How Public Spaces Shape Us & We Shape Them (On Falling in Love in Washington Square Park)

The following piece, “Why is it so Easy to Fall in Love in New York?,” explores public spaces and how we relate and interact with others within them.

Featured at WNET Thirteen.org’s Metro Focus column July 11th, it is adapted from Ariel Sabar’s recently released book “Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York.” Sabar’s parents met in Washington Square Park.

My mother and father met in Washington Square Park in the mid-1960s, and I’d thought I knew the story well. But not long ago, my father shared a detail I had not heard before. He said he’d actually spotted my mother on the streets outside, but didn’t have the nerve to approach until she’d entered the park.

Why? I asked.

The streets were too exposed, my father said. Attractive as she was, it would have felt improper to strike up a conversation there. The park, though, was different. It was like stepping into a village.

The park shrank the city, he told me. It slowed time. With its roving paths, its fountain and trees, it filtered away the facelessness and noise of the street. Once inside, he said, people ceased being strangers.

For a fleeting moment, they were on common ground. They were sharing something: not just the leaves and grass and water, but the human carnival.

And that got me wondering: Were some public places more likely to induce friendly glances than others? Could some actually encourage people to take the first steps toward falling in love? In doing some research on those questions, I found myself knee-deep in the little-known field of environmental psychology.

Environmental psychology came of age with the social movements of the late 1960s, when architects and psychologists began discussing how the design of everything from rooms and buildings to streets and cities might contribute to social ills like poverty, crime, mental illness, overcrowding and isolation. Underlying the research was a universal question: how do the physical places where we live, work and play shape us?

Another question is … how do we shape them?

The rest is here.

NYC Parks Commissioner Benepe Wants to Hear from You!

Parks Department logo Coney Island/Brighton Beach boardwalk

Parks Department logo Coney Island/Brighton Beach boardwalk

The NYC Parks Department is doing a public survey and would like your input.

Visit here to complete the survey.

There is an opportunity to comment along the way and primarily at the end. Some ideas for improvement in the way Parks Department operates would be:

1. Stop privatization of our public spaces. If the Parks Department would focus on maintaining the parks and not have to do splashy pr-photo op-overhauls of these public spaces, money would go to maintenance and repair. When parks are elaborately overhauled, they then require additional maintenance. This is when the Parks Department pushes for privatization of the space and it’s a vicious cycle. Then a private entity becomes the arbiter of the space. Our public parks must remain public.

2. Stop the reduction of our public spaces. (Washington Square Park, Union Square Park, and Yankee Stadium Parkland all come to mind).

3. Keep parks maintained and repaired vs. overhauling them. (Relates to #1.) At Washington Square Park, pathways are cracked and uneven, the bathrooms needs repair, the lawns had not been tended to for ages. If these things had been done, the Parks Department would have never gotten away with its plans for an unnecessary and extensive redesign (not a “renovation”) with costs upward of $25-$30 million. The Park could have been repaired for $6-$7 million, thereby saving the city money that — particularly during this “financial crisis” — could be applied (still) to keeping jobs and sparing cuts from our necessary city services, such as sanitation, police, education, libraries.

4. LISTEN to community input and work with community members on any redesigns of parks. (See: Washington Square Park where community members have been ignored as well as at Union Square Park, Yankee Stadium Parkland in the Bronx, Randalls Island, Tompkins Square Park, Highland Park/Ridgewood Reservoir on the Brooklyn/Queens border, more.)

5. Work existing trees in our parks into any redesigns of parks. (See Washington Square Park – 14 trees cut down thus far; Yankee Stadium Parkland, formerly Macomb Dams Park and John Mullaly Park – 400 trees sacrificed; Union Square Park – 14 trees chopped down; Randalls Island – perhaps 1000 trees axed; East River Park – 105 trees murdered.) It’s somewhat hypocritical to say you want to plant a “million trees” while destroying wonderful, mature trees that are part of the urban landscape.

6. Place value on parks and public spaces as community gathering spots, as places for expression of art, of politics, of music, as opportunities to connect with people they just might not otherwise. The survey does not address this at all. This is the great value of our public spaces and needs to be placed first ahead of business and corporations and real estate values and “sponsors” (see Chanel, Central Park). The importance of these spaces as locales for free speech and democracy to flourish must be nurtured and recognized.

So go forth and complete the survey!