Public space, without so much as a right of admission sign, is open to anyone. It can reconnect communities and help forge constructive relationships for unity and growth in its surrounding neighbourhoods. Think of the Grand Parade as a packed fan park during the 2010 World Cup.
On an ordinary day, however, the Parade’s potential to unite South Africa is hidden behind the façade of a dirty car park. Compare it to the popular public stage that is New York’s Times Square – both are public spaces, after all. And that’s where the similarities end.
What is Times Square doing right?
How did Times Square become as vibrant as it is today, and what can we learn from that process? That’s exactly what the Cape Town Partnership, the Central City Improvement District and the City of Cape Town asked Tim Tompkins of Times Square Alliance, the organisation behind much of iconic Times Square’s success as a clean, safe and fun public space. Tim visited Cape Town for the first time this week (starting 21 July 2012), and addressed the Creative Cape Town community on Tuesday 24 July at an event at Trinity in Green Point. If you missed it, here’s what he had to say:
Having led the Alliance from 2002, Tim said it was important for them to continue exceeding expectations (scroll through his presentation for more detail). While staying true to the initial decade-long mission statement of “clean, safe and fun”, the organisation expanded upon this vision, based on extensive research. What did they aim to do?
“To promote and improve Times Square so that it retains the creativity, energy and edge that have made it an international icon for 100 years.”
Five key characteristics of Times Square have become the yard-stick for decision-making around public space usage in the area:
Dynamic: Times Square should always be about energy and constant change
- An installation of an innovative all-glass bank of chairs transformed Duffy Square (a space within Times Square) from a boring place characterised by long queues of theatre goers wanting to buy discounted tickets to one that encouraged pedestrians to enjoy the clean, safe and fun character of Times Square. Read the case study here.
Distinctive: Times Square should be unlike any other place in the world, with its own special edge
- After finding that New Yorkers understood the signs of Times Square to be a key characteristic, legislation was passed to ensure all buildings in the area hosted large, luminescent billboards. Besides being an income generator, the blinking signs are now synonymous with Times Square.
- The understanding that creative programming helps to change public perception of a place has resulted in a series of unique events tailored to Times Square. The Summer Solstice Mind over Madness yoga celebration laid out the challenge, “It’s easy to find peace of mind at the top of a mountain, try finding it in the middle of Times Square” – and 14 000 people pre-registered to take part in 2012.
Destination: Times Square should be a place that everyone – from New York, the country and the world – feels is the place to be, see and be seen
- When authorities pedestrianised the length of Broadway from 42nd to 43rd the Alliance set up outdoor furniture after the initial furniture order ran late. New York woke up the following morning to find the area peppered with temporary seating: Now you could sit idly in Times Square and people-watch, instead of idling through the square in first gear watching the car bumper inch along in front of you. Times Square was more of a destination than ever.
Diverse: Times Square should be a mix of commerce, culture and all the peoples of New York City and the world
- As part of the pedestrianisation process, the Alliance was given permission from city authorities to pilot an idea to bring in moveable food kiosks. A competitive process was set up to ensure the range of takeaway food available nearby would be more diverse, and character-filled food outlets began catering to hungry pedestrians. The Alliance is able to supplement their now-increased costs around maintaining the square with revenue generated from the stands.
Desirable: Times Square should be a safe, attractive and appealing place
- The Alliance believes that maintaining a high-level of basic services is vitally important. Despite the plummeting crime levels (more than 1 100 violent crimes in 1993 to just 103 in 2010), 100 of their 135 member staff remain dedicated to maintenance, cleaning and security.
- The issue of homelessness was at a stalemate in 1992, the year the Alliance was formed. In close partnership with Common Ground, however, the Alliance was able to unlock state funding and were able to offer a decent and respectable housing solution to those on the street. Besides transforming the streets, this action also transformed lives.
- The next upgrade is the Times Square Bowtie, set to start in late 2012. Read more about this exciting upgrade.
How has all this helped Times Square and New York City?
Key findings from an economic impact assessment of Times Square showed that:
- Times Square, in only 0.1% of New York City’s total land area, generates 11% of its economic output and one in every 10% of the city’s jobs
- This economic output surpasses mid-sized US cities like Portland and Pittsburgh
- The district’s $110-billion in economic activity rose by 22% since 2007, outpacing the city’s growth by 9% during the same period
There is clearly more to Times Square than just its public space, but having a well-managed space seems to have helped considerably.
What are the public space ideas for Cape Town?
Public space and art as a powerful force for good in Cape Town is being encouraged by Creative Cape Town programme manager Farzanah Badsha. “After South Africa’s long use of public space to control and separate, the question of how public space is used and enjoyed by as a broad spectrum of people as possible is very difficult to answer,” she observes.
How do we create public spaces that makes everyone feel welcome, young and old, rich and poor, man and woman, able and disabled? “We can’t allow the youth of this city to grow up thinking that the corridors of shopping malls are public spaces. Or the old to feel too afraid to venture out of their homes,” she says.
At Tuesday 24 July’s event, Farzanah mentioned four focus areas for Creative Cape Town that could aid the good work already being done and catalyse improved use and opportunities around Cape Town’s public space:
- City Hall: To continue staging City Hall Sessions as a way to showcase a key venue in Cape Town’s public life and a diversity of sound from South Africa and the Global South.
- City streets: To make policies and the regulatory environment more accommodating to street and public art, while still ensuring that the heritage and natural beauty of the area is celebrated and respected.
- City collaboration: To be a friend to innovative projects, such as the Fringe, Cape Town’s up-and-coming design and innovation district.
- City access: To help creative groups and individuals who want to use the public spaces of the city to access the right decision makers to ensure their proposals and applications are given fair hearing.
What local initiatives are already using public space and activating it for public life?
- Well-known public arts festival, Infecting the City, helps to connect Capetonians through artistic expression, and make public space public. Each year artists interact with their immediate environment in the Central City, bringing it to life in new and fresh ways, helping the audience to see the space for what else it could be. If you missed it, watch the performance videos from 2012 on Festival TV.
- SPAZA Living Labs looks at using temporary urban interventions to help redefine how Cape Town uses public space, and will initially use the Fringe within the Central City as a testing ground for interesting innovations and interventions. See examples of this at work in Du Noon (and New York).
- There are other lesser-known public space interventions happening across Cape Town, from Langa to Manenberg. Turn the table on how you think about public space, who uses it and why by watching this video:
Now, consider this:
How can Cape Town better use – manage, develop and design – its streets, squares, parks and pavements to improve our public life and a sense of common identity? We’d love to hear your ideas on reimagining public space in the comments section below.
- Continue the conversation with @CreativeCT using the hashtag: #ctpublicspace.
- Facebook is also a productive means to communicate your public space ideas, so join our community.
- To check out Tim Tompkins’ presentation click here.
- To see Fringe Co-ordinator Yehuda Raff‘s presentation on the night on the Fringe.