Don't close Times Square

Friday, June 4, 2010

If history is an indicator, security officials are toying with the idea of shutting down sections of Times Square in hopes of protecting it from more explosive-laden sport utility vehicles. Let's hope they don't.

In response to 9/11, these same officials orchestrated a lockdown of Lower Manhattan that has obliterated the public realm and stripped the city of its openness. Our research found that over 25 percent of public spaces in he Civic Center and Financial District are closed or limit public access. New York is not alone. Security planners in London, Jerusalem and Washington, D.C., have created garrison states.

High-profile global cities are filled with hard and soft security. But besides increasing safety, security mobilization can increase concern and breed distrust.

Public spaces are the lifeblood of cities. They are sites of interaction in which individuals are sometimes forced to interact with those they dislike. Our most open-minded cities are full of freely accessible spaces allowing for unplanned encounters. Public spaces can educate the city-dweller about others and can increase interpersonal empathy and understanding.

Times Square has embodied this open-mindedness. It is a gathering place for tourists and an icon central to New York's external image. Before we shut it down, it is worthwhile to reflect on what we might lose.

Some might argue that good fences make good neighbors, but creating symbolic walls around a potential terror target has never worked. Instead, public spaces can be the connective tissue that breaks down social and spatial barriers and creates a more vigorous street life.

Jane Jacobs put forth this message 50 years ago in her "eyes on the street" hypothesis: the more people around, the less likely an opportunistic criminal would commit an offense. The safest spaces are self-policed by residents and visitors; closing off an entire district to vehicles and pedestrians alike would surely produce a more dangerous setting. That the bomb-filled SUV was discovered by a vigilant T-shirt vendor is proof of her hypothesis.

Streets and sidewalks are for people, not just SUVs. In fact, pedestrian districts are often the most vibrant sections of cities, and the lack of traffic in Times Square surely contributed to the vehicle's discovery. While barring vehicular traffic in U.S. city centers remains a difficult and controversial task, keeping pedestrians in prominent public spaces will go far in keeping places safe. Shutting people out bleeds public spaces of their democratic vigor and may even make them more dangerous, more susceptible to attack.

So how do we create such open, safe urban spaces? Through security planning processes that are broad-based and include experts in planning, design, development and intelligence. Design innovation has made it easier to introduce less intrusive, even invisible, security measures in urban places. City officials should engage in close discussions with property owners, residents and users of Times Square to find the right mix of security measures.

What New York City needs is a more sensitive approach to deterring future attacks.

It is possible to retrofit the area to reduce the chance of future attacks while maintaining the communal spirit of freedom and democracy on which this city, and this country, are built.

Dr. Jeremy Nemeth is assistant professor of planning and design and the director of the urban design program at the University of Colorado. Dr. Justin Hollander is assistant professor of urban and environmental planning at Tufts University.

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