When a place is better than a plan
On why revitalizing urban areas is better done through small improvements, not grand schemes:
Small changes are appealing for many reasons. They’re cheap, for one thing. Also, what works can be easily expanded, and what doesn’t work can be as easily terminated or altered. One successful food concession can become two; an unsuccessful stall selling local crafts can be replaced; a planter made from a material that discolors or chips can be replaced with a better one. Contrast that with grand schemes, which can attract broad opposition and be subject to complex political, logistical, and financial obstacles. Once an elaborate design has been committed to, backing away from it — or even altering it — becomes both politically and mechanically complicated. Further, planners have a limited capacity to predict how people will respond to their designs. The larger the project, the more likely unintended consequences become, and the more difficult it is to change course.
Manshel mentions urbanist William H. Whyte’s suggestion that in public spaces, people prefer movable chairs to fixed seating. “Movable chairs let people face one another and interact in different ways, not just the ones that landscape designers have in mind when they arrange fixed furniture.” Michael Bierut recently posed similar urban intervention questions in the shape of a piece on the rubber folding chairs as part of the pedestrian malls at Times Square in New York. He raises the question: “when it comes to fulfilling simple human desires, can design get in the way?”
Places and people beget unintended consequences, and responsive places can, well, respond to these changes, not get in the way. People in public spaces are responding to the place itself, not its plan.