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.

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