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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Tear Down This Fence

40th Street at Bryant Park

A couple weeks ago, I noticed something while walking by Bryant Park. There were people hanging out on 40th Street. That was different. It took a moment to realize what had changed. The fence was gone.

Initially, I thought it was a deliberate decision to activate the edge of the park. The Parks Commissioner had spoken about integrating parks better with their surrounding streets:

It turns out the fence was only temporarily removed while it is being restored:

This seems unfortunate. Each time I walk by the park, I see people using the walls as an enjoyable space that improves the sociability of the streets. On 40th Street, which has typically looked more like a service alley than an enjoyable place, the open park makes the sidewalk a much more enjoyable place. Meanwhile, on busy 42nd Street, the walls are providing a more comfortable place for people to stop for a moment or wait while meeting their friends.

On 42nd Street, people sit on the wall to talk and watch the passersby

Hopefully there is an opportunity to observe the actual use and determine if the fence really should be reinstalled. Ideally, a trial period without the fence could be evaluated before proceeding with restoration of the fencing. It may not make sense to spend money working on metalwork if it would not ultimately be used (although there may be opportunities to use it at another park location).

Studying the change in use is important, since removing the fence could have various impacts. Some people may have security concerns, and while I think these are unfounded, it may be beneficial to empirically show it's not a problem. Congestion due to more people sitting on the wall could be a more serious concern, which could be particularly sensitive on busy 42nd Street. On my casual observations over the last couple weeks, I haven't seen any problems there.

A family takes a break on the wall on 42nd Street

Guys take a break where the fence didn't allow them to sit before

People sit on the wall and talk while waiting for friends

Taking the fence off the low wall allows people to climb up and sit on the entrance, adding a layer to the complex and interesting social space

On 40th Street, the improvements seem more noteworthy. Yet this is also the area where there actually appears to be a little impact. The narrower sidewalk becomes encumbered by the combination of street furniture, mobile vendors, and the addition of people sitting on the wall. This appears to be something that could be resolved well with a little planning and design to eliminate chokepoints, but some study and perhaps some minor work would be necessary.

40th Street becomes busier and more congested when people sit on the wall
To even get a study might require a little effort. The project to spruce up the old iron and put it back in place seems well underway, and a change in course might be disruptive to the normal process. There was an energetic response to a tweet about considering keeping the fence down:

So here's a somewhat tongue-in-cheek appeal to permanently remove the fence:
We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of social space can only strengthen the cause of urban parks. There is one sign Bryant Park can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of street life and quality of life. Bryant Park Corporation, if you seek social life, if you seek vibrancy for Bryant Park and the surrounding streets, if you seek improvement, come here to this wall. Sit on this wall. Bryant Park, tear down this fence!

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