Stay For a While

New research explores “The Subtle Art of Placemaking.”
Stay For a While

The Perkins Eastman-designed TKTS Booth, framed within a grand staircase in the middle of Times Square, created an instant anchor for visitors to take in the swirling activity around them.
Photograph Copyright Paul Rivera / Courtesy Perkins Eastman

Even before Broadway’s new TKTS Booth was completed in 2007, Times Square Alliance President Tim Tompkins told The New York Times its twenty-seven glass risers would be “the Spanish Steps on steroids,” referring to one of Rome’s most frequented—and photographed—gathering areas. Ascribing such an iconic status to a yet-to-be completed structure said a lot about its potential to be a social anchor for the revamped Father Duffy Square, and the following decade proved Tompkins right as TKTS has become a tourist destination, not only for discounted theater tickets but also as a place to sit down and experience the swirl of energy that passes through Times Square in New York City. Such is the power of design to bring people together in a meaningful and memorable location, says Co-CEO and Executive Director Nicholas Leahy, who led the TKTS project for Perkins Eastman.

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Theater goers line up to purchase discounted Broadway tickets at the new permanent TKTS booth in Times Square. Photo, copyright Paul Rivera/ Courtesy Perkins Eastman

Father Duffy Square existed for decades as a patch of concrete—devoid of seating—with the Duffy statue and a “temporary” TKTS trailer over an underground restroom. The new structure transports visitors right into the heart of the urban scene where they can sit in groups, people-watch, stand, eat, and socialize. The steps offer a sense of safety in being elevated with a wide vista of the Times Square surroundings. Sitting on the steps offers “a moment of calm, like sitting in the eye of a sensorial storm, shielded from over exposure, yet fully immersed,” Leahy says. The booth also offers different degrees of visibility and interaction with people and activities: One may choose to speak to a stranger next to them, for instance, or simply watch the passing of what urban activist Jane Jacobs called a “sidewalk ballet.”

All that activity went away with the onset of COVID-19. In fact, a portion of the TKTS structure can be seen in the background of an image of an empty Times Square that accompanied James Altucher’s essay in the New York Post last August called “New York City is dead forever.” A powerful statement, but is it true? Are meaningful public places—on scales ranging from citywide to individual buildings and interior spaces—really dead as many of us continue to work from home and conduct our meetings online? The Perkins Eastman Design Research team conducted more than two dozen interviews to capture not only the importance of placemaking, but why it will survive the pandemic and continue to be key for planners, architects, and designers as they pursue projects of every size and scale. The team published its findings in “The Subtle Art of Placemaking,” a white paper that explores the attributes that make a space a “place” and establishes a vocabulary for design teams and stakeholders to express it.


Defining Place

Professor Mark Wyckoff of Michigan State University’s Land Policy Institute wrote in an article on the topic that placemaking is a collaborative process that results in “quality places that people want to live, work, play, and learn in.” He goes on to write that “people know and understand what ‘quality places’ are when they are in them. However, it is more challenging to describe their characteristics abstractly.” Perkins Eastman’s own Carisima Koenig, a principal in the higher education practice and a visiting assistant professor at the Pratt Institute, has experienced this paradox in her own work. “We may think people come to the table with the same sets of design vocabulary, but no one really does,” she says, which is why it’s imperative that projects begin by establishing a common language among architects, designers, clients, and community stakeholders. “What’s important to me about placemaking is participatory design at all scales, from the city to the interiors,” she explains. To that end, the placemaking white paper offers a tool for design teams, clients, and stakeholders: A series of Place Attributes and Place Cards to establish that shared purpose and language as a foundation for the creative process.

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Successful placemaking ensures that spaces are designed on multiple scales. Here, Washington, DC’s
Cleveland Park Library makes this common area approachable and comfortable for visitors of all ages.
Photograph Copyright Joseph Romeo / Courtesy Perkins Eastman

Ultimately, those special qualities that lie at the heart of placemaking are timeless. Among those who characterized these qualities most famously was Jacobs, who coined the ballet term sixty years ago to describe the interplay of life through her beloved Manhattan neighborhood in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She wrote about watching the shop owners begin to open their doors each morning, seeing mothers interact with their children, and teenagers walking to school. Her morning “all is well” nod to the man at her corner fruit stand became a daily ritual—her role in the ballet. Each person has their own performance stage in that respect, be it a corner café, an office lunch room, or a park bench. When the pandemic hit the United States in early 2020, however, these public stages were suddenly out of reach, their lights dimmed and their doors closed. Yet people adapted by replacing these physical encounters with work meetings and social gatherings on digital platforms. This mass migration led to musings like Altucher’s essay in the New York Post, or an article in Politico titled “The Death of the City,” in which its authors argued that “Teleworking, not the coronavirus, is making urban living obsolete.”

Physical over Digital

Despite such headlines, our research and experience has shown that digital platforms can’t ever replace our need for physical congregation. Our role as design professionals, therefore, is to encourage these gatherings. “As good as our technology may in some cases be, when available, the foundations of a strong and resilient community are still more effectively created in real time, in an actual, physical, meaningful place,” says Sean O’Donnell, a Perkins Eastman principal in the primary and secondary education practice area. And although we can’t dictate specific experiences, the plans and programs we create can make them more likely to occur. Attractive and flexible seating at SAP’s new offices in Pittsburgh, for example, is arranged before broad windows with stunning riverfront views, which encourage workers to gather there.

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The SAP lunch room takes its color cues from the outside environment.
Photograph Copyright Andrew Rugge / Courtesy Perkins Eastman

Balconies, group seating, and benches along the main circulation pathways at Ashoka University in India make it easy for students and faculty to pause on their way from one building to another and remain connected with the activity in the campus.

The land-tour and cruise company Tauck, Inc. wanted to imbue their new, wooded headquarters in Wilton, CT, with a sense of their travel mission and family-oriented culture, so the offices feature wood paneling, stone fireplaces, window walls facing the trees and terraces surrounded by nature.

Leveraging Data to Calibrate Future Ways of Working

Tauck, Inc. Corporate Headquarters, Photograph Copyright Connie Zhou / Courtesy Perkins Eastman

During her roundtable conversations with universities, the sentiment Koenig most often hears is, “Nothing has made us want place more” than the isolation brought on by the pandemic, she says. Students, faculty, and staff have sorely missed stopping at their favorite welcoming places on their campuses that allow them to come together, exchange ideas, and build community, Koenig explains, and those elements are the focus of future campus planning.

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Telework can’t replace the drama of physical places that are intentionally and
beautifully designed, such as this open space at Ashoka University.
Photograph Copyright Harshan Thomson / Courtesy Perkins Eastman

That sentiment cuts across all our practice areas. Indeed, placemaking through urban interventions such as bike lanes, outdoor space for shops and restaurants, and pedestrian-only streetscapes were noted not only in our interviews but also in the Politico article as the way to keep cities alive post-pandemic. As pedestrians return to Times Square, in fact, the biggest increases in foot traffic have been centered around the TKTS Booth at Broadway and 47th Street, according to the Times Square Alliance’s monthly pedestrian counts. April 2021, the first month that reflected an increase in average daily visitors since the COVID-19 shutdown, registered the epicenter of those numbers—more than 91,000 people per day—in the area where TKTS is located. This “urban living room,” as Leahy describes it, is filling up again as visitors come to pause and watch the intricate ballet of people weaving in and out between shops, food vendors, and theaters. Perched on one of the steps, simultaneously engulfed in and removed from the tempo of the city below, one can still catch a stranger’s eye, exchange a meaningful smile, and feel—at least in that brief moment—the notion that Jacobs described all those years ago: All is well.