A Day in Zuccotti Park

A Day in Zuccotti Park

A few months ago, I put up a piece on autonomous vehicles that I’d written for work. For those interested in the sorts of things I’m playing with in my classes at NYU I’m posting a piece I’m working on for a class I’m taking this fall. It’s an in-depth look at a public space in New York, Zuccotti Park. In it, I pay close attention to how the tension inherent in privately owned and operated parks play out in the day-to-day use of the space.

Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan has long been a place of varied identities. Enjoyed by downtown finance, municipal and union construction workers, tourists, and others alike, it does what a good city park ought to do: it is an endlessly adaptable space, changing function and feel based on the needs and whims of its current visitors. In the morning rush hour, it provides a bit of green for New Jersey residents blinking their way out of the tubes and into the Manhattan sun. At lunchtime, workers from the surrounding buildings flock to the park on any clear day, putting the lie to the assertion that the Financial District is home only to corporate drones. And at any time of day, the park provides welcome respite to the tourists making their way between the Battery and the September 11 Memorial Plaza.

Of course, it would be difficult to comment on the current importance of Zuccotti Park without first discussing the tension at the center of its identity. Zuccotti Park, originally called Liberty Park and later renamed for a former chairman of the City Planning Commission, is not in fact publicly owned land. Developed under the city’s POPS (privately owned public space) program, the park is owned by Brookfield Properties, a major real estate firm. The POPS program (whose requirements are in large part influenced by the work of Holly Whyte and his associates) ties the provision of public spaces to market conditions and appetites for real estate development; developers can receive permission to build taller buildings in exchange for providing public spaces. One can hardly imagine a public space program more apt for a market economy. Yet, despite this, Zuccotti Park has a different association in the public’s eye. The park is today perhaps best known as the site of the Occupy Wall Street protest camp in the fall of 2011. The tension of a protest decrying corporate influence in the political sphere calling a POPS home is one that continues to permeate the space.

Throughout the day, successful public spaces serve different functions for different users, thereby providing security and piquing interest at all hours. They are able to interest many types of people, who are themselves interesting to others. To draw from the nomenclature of Elinor Ostrom, visitors are at once appropriators and producers of the park’s resources, attracted and attraction. Zuccotti Park creates just such an atmosphere. Prior to the workday rush hour, early risers can be seen found beneath the canopy of trees, paper and coffee in hand. A few food vendors serve them, though the pace is largely unrushed, belying nothing of the madness to come. Over the past few years the number of residents living in the Financial District has increased significantly, and this influx of new residents can mostly be felt in the morning and evening hours. While the park has long been a gathering and stopping place during the day, only recently has it begun to perform the duties more often associated with the neighborhood park. The morning coffee; a five-minute respite between work and home; the after-dinner walk. Because it sits in an area that was long dominated by office buildings Zuccotti Park did not previously play much of a role for folks outside of the workday. Today, mornings in Zuccotti Park point to how successful spaces are rarely function-specific. This park is able to accommodate locals, tourists, and office workers alike preciously because it caters specifically to none of them. Rather, as a collection of trees, tables, and places to sit, it can accommodate any number of uses – and, as such, has transitioned well to the morning routines of the neighborhood’s newest residents.

Come rush hour, the situation changes entirely. Because the northwest corner of the park abuts the easternmost exist of the World Trade Center’s PATH station, there is a fairly constant stream of commuters traversing the space from roughly 8AM to 9:30AM. The position of the exit from the station, combined with the distribution of office space in the Financial District, means that these commuters tend to cut a diagonal path through the park. The steady flow of these commuters from the northwest to the southeast corner, where Cedar and Broadway meet, makes crossing in an opposing direction a dangerous proposition:


During rush hour, Zuccotti Park hosts a paucity of sitters. It is not a place to be so much as it is a place to pass through. This is a shame and ought to be fought. Holly Whyte provides some insight into why this might be the case. In his The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces he recognizes that what draws people to urban spaces is the variety of activities happening within them. At rush hour, one particular action dominates Zuccotti Park – the walking pattern identified above. As a conduit from the PATH station to southern Broadway, the park functions very well. This usage pattern is reinforced by the distribution of furniture throughout the park. There are very few benches or tables in the direct path between the PATH station and the intersection of Cedar and Broadway. If Brookfield wants this space to be anything but a thoroughfare during rush hour, they would be well advised to divert some of this foot traffic out of the park and onto the sidewalk. Because walkers tend to follow the most direct route, such a diversion will prove difficult.

Lunchtime in Zuccotti Park is divided sharply into two different groups. Early on, beginning around noon, the space is filled with construction workers. The park is dotted by the neon oranges and greens worn by the different crews working on the construction projects of Lower Manhattan. Not surprisingly, folks from the different crews mingle with one another as they meet with friends on different projects. As home-base for a large industry in this part of the city, lunchtime is rife with just the sorts of chance encounters Whyte describes as critical to the flourishing of a public space. Of course, anticipation of these chance encounters likely encourages people to stop by on their breaks, and each marginal visitor increases the likelihood of such a meeting, thus creating a virtuous cycle of sociability. By 1:30, many of the construction workers have left, and the Suits come out. These folks often come in ones or twos, buying lunch from a street vendor and carrying food from elsewhere in equal proportions. There are many fewer casual interactions now, as most people settle into a solitary meal or a conversation with friends:


While the construction workers are content to sit on the steps along the Trinity Place side of the park, these later visitors are much less likely to do so. In fact, demand for seats and places to eat far outstrip the park’s ability to deliver. Here, in this competition for scarce seats and tables, we see the downfall of the park furniture’s distribution. As noted above, a path has been hewn through the park in order to facilitate the morning’s foot traffic. The morning’s identity as a thoroughfare steals from its ability to provide for the needs of its lunchtime visitors. Much space that could be used for tables and benches now lies fallow. However, in contrast to the morning commute hour, a system of norms has sprung up concerning the allocation of the scarce tables. No frequent visitor of Zuccotti Park at lunch time can fail to notice that, contrary to what might be expected, visitors seated at tables spend much less time eating than those seated on benches. Though not enforced by any higher level of institution than the individual, the frequency with which many visitors come to Zuccotti Park has led to the development of a structure of reciprocity. Those sitting at tables today know that they are likely to search for a table in the near future and thus limit their own use of the public good. The response to the occasional abuse of this system is clear, too – tables occupied by visitors who have finished their lunches are plagued by new-comers hovering at their elbows.

In the allocation of space away from lunchtime sitters and to morning commuters we see a potential pitfall of the POPS program. Brookfield prioritizes an orderly traffic flow through their space, while the city may have chosen to promote increased seating if they owned the space outright. People walking through a space are less likely than eaters to leave trash behind, and are thus less expensive to host in a privately owned space. Similarly, the long benches in the park are broken up by small bars whose only apparent function is the prevention of sleep. Zuccotti Park’s owners welcome the sorts of visitors who might walk through or sit in the space, but they incorporated design features intended to discourage the types of individuals who might have nowhere else to sleep. Tensions of this sort – “public for whom?” – are present even in truly public spaces, but take on an even more ferocious aspect when privately operated. For this reason, it is important to understand the different incentives undergirding different ownership models, and what each model is likely eventually to promote. These competing institutions operate under different value systems, and thus produce different sorts of spaces.

As the lunch-hour fades to afternoon, Zuccotti Park is claimed by yet another class of user: the tourist. Located around the corner from the September 11 Memorial Plaza, Zuccotti Park serves as a place of consolidation. Large, guided groups are particularly likely to use the park as a staging area. Because many of these groups are coming to or from the Memorial Plaza, Zuccotti Park can seem lopsided in the afternoon. The western side of the park hosts much activity, while the eastern edge abutting Broadway is less occupied. Seward Johnson’s bronze statue Double Check at the northwestern corner of the park depicts a man seated on a bench going through his briefcase, and is particularly popular among tourists:


Johnson’s statue serves in many ways as a microcosm of the various identities of Zuccotti Park. Though originally depicting nothing more than a man on a way to a meeting, it became a symbol of resilience and celebration of the many ordinary men and women who lost their lives in the September 11th attacks. During the Occupy period the statue came to represent the suited financier, rapaciously extending the dominance of the capitalist system. Today, the statue carries all these identities at once, much like the rest of Lower Manhattan.

We end the work-day with a trickle. Workers in the Financial District start their day around the same time, but the ends of their days range from the closing of the stock market at 4:30 to much later in the evening. As these commuters retrace their morning trek through the park, they no longer dominate the space. As such, folks can sit in the park without feeling as out of place as they do in the morning. Because the space is not overwhelmed by movement through, other sorts of use can be and are sustained. In these evening hours Zuccotti Park nears perfection. Gone are the lunchtime hordes fighting over a few tables, and gone too are the hordes just passing through. The park is full enough to be lively, yet enough spaces remain empty that everyone is easily accommodated. The pace of the evening commute fits the space nicely, and the mix of those passing through and those staying is comfortable. It is perhaps inevitable that a space like Zuccotti Park is often overwhelmed. In a part of the city with towering skyscrapers, demand is sure to sometimes exceed capacity. During the morning commute, Zuccotti is an example of a common-pool resource where demand outstrips capacity so heavily that no norms can aid in efficient allocation, and the park breaks down as place. Lunchtime reveals a public-good that is constrained, but one around which customs have developed to allocate tables and benches fairly based on a system of reciprocity. Evening brings a park where capacity exceeds demand, and thus a public space in which no institutions are needed to ration space. While evening is the most pleasant time to be in Zuccotti Park, it ultimately tells us very little about how the park should be. A public space in one of the densest business districts in the country will fail at times. We ought not to aim for the evening conditions – those will never be common. Rather, Brookfield should cultivate a park that is never so overwhelmed that the visitors are unable to allocate the space between themselves. Adding more seating would both increase capacity for lunchtime visitors and discourage some foot traffic in the mornings, and therefore improve the experience all day long. Though it may cost them more to maintain, the park can far exceed its current accomplishments and function as a park all day long with a few small tweaks.

2 thoughts on “A Day in Zuccotti Park

  1. I have never had any love or respect for Johnson’s sculpture compared to his contemporaries. He did sculpture because he was wealthy enough to fund himself. The fact this this was the only artwork intact after the airplanes may say something about fate, but I’ll take Louise Nevelson or Calder any day. David Smith (not present) was the sculptor to beat, and Johnson was a regression, much like most postmodern architecture. Fortunately, that architectural style was out of style prior to the rebuilding.

    The park is more intimate as long as the trees still have their leaves, but the stone benches don’t provide an anti-vagrancy strategy to emulate.

    1. Unfortunately I don’t know much about sculpture, but I’ll have to look these folks up!
      I very much agree with respect to the inaccessibility of the space to the unhoused. When we offload the provision of public space to private companies, we’re just asking to systematically exclude certain people.

What do you think?

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