“It is surprising how many well-dressed people can be seen rummaging through trash containers, and not surreptitiously,” he noted in 1988. Whyte saw that leftover wedges of space, fitted out with seating and a water fountain, often have more life than expensively designed plazas or lavishly landscaped parks. Kent has translated that approach into a mantra: Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper. “Look what happens when you put a bench in front of a bookstore,” Kent says. “Suddenly there are at least ten things to do. People slow down, they sit, they go in, they drink coffee, they talk, they pet a dog. If you have a space that has ten spots, each with ten things to do, that multiplies.”
Kent thinks that New York tends to overdesign, rigidifying spaces with too many benches, lawns, and walkways. A good city, he says, is the sum of its activities, and the best a planner can do is provide focal points for those energies and manage the flow of fun. “It’s not rocket science,” he says. “You just ask people what they’d like to do.” He points to the arid acre around Brooklyn Borough Hall that’s sporadically enlivened by a Greenmarket. He envisions reclaiming it with chess tables, food trucks, a portable stage, planters, movie screens, and bike-rental stations, all overseen by a civic entity to keep it humming like Bryant Park.
While Kent exports lessons formulated on Manhattan’s sidewalks, New York lately has been importing similar teachings from Northern Europe. The Danish urbanist Jan Gehl has spent decades scrutinizing Copenhagen with Whyte-like doggedness and developed a toolkit of improvements: Instead of forcing pedestrians to cross busy roads by footbridge, or scuttle beneath them through stinky underpasses, let them cross at a carefully timed light; rather than interrupt sidewalks with curb cuts, run the pavers right across driveways, so that vehicles pause for pedestrians instead of the other way around. Gehl studied and shaped Copenhagen’s two principal experiments: the gradual conversion of a central traffic artery, Strøget, into a pedestrian boulevard, and the fostering of its bicycle culture. The first has given us a pedestrian Times Square, the second, 500 miles of bike lanes.
A tinge of foreignness clings to some of the transformations Gehl has inspired. New York’s cyclists have been slow to use the green lanes, delivery trucks have been equally slow to get out of them, and it still doesn’t feel natural to sit at a café table in the middle of Broadway. The task of recovering Times Square’s pedestrian identity has fallen to a Norwegian architecture firm, Snøhetta, but its primary focus is on the fresh pipes and cables beneath the new concrete pavers sequined with stainless-steel nubs.
That plan is still evolving, but it heralds an encouraging leap from provisional tinkering to lasting change. Gehl and Kent advocate shoestring fixes that are easy to implement and can be rapidly undone. But New York’s brand of mild anarchy (and high-decibel opposition to every change) suggests that we need to cast them in concrete. A bike or bus lane set off by a median signals that it’s here to stay, in a way that a stripe of paint can’t. A newly widened sidewalk that supports a café is wresting square footage from drivers, not borrowing it from pedestrians. A network of enclosed, secured bike garages would go a long way toward turning the bicycle into a means of transportation rather than a piece of sports gear. New York can never be an overgrown Copenhagen, but it can and should make livability permanent. One modest yet radical move would be to sow the city with hundreds of new drinking fountains (and fix all the old ones), in half a dozen different designs, awarded by international competition. Enshrining pleasantness in stone and steel and asphalt brings immense rewards, some quantifiable, others vaguer but no less real. When people can stroll rather than scurry and dodge, visitors flock, shoppers spend, friends converse, businesses multiply, and crime looks for grimmer pastures. Rome’s role in the world derives from a billion espressos sipped at leisure; as the new New York imprints itself on the fickle global psyche, every step across a well-crafted street can make the difference between a grimace and a return trip.
The obvious solution to the divide between the Hong Kong and Copenhagen models is to merge them. New York already does this somewhat—Bryant Park is a little patch of Scandinavia across the street from the cloud-skimming Bank of America Tower—but the New Yorkers who are doing it most assiduously are working in South Korea. From offices overlooking Bryant Park, the developer Stan Gale and the architects at Kohn Pedersen Fox have drawn up a kit-built metropolis called New Songdo City, a $35 billion project now rising on a 1,500-acre swath of reclaimed land outside Seoul, hard by Incheon International Airport. Imagine filling the wetlands near JFK with a chunk of midtown, and you get the idea. Towers of varying heights give the skyline a vaguely Manhattanish profile. Townhouses, residential high-rises, and office towers mingle. A street grid bisected by a Broadway-like diagonal stretches out on both sides of a green expanse that’s called Central Park.