COMMENTARY: Learning from Bryant Park, a book by Andrew Manshel

Ross Sandler, Center for New York City Law Director

A new book recalls the glory of Bryant Park before the Covid-19 shutdown: the movable chairs, the green grass, magazine racks and ping pong tables, shady paths and, most of all, the large numbers of people enjoying Bryant Park.

Bryant Park as an urban space is a miracle, but not an accidental miracle, as Andrew Manshel recounts in his readable and entertaining book, Learning from Bryant Park: Revitalizing Cities, Town, and Public Places (Rutgers U. Press 2020). Manshel’s book starts with the plan by the Public Library to use Bryant Park for underground storage, and the subsequent realization that Bryant Park itself was the primary project. The names of those who played a role is long and Manshel lets everyone take a bow: Andrew Heiskell, chair of Time Inc. and the Public Library; William Deitel, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; William H. (Holly) Whyte, the genius at observing how people behave in public spaces; Gordon Davis, the City Parks Commissioner; Dan Biederman, who led the restoration efforts; and many others who brought their innovative ideas to Bryant Park. Manshel’s book is a friendly read because of the generous credit he gives to the many people who contributed to Bryant Park.

Placemaking is the name for the restoration process, and Manshel’s book is a catalog of strategies. The big idea was to create the perception of safety. The techniques included well-organized commercial and social activities, performers, visible friendly staff, prompt removal of graffiti, regular emptying of trash baskets, clean restrooms, movable chairs, a lush green lawn, and other familiar elements.

Manshel, who was counsel and associate director at Bryant Park for ten years, has advice. Success requires patience. Do maintenance and more maintenance. Choose small experimental projects; they will save money. Be prepared to change course; even the best ideas can crash. Manshel offers cautions like the story of the costly, specially designed, square sidewalk planters that looked great when new, but six months later were chipped and dingy. Better were less expensive round plastic planters that didn’t chip or get dingy.

Manshel took his ideas to Jamaica, Queens, where the lessons were equally revealing on placemaking. His retelling of these efforts will broaden the enjoyment of everyone who loves urban life and is curious about the City’s special places.

By: Ross Sandler (Ross Sandler is the Director of the Center for New York City Law and a Professor at New York Law School.)


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