provided a place to practice writing in a structured way that was part activism, part journalism. I have a background in public relations so it seemed like some of that might get thrown in also.

I started out wanting to tell the story of what had happened – to that point. Then, last summer (’08), new meetings about the park’s redesign began and I was able to report the story as it was happening. Curbed called this a “watchdog blog.” Along the way, this blog got written up in the New York Times, linked to by numerous other blogs and web sites, and I had written dialogue with the NYC Parks Commissioner.

I’ve felt it was important to interconnect other issues going on in our city and public space that also relate to the issues at Washington Square Park, such as:

* the reduction and privatization of public space (particular emphasis on Washington Square Park, Union Square Park, and Yankee Stadium Parkland);

* the cutting down of hundreds if not thousands of trees in our parks across the five boroughs while the Mayor hypes his MillionTreesNYC “initiative” ;

* the dangerous and controversial use of artificial turf in our parks and playing fields;

* NYU: Washington Square Park’s influential neighbor and its reckless real estate land grabs which are decimating communities and neighborhoods throughout Manhattan as it plants its flags seemingly everywhere. (NYU owns, after all, basically all the real estate that surrounds the park.);

* Business Improvement Districts and Park Conservancy Models : The problem with the overly pervasive BIDs and Conservancies is that they get a stronghold on our public spaces, thereby influencing usage based on bolstering real estate values over community interests;

* Failure of elected officials: City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and (former) City Council Member Alan Gerson failed in protecting Washington Square Park and in responding to their constituents’ pleas for intervention;

* Washington Square Park Task Force — Largely comprised of members of Community Board 2, as well as representatives of elected officials, and community members. Too often the requests it puts forward to the Parks Department lack a true sense of advocating for the Park;

And… of course…

* Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Without him and his deft and slickly corrosive way of maneuvering through city agencies and outside groups, none of what’s happened at Washington Square Park and in our city would have been possible.

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2/26/10: Right now, we’re in full swing of Phase II construction at the Park. There is a Phase III yet to come! This blog became an important space for me personally when I first started writing it — it’s written itself at times! I’ve had to slow down and post less often (I posted once a day for close to the first year and a half) and future posting will be more sporadic. Yet, there are 492 posts in the archive (check ’em out – see Categories on right hand side bar) and a lot of material has been covered here.

I learn all the time from the other NYC bloggers, and it’ll be interesting to see where this whole “citizen journalism” movement goes (especially as mainstream journalists move in).

If there’s one change I would have liked to have seen, it would have been more transparency and less arrogance, a change in the way the NYC Parks Department related on Washington Square Park and all park issues.

While the Phase I section of the Park (around the Fountain), which opened May ’09, looks “pretty,” it also looks suburbanized, homogenized, “aligned.” Even the latest news, of those two old trees axed amidst Phase II Construction ones that landscape designer George Vellonakis insisted would be saved – confirms another untruth, on top of too many others, from the New York City Parks Department. Another inappropriate action from a city agency, as we navigate Mayor Bloomberg’s (engineered) third term.

However, the spirit of the park will live on! It’ll change (again) as the years go by. And I believe ultimately the truth (about Mayor Bloomberg, about the Parks Department under Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, about whatever behind-the-scenes deals that were done) will prevail.

As always, thanks for reading and stopping by whether it’s been often, from time-to-time, or just today!

best,
Cathryn.
WSP Blog

*The First Post: The Magical Park, February 26, 2008

*Links to many of the issues noted above (topics covered on this blog) here.

Photo: Venetia27

A little Self Promotion!

Updated 2/20

Yes, this is self promotion but, hey!, I’ve been writing this blog for close to two years, I think I can throw some in at this point! Two more days ’til fundraising to complete my book on Kickstarter ends — for each level of backing, you also get Rewards (a completed book, a thank you on the web site, a thank you in the book, etc.!) – plus I have a new video. Check it out at my Kickstarter page here!

As of this minute, I have 38 hours to go! I have til Friday, February 19th at 11:15 p.m. On Kickstarter, the end call for funding of your project is the most important one, as I only receive the funds pledged IF I reach my goal of $6500. With your help, I can meet my goal.

THANK YOU to WSP Blog readers and other bloggers that have helped out either via pledging or spreading the word. MUCH appreciated!

Cathryn
WSP Blog

Update: 2/20 — I made my initial goal! The site can still take pledges to fund my book but my Kickstarter venture was a success!

Blog Update

Washington Square Park

February 8th — I’ll be blogging less for the month of February working on raising funds and writing my book! Any WSP or Parks-related meetings coming up will be posted under Events & Actions. You can also follow me on Twitter. I will get some photos up of the recent construction soon! Thanks for stopping by.

Photo: Katherineg

Blog Musings…

There are many things I would have liked to have covered over the summer here on the Washington Square Park Blog, but, alas, could not … such as:

*the unnecessary and cruel killing of the resident Canadian geese (and Mayor Bloomberg‘s role in it) rounded up from many parks across New York City;

*the Mayor’s re-election campaign for that third term and his spending on it – many interesting articles on this;

*NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn who has some spirited challengers for her re-election campaign as City Council Member in Yetta Kurland and Maria Passannente- Derr, and who, uh, won’t commit to support the Democratic candidate for Mayor (which is code for … how can she not support Mayor Michael Bloomberg with whom she has a co-dependent relationship …? they need each other at this point. The other option being discussed is that she just won’t take a position on endorsement vs. backing him.) and Council Member Alan Gerson also running for re-election (and, whose name, last I checked, didn’t make it on the primary ballot because of an error on his petitions)*;

*The High Line Park opening ;

*The sad demise of many Central Park trees because of an intense storm a couple of weeks ago.  (There were some interesting comments in articles from NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe who, on the one hand, has such an attachment to trees, but, on the other, is so quick to chop them down if he has some fancy design plan in mind that might raise his profile…)

I had to focus a bit less on this blog and a bit more on some other life things so these things were not covered here on the blog.

And what about Washington Square Park…?

I will definitely write when I find out more about plans for Phase II – which unfortunately, to date, the Parks Department Press Department has been less than forthcoming about.  What DID that accepted bid come in at for Phase II? Rumor is work will begin around mid-September. I still strongly believe the work should be done in two parts so that the Eastern side of the park and the Southwestern portion are not unnecessarily gated off all at once, closed to all.

Next blog post Wednesday, September 9th!  See you then!

** Check back for this post to be Updated later this week because I’ll try to add other links and sources for you to find out more about all of the above. **

* To read more about Alan Gerson and Christine Quinn’s roles in the redesign of Washington Square Park, scroll down to Categories on the right sidebar and click “Gerson-Quinn.”

Musings: On Washington Square, The Villager and the Village Alliance BID

This week’s Villager features an article on the Washington Square Park ribbon cutting last week (May 28th). The writer is Albert Amateau who I met at the park’s opening the week prior. I’m a little stunned at this piece which glosses over anything that might have been problematic over the Park’s redesign. It’s not as if The Villager hasn’t reported it over the years, and in detail. There’s reference to some discord but little context. The little there is is allotted to one person who is quoted stating that “20 people” were against changes being made to the park. ??

It’s amazing how quickly the arguments can get lost or forgotten amidst the … pretty. This piece seems to rewrite history and ignore what was a truly problematic, non-transparent and unnecessarily hostile process put into place by the New York City government in the redesign of Washington Square Park.

On this blog, although I’ve certainly had people write in saying they love the new park, I’ve also had people write in with substantive and thoughtful explanations as to what they take issue with. Perhaps Mr. Amateau didn’t encounter many people who were able to give him concrete thoughts on-the-spot. Many people stayed away that day who felt uncomfortable with the “celebration.” Long time activist Mitchel Cohen, who was out of town, wrote in commenting and asked … why wasn’t anyone handing out flyers critiquing the Parks Department and informing people about what went on?

It’s a valid point and, as much as no one wants to be “the negative person” forever, it’s also important for other communities and other battles – and Washington Square Park’s history – that people know what went on here during the Bloomberg Administration.

On the Business Improvement District and their “significant” contribution?

Then there’s the question of the Village Alliance Business Improvement District (formerly the 8th Street BID) which is, it seems to me, gearing up to play a key role in any private conservancy. A conservancy is greatly opposed by the vast number of community members (and the Parks Department is well aware of this).

The Villager article states: “Honi Klein, president of the Village Alliance business improvement district, who raised significant funds for the Washington Square Park renovation, declared the phase-one completion a resounding success.”

From what I know, the Village Alliance raised $125,000 thus far with plans to raise another $125,000. Now, I’m not saying that’s a small amount of money but for a project (Phases I-III Washington Square Park Redesign) with a price tag of over $32 million, that’s really not a “significant” amount, is it?

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** For an up-to-date refresher on what the issues were and are, go here. **