Large cities often borrow ideas from each other. But, is it possible to design places like Times Square into being by adding lights?
Some smaller American cities have recently been attempting to mimic this aesthetic, albeit on a lesser scale, in the hope of spurring economic development and a more pedestrian-friendly downtown. Denver’s theater district, for instance, now features an enormous video screen and lighted advertisements peddling the latest in products and entertainment, and Atlanta is in the process of planning such a district for a section of its downtown.
The organization Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) is spearheading the effort to relax signage restrictions so that property owners can go bigger and brighter. “At this point, downtown Atlanta’s zoning doesn’t allow signs that are over 200 square feet, and our billboards are stuck in time,” says Jennifer Ball, CAP’s Vice President for Planning and Economic Development. “We’re anticipating an increase in size as well as the ability to do large-screen video and LED boards.” Atlanta’s City Council will likely vote on the measure in January…
But the larger aim is to bring more people downtown—and for them to experience the area on foot rather than in their cars. Atlanta is known for its incredible sprawl, with its more walkable neighborhoods scattered throughout the city and thus only easily accessed via automobile. The city is aiming to make itself denser and more pedestrian-friendly, and the district is, according to Ball, “a piece of the puzzle.” To further that goal, the bright lights district would also include more housing and ground-level retail outlets and restaurants. “Atlanta wants to have a strong core that is walkable and bikeable and has the level of density to support a lifestyle where you don’t have to be in your car all the time,” Ball says.
Such a multi-pronged strategy is important, as urban lighting scholars caution that illumination on its own doesn’t guarantee an increase in business or foot traffic. Margaret Petty, Head of the School of Design at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology and a historian of electric lighting, says that there’s no evidence to suggest that lighting alone attracts people to an area, unless that area, such as Times Square, is “iconic.” Josiane Meier, lecturer at the Technical University of Berlin and co-editor of Urban Lighting, Light Pollution, and Society, adds that the “if you build it, they will come” model doesn’t really work in terms of lighting and density. “The interdependency runs the other way,” she says. “Density is a prerequisite for the existence of bright lights districts.”
It sounds like the Atlanta plan isn’t just about lights; it is about creating denser, vibrant places with a variety of uses and lights (which both can attract people and highlight existing activity). New Urbanism and Jane Jacobs come together to possibly reshape Atlanta.
Will it actually work? This reminds me of the number of cities that tried to replicate the High Line after it proved very successful in New York City. It isn’t hard to build things to look like someplace else – look at Las Vegas – but it is difficult to create legitimate neighborhoods that aren’t just tourist destinations. Times Square is interesting not just because of the tourists but also because it is at the center of the number one global city (New York City) and and is located in one of the most densely settled places in the United States (Manhattan). A bar/entertainment district with some housing above and nearby may be nice but it can’t exactly replicate the conditions of a New York City or London or Tokyo.
What could a city like Atlanta create that would be more authentic to itself while also increasing density and vibrancy? What is unique to Atlanta that can’t be found elsewhere (besides the sprawl)?
A New York journalist suggests Broadway helped revive the city and improve Times Square:
Much credit typically goes to mayors like Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, who cleaned up vice districts, pushed out undesirables and clamped down on nuisance crimes. Once the infrastructure was functioning and crime reduced, the argument usually goes, the natural asset of a great city, the draw of its history, the life-affirming force of its romance, its prestige and its pull, could all be trusted to work their magic. The politicians just had to make it possible for New York to be New York.
But Riedel argues that it was actually the theater and restaurant owners — people sick of plying their struggling trade in an environment that was collapsing all around them — who did the real work on the ground that transformed the fortunes of New York. The offices of Gotham City chugged along; people could head home right after work. But you can’t run an entertainment or dinner business if the police are telling people to get off the streets by 6 p.m.
So, in Riedel’s telling, the late Gerald Schoenfeld of the Shubert Organization went to work, back there in the mid-1970s. He harassed cops on the take to do their jobs and arrest the pimps and prostitutes; he organized all of the businesses in and around Times Square so that they had a collective voice; he found private cash to fill the potholes and empty the garbage cans that the city was leaving full; he waged war against corruption and vice. Retail-style.
With some well-chosen allies, he went about this mission block by block, nasty business by nasty business, sometimes resorting to unsavory, hardball tactics. This was controversial at the time — streetwalkers had rights — but Schoenfeld and his pals also were confronting a massive sex business with documented ties to the mafia — a sex business that dominated the very streets where kids now go to see “Aladdin.” Schoenfeld’s contribution was not least his figuring out that the one had to go before the other could arrive. Ergo, the circle of life.
This may be a popular argument these days about those in the arts and some urbanists: culture industries can help revive moribund cities or neighborhoods. The artists or creative types move in first and then others follow, drawn by the intriguing cultural experiences and economic opportunities.
The story above complicates the narrative a bit though. These theaters had been present for a while – they didn’t move in all the sudden in the mid 1970s. The theater industry also had resources in terms of social connections and money to use – poor artists they were not. The narrative told above may lend itself more to growth machine models of urban development rather than cultural ones. A collection of powerful business owners (probably with the aid of political leaders) were able to make things happen behind the scenes to clean up and revive Times Square.
The City of Chicago just announced what it desires for its Riverwalk:
In the Mayor’s attempt to turn the Chicago Riverwalk into Times Square Jr. or Hong Kong Lite, the city may soon be installing some new lights. A lot of lights. The Mayor wants to boost tourism in the city by 10 percent, or attract 55 million annual visitors by 2020 and thinks that adding a light show to the city would be the key. The lights are intended to highlight Chicago’s architecture and skyline, but also to open up tourists’ wallets by extending the day into night.
This “bright” initiative, headed up by the president of Broadway In Chicago, will start with an international call for submissions. Plans show that the lights won’t only be noticeable in the loop, as the Mayor’s vision is to expand the project into the neighborhoods. Perhaps some think Chicago’s world famous architecture can’t speak for itself.
More on the plans:
“It will make nighttime in Chicago an experience unto itself. It will make us North America’s city of lights. People will come from far and wide to see what we’ve done and enjoy our city,” Emanuel told a clout-heavy audience at the Museum of Science and Industry.The light-up Chicago initiative is being spearheaded by Lou Raizin, president of Broadway in Chicago.
If artists, architects and engineers “work together as teams,” Raizin said he’s certain they will find ways to use Chicago’s world-renowned architecture, the city’s iconic bridges, Lower Wacker and the river itself as a “canvas” to “imagine lighting in a unique and different” way.
“It’s about creating a spectacle that winds up allowing us to be sensitive to the assets that we have, but making a pivot that takes the old guard to the vanguard. It’s not just washing a building with light. It’s about creating theater. It’s about engaging. It’s not just color. It’s three-dimensional. It’s really creating events in light,” Raizin said.
One can only hope this is done tastefully and doesn’t turn out to be garish. But, there is a lot of potential with the riverwalk and I’m still surprised it has taken this long to do much. This may seem particularly odd since since Chicago has a long history of protecting land along Lake Michigan. Yet, the city has never quite respected the river in the same way as the lake. The river has always been much more functional: a connection to the Mississippi or a place to dump sewage. Perhaps the lights indicate a new era might soon begin…
Two artists from France have put together a collection of photographs that feature famous city settings – with no people:
In Silent World, artists Lucie and Simon have taken the world’s most familiar and populous cities and removed all but one or two people to create the illusion of a lonely world.
In the thought-provoking work, places like the normally bustling Times Square and Tiananmen Square appear absent of their crowds.
Lucie and Simon are a duo of artists based in Paris, France, who have been working together since 2005.
According to their website, the award-winning artists focus on blurring the line between reality and fantasy in their work.
The pictures are interesting and there is even a video with the photographs and some ominous music.
But I’ll be honest: I don’t find these photos to be too jarring. There are two other forms in which I think these scenes are much more powerful:
1. Post-apocalyptic movies do a decent job with this. However, I think too many of them go for the destruction angle rather than the emptiness angle. Additionally, they often try to drive home the point too much with things like eerie music and/or loud wind noises.
2. Real life. While these artists have removed people and vehicles, you can approximate some of this in places by walking or driving around very early in the morning. That way, there is still some light but there may be no one else around. This can be very strange: the buildings are around and it looks like there should be activity but there is no one there. Or another example: walking through the Loop in Chicago later at night. Without the business activity, it is a lonely place.
What would be most disconcerting in these scenes if you were there all day by yourself. I’m reminded looking at these pictures that many of these cityscapes are not built to a human scale. For example, a lone person in Times Square without people around is simply dwarfed by the buildings. It is not just about being alone; it is also about the massive buildings around you that make you feel insignificant. Similarly, large plazas or wide highways are also not often conducive to human activity but we forget some of this when they are full of people. It reminds me of Jane Jacob’s work in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: it is more human-scale neighborhoods that people flock to anyway, not downtowns and their skyscraper canyons. In a post-apocalyptic world, people will look for other people and the majority of New Yorkers don’t live in places like Times Square. What might be even more jarring would be walking around an empty Greenwich Square.