Over the last 100 years, Times Square – New York’s town square – has been a reflection of our country, our commerce, our culture, and most of all, our cities. At its worst it showcased every urban ill, magnified for all the world to see. Now, at its best, it exemplifies the creativity, energy and edge of urban life.
In 1992, when the Times Square Business Improvement District (now the Times Square Alliance) was founded, Times Square was at a crossroads. It needed to change, but exactly how to do that presented challenges. Many individuals, groups and actions played a role in the astonishing transformation that followed. The Alliance was but one player, albeit one with eyes on the street and an understanding of the local community’s needs.
Because Times Square’s failures and successes are so visible, and its challenges so relevant to the obstacles that other cities face, we are often asked to tell the story of its transformation and of our role in it. We have made mistakes and we will most certainly make others; but more importantly, we learn as we go, and because Times Square - like any great city - is ever changing, we will grow anew and adapt accordingly. We hope that our experience, and the little bit of wisdom we’ve gained, serves you well.
- Craft Great Public Space
- Expect the Unexpected
- Know Thyself, Love Thyself
- Keep in Mind the Six C’s for Creating Change
1. Design it well
Design alone won’t do it, but great design is essential for expressing the aspirations and essence of a place and its surrounding community.
2. Manage it well
Learn to balance the messy, nitty-gritty of rules, regulations, cleanliness, safety, order and just the right amount of chaos and spontaneity. Lose this and you’ve lost the space, no matter how pretty it is.
3. Program it creatively and consistently
Bring it to life – let the space’s assets be reflected in what happens in it, building identity and audience through repetition and surprise.
4. Know that things change
Cities and neighborhoods change constantly; don’t let yourself, your stakeholders or policymakers assume that yesterday’s problems are still the priority. Watch carefully to identify and define new challenges.
5. Take a chance
Almost inevitably, the private and non-profit sectors have a greater capacity for risk-taking than elected officials, especially when it comes to out-of-the-box ideas. Use your freedom from the ballot box to advance or defend innovative ideas.
6. Try it out
One of the ways to diminish skepticism towards risk and change is to test something as a short-term experiment. It’s easier for the private and non-profit sectors to do this than a large government bureaucracy facing issues of precedent and risk aversion.
7. There’s no single answer
The “right” answer changes over time and place. Just because a solution made sense before doesn’t mean it works now, and just because it worked in one neighborhood doesn’t mean it works elsewhere. Beware of the silver bullet solution -- as well as the naysayers who claim that “they tried that, and it failed.”
8. Use public, private & non-profit sectors
Despite the hassles of collaboration, the most enduring, innovative and nuanced solutions to urban problems are those where these three major players work together, building long-term relationships focused around a common goal.
9. Know each other’s strengths and weaknesses
The key to success lies in knowing your partners and accepting your different capabilities and liabilities. As with any long term relationship, know your partners’ greatest fears, as well as what will make them happiest.
10. Know what’s authentic and distinctive
A “cut and paste” approach -- where a good idea is copied without regard to a city or neighborhood’s core assets and history -- will fail. Know your history, know your physical assets and core distinctive characteristics (and ask others too) before jumping to act.
11. Love what’s authentic and distinctive
Once you know what’s special about your place, love it, nurture it and amplify it. Sometimes it’s drawing attention to things that are already there, sometimes it’s bringing more of the best. In your rush to remove the bad, never lose what’s good, even if those things seem buried, invisible, decrepit or undervalued.
12. Use data; know the facts
All of us are subject to groupthink and “givens.” Work to relentlessly gather hard facts and data that tell you what’s really going on, and don’t rely on what everyone claims is happening. Continue to track your perceptions factually so you can quantify your work as it changes.
13. Use the facts to define yourself and your problems
Data drives discussions and decisions. Your information, slowly and over time, can redefine a problem or issue and also create accountability for measuring your progress over time. You know the most about your place; use that fact to frame the issues.
14. Find your allies and fight for yourself
Find your allies and lead the fight. Use your factual evidence to educate and secure allies as your move towards your agenda. Don’t wait for government to fight your battles for you. Sometimes they’ll take the lead, but you know your interests best, and in the context of a long-term relationship, you must repeatedly assert yourself.
Top-down versus bottom-up: know who your stakeholders are, what they need, and how their interests vary. Engage the community so that changes will last beyond your tenure.
Interventions and actions can’t change with the season, or they simply won’t stick. People (and places) notice when campaigns are one-offs, and that only makes change tougher the next time.
Actions that trigger change, even if carried out by different Parties, must be part of a coordinated and integrated effort rather than a series of haphazard, unconnected activities. When things are done in tandem by multiple players, the effects are amplified, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Even the best intentions or practices will fail when spread too thinly across an area or range of issues. Focus first on doing something right on the micro level, and then scale it up. The toughest problems are very complex, and focused attention is needed while you learn what works and what doesn’t.
Create a culture that inspires creativity and nurtures the innovative ideas and risk-taking that flow from it. Start by pushing back when you hear too quickly,“it ain’t gonna happen.” Sometimes the best way through something is to go around it.
20. Critical mass
Every issue, every place, has a tipping point, and getting there is not always a linear process. Stay patient and persistent when your actions don’t seem to be making a dent, and realize that you’ll sometimes need an extra push to shift reality and perception.