Douglas Sacha

Protecting the Commons

Frank Greene

April 11, 2023

We should value the experience of the public realm over the illusion of perfect security.

We should value the experience of the public realm over the illusion of perfect security.

In our cities, a connective tissue of streets, parks, plazas and monuments links people together, ideally for the common good. Shared civic spaces should communicate the inclusive values of a democratic society.

In recent memory, we’ve seen the decline and then recovery of the major public spaces in New York City. Disinvestment in maintenance amid the crisis of public safety during the 1970s and ’80s left Central Park, Times Square, Bryant Park and numerous other civic anchors decrepit, underused and unsafe. With a determined grassroots and business community advocacy, government was able to facilitate an urban rebirth, refreshing anew these resources that make New York City one of the world’s marvels.

Terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Europe in the ’90s and early decades of the 21st century cast a shadow on this urban flourishing. These attacks — the worst of which killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in 2001 — triggered a protective hardening of the streetscape surrounding governmental buildings. The instigators, whether homegrown right-wing activists or overseas militants, were united in their use of asymmetric improvised weapons designed to create maximum fear.

While the attacks rarely achieved their political purpose, one consequence would probably make their perpetrators happy: the diminishing of the commons, the spaces we set aside to come together. At a conference in Washington in the aftermath of the 9/11 catastrophe, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan eloquently said, “Architecture is inescapably a political art, and it reports faithfully for ages to come what the political values of a particular era were. Surely, ours must be openness and fearlessness in the face of those who hide in the darkness.”

There has been a protective hardening of the streetscape surrounding governmental buildings.

The courthouse at 500 Pearl St. that bears Moynihan’s name is walled off with barricaded streets and metal bollards — a bitter legacy of the terrorists’ success.

With the risk of mass terrorist attacks seemingly having subsided, it is now time to restore our access to the streets, plazas and public places too often placed behind barriers. Now that the threat level is green, can we please behave accordingly?

The answer is of course fraught with fear of “what if,” with the finger of blame ready to point at any national security or police figure who would announce an all-clear. Risk is a common thread throughout human history, and while too often Americans shrug off commonplace carnage of automobile and gun deaths, scenarios that are low in likelihood but high in impact, such as attacks on governmental buildings, continue to shape policy and practice. Valuing the day-to-day experience of the public realm over the illusion of perfect security is a prudent choice.

One path would be for local government agencies like New York’s Public Design Commission to assess any temporary interventions in public space — planters, Jersey barriers and metal barricades, as well as street closures and security booths — for their effectiveness, requiring a justification for their continuing place in the commons. The default position should be to remove all temporary measures, and then to replace only those barriers that are absolutely required based on specific threat assessments.

Now is the time to assess and thoughtfully roll back quickly installed barriers.

The obstacles in place are so ubiquitous, many New Yorkers have probably ceased to notice them. When New York City government decided to enclose City Hall Park in 1999, leaders to some degree respected the prominence and civic importance of the space, creating a layered series of fences, gates and seating areas with varying degrees of access. While the project was executed with high-quality design, including an ornate wrought iron fence at the perimeter, it still failed in key ways, restricting public use and open access to our elected representatives. Those who remember when there was free access across the park, including to the plaza at the iconic steps of City Hall, are hardly comforted when they must undergo security screening at a perimeter checkpoint in order to snap a tourist photo. 

The experience of public space, where people from all backgrounds can engage with one another and simply be together, requires careful nurturing and protection against heavy-handed attempts to render them secure. A generation after the worst of the terrorist episodes, now is the time to assess and thoughtfully roll back those hastily installed barriers in favor of select and sophisticated interventions that create safety while nurturing a vital civic realm.