The Soul of Washington Square Park: What the NYC Parks Department Left Out of their Redesign Plans

While looking up articles on Washington Square Park earlier this year, I came across a research paper by a student at SUNY(State University of New York) Syracuse College of Environmental Science and Forestry entitled: “Searching for the Soul of Washington Square Park: Employing Narrative, Photo-Voice and Mapping to Discover and Combine Pragmatic Issues of Urban Park Design with a Community’s Emotional Needs” (May 2007). It was written by Yamila Fournier as a senior project.

Spending time at Washington Square Park working on her research, Ms. Fournier interviewed Park users as well as Parks Department “officials.” She investigated people’s routines at the Park and what they loved about it as a public space. She explored what the Parks Department procedures are for redesign of a park (the answer: there are no protocols in place).

As she delves into the history and process of the redesign of Washington Square Park and the interactions between government agencies and the community, she ties together themes in ways that have not been fully explored elsewhere. I have excerpted parts of it here.

Excerpts from “Searching for the Soul of Washington Square Park” (note: the formatting is all mine. It’s a 52 page+ paper so this is condensed.):

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When the idea to renovate Washington Square Park was first introduced, the general consensus was that the park is in need of much repair.

That is where all agreement ended. Since the plans for the redesign were unveiled in 2001, there has been no harmony.

The proposed redesign specifies:

*a closable 4′ fence around the perimeter;
*bringing the central fountain up to grade with the road;
*moving the central fountain 22′ to the east to create an axial relationship with the newly renovated arch;
*relocating dog runs;
*enlarging playgrounds;
*adding an adventure playground to replace the highly contentious mounds;
*creating a new building for Parks Department offices and equipment;
*relocating statuary;
*eliminating seating areas;
*adding light fixtures; and
*renovating bathrooms, among other changes.

Every portion of the design has its critics. One thing that almost all the critics can agree on is that the community felt left out of the design process.

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Artists Being Evicted from Union Square Park


Artists make up a vital part of the fabric of Union Square Park. On Friday, April 4th, they were given word that they are being evicted out of their longstanding space due to Mayor Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe’s plans to further privatize the Park. These plans, as outlined previously, include expanding the restaurant space in the historic Pavilion for Union Square Partnership member and restauranteur Danny Meyer, thereby reducing the amount of space for artists, the famous GreenMarket(founded by Parks Commissioner Benepe’s father, Barry) and free speech protesters in the Park for TWO years during construction. The expansion for this restaurant, largely unwelcome by the community, will also mean the destruction of 14 stately trees by our city’s Parks Commissioner.

Here is an excerpt from a notice from Robert Lederman who organizes A.R.T.I.S.T., an organization representing, and comprised of, street artists in our city:

On Friday, April 4th 2008. the Parks Department told artists working in Union Square Park that for the next two years they would no longer be allowed to set up in or around the park on Wednesdays and Saturdays due to a construction project at the North end of the park. A restaurant is being built there on behalf of a board member of the Union Sq Partnership. As a result of the construction, the entire Greenmarket will be relocated from the North and West sides of the park to the South and West sides, the exact location artists have set up in for years.

I explained (to the Parks Department) that artists have no problem with the Greenmarket and are willing to reasonably cooperate in making space for the construction project but that we also have NO intention of giving up our First Amendment rights in the park.

Some background: The Mayor deliberately under budgets the Parks Department each year. As a result, the Parks Department must somehow earn hundreds of millions of dollars each year in order to pay the bills for running the vast NYC parks system. They make up for the lack of funds by selling concessions, letting corporations rent public parks for special events and by privatizing public spaces, as is being done in USP with the new restaurant.

They also deal with this deliberate under budgeting by allowing private corporations like the Union Square Partnership, The Central Park Conservancy, the Battery Park Conservancy and the Bryant Park Conservancy to take over most, or in some cases all, of the operations in a particular park. In exchange for the funding, they are allowed to gradually transform NYC’s public parks into corporate run privatized parks, not much different than Disneyland or a private mall.

For more information or to be updated consistently, please contact Robert Lederman at artistpres -at- gmail.com.

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