What Makes a Great Public Space?

A study of Washington Square Park in 2005 by the Project for Public Spaces concluded:

“Washington Square Park is one of the best known and best-loved destinations in New York City. And as a neighborhood park and civic gathering place, it may be one of the great public spaces in the world. Anyone who visits the park and who looks at how people use it can confirm in just a few minutes that it has nearly all of the key attributes of a great public space. … Its success can also be measured by other indicators such as the amount of affection that is being displayed, its overall comfort and feeling of being safe, the level of stewardship, and the way that people engage in different activities at very close range and interact with each other easily.”

In addition, Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities wrote of the park’s famous fountain, “In effect, this [fountain] is a circular arena, a theater in the round, and that is how it is used, with complete confusion as to who are spectators and who are the show.”

About Washington Square Park overall, she stated, “The city officials regularly concoct improvement schemes by which this center within the park would be sown to grass and flowers and surrounded by a fence. The invariable phrase is ‘restoring the land to park use.’ That is a different form of park use, legitimate in places. But for neighborhood parks, the finest centers are stage settings for people.”

This leads to one question : Why is New York City putting forth a radical redesign of Washington Square Park, a great public space?

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5 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Public Space?”

  1. Quoting Jane Jacobs doesn’t make her viewpoint correct. It’s just her viewpoint. Nothing more.

    As to the quote you employ “…sown to grass and flowers and surrounded by a fence…But for neighborhood parks, the finest centers are stages settings for people.”

    NYC has MORE than enough ‘settings’ for people. What it has precious little of are areas ‘sown to grass and flowers.’

    Thta’s the difference between a ‘park’ and a ‘parking lot.’

    And your repeated use of the adjective “RADICAL’ (as in ‘a radical redesign of WSP’) is as tired as it is meaningless. There’s nothing ‘RADICAL’ about the design, just because you don’t happen to agree with it.

    What I would determine as ‘RADICAL’ is a person or group of people who would actually prefer to have more (rather than less) paved over area in a public park as opposed to green lawn area.

    What I would consider ‘RADICAL’ is a person or group of people who care more about a fountain being moved a few feet over, rather than eliminating drug dealers from the same area – drug dealers who sell not only to college age kids, but also solicit those in high school and younger.

    What I find ‘RADICAL’ is someone (or some people) with that sense of priorites….

  2. Hi MJ,

    Well, perhaps you can tell me where the multitude of other settings ARE that New York City has “more than enough” of where spontaneous music occurs, where political protests happen, where people who don’t know each other are prone to interact with one other, where art is created, where free speech is exercised… ? Tell me exactly where these places are so I can better understand your point.

    Washington Square Park is more than a “park” — all of the above happens every day at Washington Square Park in ways it just DOES NOT happen elsewhere (or in only a few places). A designer who wants to make it a public space that is more about how ornaments and flowers relate to each other than how people do is making a “radical” change. Whether you like the usage of the word or not.

    It’s not just a few changes that are being made. In addition, the changes were made ignoring the input of the community, and not just a few people, but a huge majority of people in the community and across New York City. Unfortunately, the New York Times article skipped over a few key points in the “process” between the community and other engaged New Yorkers and the duplicity of the actions of the NYC Parks Department.

    With regards to any drug dealers, I believe that we have a police department for that. I’m not here to argue that point with you. You might want to contact 311 about it. In addition, should you choose to put your own focus into this, please feel free to update on your efforts.


    WSP Blog.

  3. MJ, you and I are obviously are not going to agree. I really am not sure where the source of some of your comments is coming from because you are missing my points and we are on different tracts entirely. I am not going to engage with you if you insist on veering into personal comments taking shots at me.

    To say in one of your comments that my thinking Washington Square Park offers something different than other public spaces is … to quote you … “self involved, incredibly elitist, very snobby and completely narcissistic” is just bizarre. Washington Square Park offers something different. There is nothing wrong with thinking that and it is true. And I’ll tell you why…

    First off, if you engage in any activism in New York City, it is a common theme that there are not (enough) public spaces where people can congregate in the ways that I mentioned.

    Secondly, Prospect Park is a great park. Central Park is a great park. Madison Square Park is an okay park. I have spent a lot of time in Prospect Park and rarely do free speech and speak outs happen in that location. People frisbee, they walk with their dogs, they fly kites, they feed ducks, etc. That is a whole other use and that is what Jane Jacobs is referring to.

    Washington Square Park is not lacking for lawn. If the lawn was green and tended to, you’d probably notice it more. The public space – and how it is used – is what Washington Square Park is known for and it is one of the great things about it.

    Perhaps Union Square Park and Tompkins Square Park offer a bit of what Washington Square Park does. And maybe there are some other parks in other boroughs that get some bits and pieces of these interactions…

    I don’t know if you’ve been involved in the public process over Washington Square Park but I stand by my comments about the community that came and spoke up for the park at meeting after meeting after meeting. I can’t speak to those people who stayed at home and did not participate.

    That is as far as I can engage with you on this at this point.

    Have a great day.

    WSP Blog.

  4. Hi I’m doing a research paper on public spaces and Jane Jacobs and I was wondering where you got this quote:
    “The city officials regularly concoct improvement schemes by which this center within the park would be sown to grass and flowers and surrounded by a fence. The invariable phrase is ‘restoring the land to park use.’ That is a different form of park use, legitimate in places. But for neighborhood parks, the finest centers are stage settings for people.”


  5. Hi Sophia,

    It’s from Jane Jacobs’ book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” I don’t have the book nearby and I don’t recall what section it’s in but I can let you know if you can’t find it.

    Good luck with your paper & thanks for stopping by!



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