By Randall Reade:
The recent story about the accounting firm at the Brisbane Building leaving downtown because of panhandlers and homeless people harassing its workers. It generated a heated debate about what Buffalo should do to either clear out these undesirables, or accommodate them, and whether Buffalo can afford either.
The answer is, yes it can. For proof we need only look as far as Bryant Park in New York City.
For much of the 20th century, Bryant Park was a place to avoid. It was home to homeless, drug dealers, panhandlers and plenty of other people the likes of which ordinary workers in New York didn’t wish to associate with. When the city decided to redevelop it, official turned to William Whyte to come up with a plan. Whyte had spent over 15 years videotaping and researching New York’s streets and parks and came to conclusions about what makes a public space, be it sidewalks, parks, or other open space, safe, vibrant and popular.
Whyte had written a book entitled “City: Rediscovering the Center” (Doubeday, 1988, now out of print). A mentor of urbanologist Jane Jacobs, Whyte pioneered research on how cities actually work and where they fail. His book remain the seminal tool for redeveloping any public space, large or small.
The book devotes an entire chapter to The Undesirables. Every city has them, and they make many people avoid the city, or at least where they congregate. The question of how to deal with them is essential to the success of any project. “The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make it a place attractive to everyone else. The record is overwhelmingly positive on this score. Good places are largely self-policing.”
In his 16 years of researching parks, large and small, he found that real trouble occurs only in the places that are badly designed, and in well-used places there is no trouble.
So what is a well designed park? Lots of benches to sit on, preferably with moveable chairs. Surprisingly, the theft of moveable chairs is rare, if Bryant and Paley Parks (both redesigned by Whyte) are any indication. You need to have an inviting space for people to linger.
Whyte stresses the importance of a “mayor,” the kind of person who is usually on the spot and keeps an eye on things. Such mayors are often hotdog vendors, a building guard, or a newsstand operator. “The mayors are great communication centers, and they are quick to spot any departure from the normal life of the place.” One need only note that the Times Square bomber was foiled about a year ago because one such mayor who was a hotdog vendor. The mayors are tolerant of winos, says Whyte, so long as they don’t bother anyone. Lafayette Square could benefit with buildings guards at the entrances of the Brisbane and the renovated hotel. If there were were another at the Rand and Tisch Buildings, the whole square could have a set of eyes. Food trucks, not seemingly welcome in other parts of the city, would be ideal for establishing and attracting a steady stream of people and could act as mayors.
Another solution is to offer public restrooms. Although this seems like it would attract the very sort of undesirable, Whyte believes just the opposite. He thinks this notion of eliminating public restrooms is just as counter productive as putting spikes on ledges to prevent the homeless from camping out on them. Instead, Whyte argues that restrooms and places to sit benefit everyone, from homeless to tourists, to visitors, to office workers, and cites Paris and Porland, OR, which have successfully adopted public restrooms with no adverse effect. Almost every downtown in every US city lacks any public restrooms, and that is exactly what is needed.
In short, Whyte isn’t suggesting that more police presence is needed or desired, or that the homeless or other undesirables should be shooed away. Rather, by giving people a stake in the vicinity, you raise the level of appropriate behavior for everyone. Bryant Park is proof.
So dealing with the entire homeless and panhandler issue around Lafayette Square might be solved to the satisfaction of everyone, including the homeless people themselves, if the square were merely redesigned and appropriate steps were taken to insure basic safety. The rest of Whyte’s book gives specific ideas on how to make public spaces more accessible that should be explored. Given that the square’s namesake hotel will soon be restored and attracting a cliental that would likely find undesirables offputting, it seems that the time has come to redesign the square according to Whyte’s suggestions and thereby make it an essential part of the Buffalo experience.