The Moment I Fell In Love With Public Space / by William Lewis

The moment occurred at Astor Place under the heaviest of skies on April 22, 2017. Along with many others, I was saturated by relentless rain, buffeted by bitter wind, shaking with coldness. We were standing, listening to the soaring voices of the Bowery Poetry Slam Team, the power of their words stopping strangers, friends, and passers-by to listen and watch. I intensely observed this diverse group of cold, wet people, fascinated by how spontaneously they interacted and bonded, brought together by a poetry performance, facilitated by a well-designed public space.

This was the moment when I realized the power and social value of well-planned urban spaces and parks to connect people, from all social and ethnic spectrums, without boundaries. I sensed the capacity of public spaces to aid social cohesion and improve quality of life. So began my fascination with public spaces and parks, and my quest to understand the critical importance of urban planning and design.

In my role as Marketing and Events Director for the Village Alliance Business Improvement District, I create public and community programming to activate public spaces in Greenwich Village and Astor Place. These projects bring me immense personal satisfaction.

The underlying principles, ethos, and spirit with which I approach the Astor Place plaza activation projects fundamentally changed on that cold, wet April afternoon. With my new sense of the importance and power of public spaces, also came a heightened sense of responsibility to activate the plazas sympathetically. It became my mission to ensure they were places of true social value and sustainability, places for community engagement and inclusion, with programs that celebrated the rich character of the local East Village neighborhood.

 Astor Place. Image courtesy of WXY Associates

Astor Place. Image courtesy of WXY Associates

Understanding the nuances of how the plazas worked, I developed a summer of successful community plaza activations, which included silent discos with hundreds of people dancing into the night, daytime family arts and crafts workshops, music and performing arts festivals, story sharing platforms, and much more.

Watching the plazas successfully host these events, working as vibrant public spaces, connecting people in happy interactions that celebrated their community, the city, and life, made me realize how much I love public space. It was the moment I fell in love.

 The Astor Alive Festival. Photo: Ian Douglas

The Astor Alive Festival. Photo: Ian Douglas