Flickr user Javi Sánchez de la Viña via a Creative Commons license

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent suggestion that he might take out the pedestrian plazas at Times Square may seem reactionary and ill-advised, but it does point to a basic problem with public space: we are never quite sure what it is or what it is for. We have this general sense that it is something open, free, and happy. It is one of the sacred cows of urban planning, standing for freedom of expression and the joys of human interaction. We think of every plaza as the Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park: a place where we proclaim our opinions while enjoying fresh air. The reality is somewhat different: public space is where workers smoke, residents let their dogs out, and tourists gawk at what is by now a roving international band of street performers doing more or less the same tricks or wearing the same costumes all over the world.

What is missing from the kind of public space that most of our leftover squares, plazas, and pocket parks are becoming (as opposed to true parks, streets proper, privatized public spaces like in shopping malls, or urban edges such as beaches) is exactly that which makes it valuable: the, essentially, “other.” In a true public space you might find yourself confronted by others not like you. You might be offended by something or somebody, or by some behavior that is not familiar, like, in the case of the current controversy, exposed female breasts. It is where you might encounter sex or violence. It is where state violence meets public resistance on those rare occasions when regulation and repression becomes so evident as to evoke revolt.

Flickr user Derek Mindler via a Creative Commons license

When it works, public space, in other words, has an element of danger. It eats away at your assumptions, confronts you with the possibility of violence or disease, or even more simply to rain, snow, and heat. To use a phrase from our therapeutic culture, it takes you out of your comfort zone. To me, the heavily policed precincts of Times Square are not true public space. They are performance arenas, a free and low-quality extension of the museums and theaters that are so much of New York’s attraction. They are staged. Regulations and policing have removed all danger and all “otherness” from the sphere. They are holding tanks for tourists as they wait for tours. They are viewing platforms for the giant advertisements that cloak the surrounding buildings. You cannot demonstrate on Times Square, have sex there, or do almost anything illegal. The current appearance of glimpses of human bodies only points to a momentary slip in that control.

Flickr user Wally Gobetz via a Creative Commons license

I would say that the mayor has an instinctive sense of the other possibility, however: remove Times Square as a tourist attraction, give it back to the city and its inhabitants, and force visitors to crowd onto sidewalks again, where they cannot avoid panhandlers, pickpockets, or rubbing shoulders with office workers and delivery people going about their business. They will see real people of all races, degrees of decorum, and income levels, most of them not dressed like cartoon characters. Bring Gotham’s visitors close to the temptations of trinket shops, alcohol purveyors, and the few remaining sex-oriented businesses around there. Have them dodge cars. That would make Times Square a better public space, if a much less pleasant one that it is now. On the other hand, if you want New York to be a better tourist trap and Times Square to provide a Disney version of Manhattanism, leave the nicely designed lounging spaces in place, and regulate those shocking painted ladies. Just don’t pretend that you are thereby preserving public space.