Two ways to draw repeat visitors to your park

Imagine that you are a first-time visitor to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, or maybe Klyde Warren Park, or even Bryant Park. In fact, you could stroll through any of the new urban parks that are redefining downtowns across America. Unless the weather was particularly bad, you would immediately notice how many people are there, and all the varied sorts of activities--here are chess players, there a concert, yoga over there--taking place in those wonderful spaces. Often, you will see a park user actively pointing out sights and happenings to their friends, describing just what kind of activities happen in what section of the park and when.

 A juggling instructor, left, facilitates a group juggle session in Bryant Park, NYC.

A juggling instructor, left, facilitates a group juggle session in Bryant Park, NYC.

How does it happen? By what kind of trick do these places manage to offer such rich programs that attract repeat visitors? Most of their users are locals, and the activities they offer have sprung from every corner of their neighborhoods. Such a strong link between community and park activities is no accident; rather it is a product of opportunities created by the active management of these spaces. Most of the time conservancies or other non-profit partners are responsible, but public operators sometimes follow the same script. Our intent here it to outline for placemakers two techniques to achieve this goal: outreach and inreach.

Let us consider inreach first, as it is probably less used, although remarkably painless. "Inreach" is a term we'll use here to describe the act of observing positive action in a space and expanding upon it. What makes for a good activity that should be supported? Two clear criteria stand out to us: the activity must please a great majority of people, and it must be visually appealing. Looking at what is happening in the space in her care, a public-space manager must ask herself: Is this good? If the answer is “Yes,” then: "How can I facilitate this?" In many places, an official might notice an unlicensed activity and ban it from the grounds for lack of proper credentials. A placemaker conducting inreach observes the people using the space and will instead support their activity, much like a thoughtful gardener gauging whether a seedling should remain part of her plot.

The development of the juggling program in Bryant Park is an example of inreach. Currently, on any weekday at any time of the year, a visitor can learn the art of juggling for free from expert jugglers. At first, the jugglers were a pain to conservancy staff and park patrons alike--they claimed a lot of territory, trampled the lawn, and frequently caused other users to move to accommodate them. The staff of Bryant Park considered requesting that the ungainly group of jugglers find another practice spot. Thankfully, the park placemakers appreciated that these jugglers’ pin game was a spectacle to which many visitors were drawn, and they were bona fide community members. They were locals who visited their favorite public space to practice an activity that clearly they could not do in their Manhattan apartment. Determined to enlist the entertainers to the benefit of the park, the staff offered them storage, equipment, and a stipend. In return, the jugglers were asked to formalize their offering and hours of presence, teach any and all comers, and use areas of the park that were better-suited for their catches and throws. It worked. One of the park's most successful programs was born. Perceptive management and keen awareness of patron interests are the characteristics of successful inreach. It is the placemaker’s job to recognize what diamonds in the rough can be found in their spaces, and help polish them to the benefit of all users.

Let us now turn to outreach. At its core, it is about making the neighborhood aware of the benefits of underutilized public space. Here the placemaker will take an inventory of activity providers in the area and apply the same test as above: Would this activity translate well to a public space, with its diversity of ages and abilities? Will it find an audience? Will it be visually interesting? If the answers are “yes,” then the placemaker should extend an invitation to the local athletics store, pilates studio, Magic card club, or origami society. The park, the plazas, are nearby--would the fitness instructor consider hosting an outdoor activity? What might we do to smooth the way? Often, it won’t be an issue of money but rather of logistics. Where will the instructor put her yoga mats? How will he transport them? What about permits? And amplified sound? The placemaker should have answers to all such questions to ease the process of using the park by this new constituent. While many will find the common approach of “I need to convince authorities to let me use the park for my business” to be too tedious to warrant the effort, it will be a different story if activity creators are invited in. The active public space manager will reverse the trend and convince activity creators that it will be rewarding for them to share their work with the public.

Inreach and outreach: in both cases the public space or park manager needs to act as a casting director. Which activity will fit in my script? How do I get it there? Depending on the characteristics of any given place, some activities are desirable, and some are not. Ball games can unify communities, but only if there is enough space for them to unfold. An game of chess always draws onlookers, and so on. If, like us, you believe that people-watching is the core of a public space’s success, hosting all sorts of programs is an important tool to get there. Inreach and outreach will help you get it done.

Food Carts and Trucks: a Proposal

As I write, it appears that the City of New York is getting ready to give in to vendor advocates and greatly expand the number of mobile food vending license it makes available. While observers of the impact and mechanics of the mobile food vending business might be surprised by such a decision, particularly in the wake of the thorough piece by Jeff Koyen in Crain's, I started wondering about what this vast program should look like. 

  Welcome to New York!

Welcome to New York!

Of course, the City could simply choose to put in place the program proposed by Dan Biederman, here in (again) Crain's.

Mr. Biederman is right that most of the issues created by the carts would go away, particularly the opacity of the black market for licenses, while both vendors and consumers would benefit. Yet, I wondered: what should a city's policy towards food carts and trucks look like? I will speak indiscriminately about carts and trucks, as there is no fundamental difference between them as far as regulations. Trucks are larger, and sit on the street rather than the sidewalk. That is the primary distinction, and useful in the sense that carts should be small, to not become encumbrances, while more complex food service operations can use trucks, and park on the street. 

I believe, if one were to start from scratch, that the City should seek to fulfill a number of goals:

  • offer quality and interesting food, at reasonable prices; 
  • offer the opportunity to entrepreneurs to start a food business; 
  • offer food that is safe for the public to consume, sold from clean mobile food units and commissaries; 
  • Put food in locations where it is needed and valued, not simply where revenues for vendors will be the highest (here, again in an NYC example think green cab versus yellow cab); 
  • Prevent the "turf wars" and that frequently take place between vendors; 
  • Finally , it should provide some revenue for the City in compensation for the use of public space. This is a sound principle that applies even beyond this topic.

Let's start with the location of the service. The City, in partnership with neighborhood groups or local stakeholders, should determine where and when carts are welcome to operate. Those spaces should then be auctioned for a period of time, as per the Parks program praised by Dan Biederman in his Crain's editorial. Business Improvement Districts could be particularly good allies of any municipality in identifying locations where carts and trucks would not be obstacles to traffic or nuisances to brick and mortar businesses but instead could become agents of renewal or economic development. This process would also make it much easier for the City to push vendors to comply with sanitation and appearance rules, as they would be tied to a single space. It would also free up enforcement resources better used elsewhere. Further, I propose that only when the license holder is present onsite should the business be allowed to operate. This would prevent the resale market that is the norm today (it is the same for newsstand operations in the City, another sector where such a rule change would be more equitable ).

 Trash, oil spills, terrible graphics, flashy signs, generators and refueling tanks, it is all here!

Trash, oil spills, terrible graphics, flashy signs, generators and refueling tanks, it is all here!

As for the units themselves, there should be common-sense restrictions on their size. The City of New York did not demonstrate great authority by simply recognizing that carts had "grown" in recent years from 2 feet by 5 feet to upwards of 5 by 10 and making the larger measurement the new standard. The same goes for trucks. Some are monsters more suited to large suburban parking lots than to crowded urban streets. Until the City imposes sensible restrictions, both types will keep growing. Second, they should be in the food business, not the advertising business. Advertising should not be allowed. The City could manage and ad program if it were to provide carts, as it does for other street elements such as Newsstands, bus stops, bike shares, flagpoles or other street elements. Out of character flashy signs and messy generators should also be prohibited, as well as loud music. A clean and secure space for propane and battery operations for electric equipment should become the standard, with no fuel generators. 

Commissaries should likewise be licensed and inspected. Carts and trucks should be registered to a commissary, again making any enforcement issues much easier to handle, and improving sanitary conditions. 

The program should also prevent the working conditions that exist now, with license holders and commissary owners earning significant income off hourly worker; who are earning less than a "living wage" despite very long hours and a harsh work environment. To do so, I propose that the revenues derived by the City from auctioning off street locations be pooled into a startup fund that would help food entrepreneurs finance their operations, at least at first. The City could also lease carts of its own design, if it so chose. New immigrants and chefs wishing to start a food cart or truck business could thus easily bid on a spot, and face a much safer and easier financing environment than they do today. Another change would be to make it so that no individual have the possibility of owning more than one license. Simple biometric data could prevent fraud. Again this would favor the workers, and make it more difficult for savvy operators seeking to create rents off a public program. 

A single City agency should be responsible for managing the entire program. New York currently divides its work on the subject between Consumer Affairs, Health, and Transportation, with the police in charge of much of the enforcement. As one can imagine, it is less than ideal. A single office should be responsible of awarding permit, overseeing the auction of locations, inspecting the operators, and dealing with other City agencies.

The utopia described above could become a true and self financing job program, allowing food operators to create a customer base prior to moving on to brick and mortar. If they wish to stick to simple cart or truck offerings, as many hot dog or rice and chicken carts do, they could do so knowing their spot is secure and valued by the community, free from hassling by enforcement as long as they pay their bills, respect sanitation rules, and keep to their spots. Finally, the system would remove the crony capitalists that now dominate the industry and exploit cart operators. 

Sakura Matsuri: An Event With Surprisingly Wide Appeal

Cherry Blossoms have a place of honor in the heart of most park goers. The symbolism of the friendship between Japan and America adds a powerful layer of meaning to the appeal of the pink blossoms heralding Spring. A few weeks ago, my family visited the Brooklyn Botanical garden on the day of the Sakura Matsuri celebration. The Botanical Garden's staff did well picking the date, as the blooms were in full glory. 

The gardens were mobbed. Not just busy, but thronged with people, almost to the point of being uncomfortable. The line to purchase tickets was probably 45 minutes long, and stretched far on the adjacent sidewalks. 

The nature of the crowd is the true topic of this post. Today's park manager wishes to offer an experience that is appealing to all. This seems simple enough, but it is not easy, for the likes and dislikes of the communities in our cities are increasingly fragmented. Offering a beautiful, naturalistic landscape we know is not enough to engage the public in the modern city. Programs have become a major part; one could say the major part; of the work of public space managers, and programs attract specific audiences. Modern dance will not have the same draw as knitting, just as classical music performances will have limited overlap with hip-hop. Yet those of us who manage parks wish for them to be a haven for everybody: young and old, rich and poor, and so forth. We do so because parks are the common democratic space and the place to bridge differences between communities.  Parks are a key ingredient of the glue that binds us together, and we wish to do our part in keeping it strong.

 You don't see this crowd every day...

You don't see this crowd every day...

Yet if we can expose our public to various activities, arts and programs, we mostly rely on the public's pre-existing tastes and dispositions. Which is why I want to highlight the work for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden on the occasion of the Sakura Matsuri. The event is of course a celebration of the plants and of their symbolism, but over the years also became that of both high-brow and more popular Japanese culture. Today at the event one can enjoy Manga and comic books, themed theater, cosplay fashion shows, comedy, themed kids events, discover the intricacies of the tea ceremony, sword fighting, bonsai trimming classes and more. While it seemed each activity had its own "tribe" and set of fans, there was both interest and bewilderment as seniors discovered teens in manga hero costumes or college students marvelled at the work of infinitely patient photo artists. Everywhere people were engaged in conversation with strangers, and finding things to talk about in the rich surroundings.  Even the commercial part of the event was fun and very well done, with specialty pop up retailers, in the ever present 10' by 10' white tents. Local artists were there, presenting flower paintings and drawings, as well as community comic book artists, overwhelmed by the size of the crowd. Although I confess my favorite were sushi themed pillows. 

 If an emoticon could hug you it would look just like this...

If an emoticon could hug you it would look just like this...

The result of these efforts: the crowd on that day was as diverse as any you will encounter. All ethnicities were there, and all ages. Sure it was elbow to elbow, but once in the gardens you feel the excitement of being part of an event that attracted everybody in the Borough of Brooklyn.

What lessons can we draw from this success? Can any event reach everyone? Probably not. But by adding element to element, and reacting to things they discovered in the crowd and embracing them over the years(costumes for sure), all within a common theme, and broadening the definition of what is the cherry blossom festival, the organizers created a phenomenon. This approach can certainly be replicated for other activities. 

The Urbanism of Zootopia

One of the advantages of having children is benefiting from a bridge to media and culture that you would not enjoy otherwise. But for my kids, would have I have ventured to discover how Snapchat works? Would I care about Descendants, or the 100 or Fifth Harmony? Probably not. But to remain a part of their lives I follow what is of interest to them. Thus, a few days ago, we went to see Disney's latest animated movie: Zootopia.

I won't spoil the plot too much, just know that not all is what it seems and that the clever denunciation of some of the US' social mores  is well worth the price of entry. What I wish to discuss is the background of the movie: the character of the complex and Utopian city where the action take place, which shares the name of the movie: Zootopia. 

 A train station with some flair.

A train station with some flair.

Of course, we know that Disney staff can make a good Main Street. They have not forgotten their craft, but, now freed of the need to make every square foot into a money machine, they present us in Zootopia with a gorgeous Metropolis where anybody would want to spend some time. The City is clean, of course. It is safe, and agent Hops, the main character, is an enthusiastic police officer. The trees are large specimens. You can travel by bike, subway,  light rail, by car, by the cutest cable gondolas you ever saw, on ice floes, or simply enjoy wide sidewalks. As the action shifts to the City's core, the space allocated to cars reduces, with regular street becoming Woonerfs, and leading to a large pedestrians only central square -pictured above- that is both park and plaza. 

The architecture of the city is always interesting to look at. In its various districts, we find romantic buildings, gilded age mansions and commercial corridors, art deco towers and other nods to America's great architectural past. Kiosks and subway entrances are a strange mix of what would happen if Paris' Guimard design and New York's pre war entrances  had offsprings. Awnings are canvas, not vinyl.  Bridges have delicate or interesting arches.  It is not all nostalgia as the modern sections of town are equally, possibly more, interesting, because they are good. The city has plenty of international style towers, and in fact they dominate its skyline. However, they are not the drab and bland variety that are sprouting in Brooklyn today. They are organic, with interesting curves, windows, and a clear understanding of their relationship to their fellow neighbors. Moreover, at ground level, you won't find any blank walls, nor long expanses of uniform structural glass with nothing interesting to look at. There is texture, retail and activity facing the street. Further, every sidewalk has a good streetscape, contextual to its surroundings. 

What is striking to me about this fun film is how easily animators conjure up a beautiful city and the contrast with the reality of the building environment around us, in cities of course, but particularly in the suburbs. The image of Zootopia could not be further away from the strip mall/cookie cutter housing development layout that is home to most of the people who will watch the movie in the US.  Can that gap be bridged? 

What does "World Class Public Space" mean?

Each new public-space project brings hopes and aspirations for renewal--the vision of a city changed for the better. As the stakeholders behind a project set on their journey of transformation, they typically will share their ambition what is to become. Invariably, this effort will proudly proclaim that the new park (or beach, or sea-side pier) is to be a "world class public space." This has a reassuring tone to it: the money spent will be worthwhile, the result something one can be proud of and the project managers know what they are about. 

But here we pause. What does world class mean in this context? The words are not defined, and are stated as self-evident. Seldom are examples provided. The reader is left to his own imagination. At prima facie, this hardly seems an issue—Who can argue with such an ambition? But I believe it is a problem. Often, the work of creating the new space will focus on appearance and design features—the components most prominent in  renderings--while ignoring the outcomes produced by great spaces, which should drive the design work. As a result,  rarely do the spaces created rise to the quality of the great parks, plazas and streets of our time. Those are very real, and when we visit them, we immediately feel that we are immersed in the exceptional.  

Again, we can pause for a moment and draw a distinction. World-famous public space, does not mean world class. World class is a product of the inherent quality of the place. World famous is a product of notoriety. Certainly Tien An Men Square is world famous. But the barren plaza hardly registers as world class as a space. Neither would the Place de la Concorde in Paris, nor many others.

Thus the question: what makes a world-class space? Can we offer a list of categories or elements that a space must possess to qualify as "world class?" I answer "yes" and offer the four necessary items below as definition.

First, the park or plaza must be one that is used primarily by locals. No world-class place is just a tourist attraction. It is part of the fabric and daily life of its home city. While tourists will seek it out, it will be in part because they hope to see how the locals behave in their own town, and wish to familiarize themselves with the native lifestyle.

Second, and  intertwined with the above characteristic: a world-class space is one that draws repeat visitors .  It is intrinsically related to a city’s self-image, and that of its citizens. As they come back--be it frequently or at an interval of several years--patronizing the plaza or park will invoke a sense of pleasant nostalgia. There can be many reasons for them to keep coming: the beauty of a site,  its convenient location within the city, nearby attractions. Above all, I think the determining factor is comfort. This place is comfortable, and easy to use. One can always find a good seat. There is something interesting to eat or drink. Unexpected things can be expected to happen. There will be a bathroom nearby. 

Third, and yet another reason why people will come, and return, is that this place is a great people-watching spot. From her chair or bench, or from the terrace of a cafe, a patron will observe the world passing by, in its extraordinary diversity. Unexpected things might happen. Most people never tire of this entertainment, and with good reason. World-class public spaces openly invite us to look at each other, and provide us with a great platform from which to do so. 

Finally our space will be appealing to all kinds of people--young, old, women, men and everything in between, of all incomes, shapes, origins and abilities.  One might say: "But all public spaces do that!" They do not. Many otherwise interesting or beautiful spaces will be hosts to one kind of people in particular. One might feel welcome to pass by, but because the space feels transient, there is no compelling reason to stay. Whereas our natural bias is to seek those similar to ourselves, the great public spaces will invite everyone. They enable interactions between folks of varied backgrounds who otherwise have little reason to be in contact with each other, and even less social allowance for a direct exchange. 

This is the challenge designers and placemakers face when creating a space or refurbishing one--Creating a space that will allow this amazing alchemy to take place; the combination of pleasing locals and attracting out of towners, maintaining physical comfort for all visitors, contriving a sense of theater-in-the-round, all for patrons as diverse as humanity itself.  This is what world class is.