Book Review: Designs on the Public

Designs on the Public: The Private Lives of New York's Public Spaces by Kristine F. Miller

See also my review of Miller's book published in The Architect's Newspaper (PDF).

The term public space immediately brings to mind many images and ideas, but what tends to characterize it is its stance opposite private space. Be it in terms of ownership or freedoms, this traditional dialectic that describes some place as being one or the other is slowly eroding, as qualities of each infiltrates the other and as laws chip away at the definitions of each. This fascinating and timely book focuses on public space in the American city where its existence is not only exploited to the fullest, but also defended to the utmost.
Kristine F. Miller, associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota, looks at six public spaces in Manhattan, including the front steps of City Hall, Jacob Javits Plaza, the "New" Times Square, and three privately owned public spaces (POPS) in Midtown skyscrapers. As each space is different, so is each theme explored. At the City Hall steps, the right to assemble is seen as a reflection of the city's political interests, by their acceptance or denial of permission for certain groups. At Javits Plaza -- a place I'm similarly drawn to for the design's questionable nature -- Miller presents the redesign of the space by landscape architect Martha Schwartz as a continuation of the restrictions the city enforces at City Hall, this time via design rather than regulation. In Times Square, graphic design is shown to be a means of manipulation, to skew the demographic of the place from actual to desired. And in the Midtown office buildings, we see how a well-designed public space can be ruined when private interests take precedence and ignore the provisions of POPS; how public space can be transformed via design and legal gray areas into semi-private commercial space; and how bad planning and design can occur in a POPS system that values quantity over quality.
What each of these case studies have in common is the increasingly obvious fact (especially post 9/11) that public space is always changing, from the rights associated with it and the effects of private interest upon it, to the definition of public space itself. This last is perhaps the most important but the least discussed or urgent matter for most. It's a shame, as the machinations of political bodies effectively reducing the realm of the truly public under the vague blanket of security ultimately affects us all, whether we live in New York City or not. Here Kristine F. Miller shows us how design plays a role in that reduction, and therefore how it could be a positive part of its improvement. This book's six case studies present a varied and clear picture of the complexity and ever-changing space for an ever-changing public. It should be high on the "to-read" list for those who value the essential qualities of public space that not only New Yorkers hold dear.