Bryant Park: New York, New York


Today Bryant Park is a 9.9-acre lush green gem in midtown Manhattan, but only decades ago it was overrun with drug dealers and avidly avoided by the public. Renowned public space expert and author William "Holly" Whyte was convinced the park could be transformed into one of the country's outstanding public spaces.

Designated Area

Sited between 42nd and 40th Streets to the north and south, the back side of the New York Public Library to the east, and the Avenue of the Americas to the west.

Depending on the time of day, Bryant Park's expansive lawns serves as a lunchroom, outdoor cinema, concert auditorium, or simply a place to sunbathe and enjoy the surroundings. Photo courtesy of Marco Castro.

Planning Excellence

Today Bryant Park is a 9.9-acre lush green gem in midtown Manhattan, but only decades ago it was overrun with drug dealers and avidly avoided by the public. Renowned public space expert and author William "Holly" Whyte was convinced the park could be transformed into one of the country's outstanding public spaces.

The park's classical landscape design, created in 1934, was intended to inspire relaxation and retreat by elevating the site four feet above street level and including dense shrubbery, an iron fence, stone balustrades, and only a few entrances. The design ended up isolating the park from the street and making it a haven for illicit activity.

Shortly before the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (BPRC) was founded in 1980, Whyte was recruited by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation to report on existing park conditions, as well as suggested improvements that would lead to an elaborate restoration plan. His proposal included lowering the park to street level, removing the obstructing hedges and fence, and adding entrances to promote pedestrian flow, increased visibility, and improved safety. Recognizing that a successful park is a crowded one, Whyte and BPRC were resolute about designing a park that would attract as many people as possible by making the space welcoming, comfortable, and interesting to people of all ages.

By all accounts the redesign succeeded. During warm months, the essentially crime-free park attracts 25,000 visitors a day, including midtown workers, students, families, and tourists. The major draw for most is the unbroken expanse of grass — the largest in Manhattan south of Central Park. Depending on the time of day the lawn serves as a gigantic lunchroom, concert auditorium, outdoor cinema theater, or a casual place to sunbathe, meet people, chat, or read. During winter, the lawn becomes The Pond, the only free ice-skating rink in the city.

Besides the new design, contributing to the park's success is the continual assessment of how people are using the park. The Bryant Park Corporation notes that "virtually every decision is predicated on whether it will attract visitors or increase linger time." For example, Whyte's philosophy that movable furniture gives people a sense of empowerment led the park to provide 4,000 chairs and 1,000 tables that visitors can position where they want.

Bryant Park features over 5,000 pieces of moveable furniture, a concept espoused by Holly Whyte, which allows visitors to gather wherever they please. Photo courtesy of Norman Mintz.

Defining Characteristics, Features

Commitment to the Public

  • Owned by the city, park is funded and managed by the Bryant Park Corporation (BPC), a private-public partnership co-founded in 1980 by Dan Biederman
  • BPC receives no public funds or donations; operates only on  revenue from property assessments within surrounding business improvement district and revenues from on-site restaurants, public events
  • BPC stopped hosting Fashion Week because it closed the park for six weeks out of the year to accommodate high-profile guests, compromising the park's mission as a public space
  • Two blocks from Times Square; accessible by five New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway lines and several bus lines
  • Originally a Native American hunting ground, became Reservoir Park in 1847; renamed Bryant Park in 1884 after editor, poet, and  abolitionist William Cullen Bryant
  • Successful redesign copied by others, including Houston's Market Square and Pittsburgh's Schenley Plaza

World-Class Amenities

  • Two restaurant pavilions, four food kiosks, and meticulously kept restrooms that have become the "gold standard" for public bathrooms
  • More than 10,000 at a time attend the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival, started in 1993, which screens classic Hollywood films on the lawn
  • The Reading Room, on the north side, offers free newspapers, magazines, and books with a quiet, comfortable seating area several author appearances, children's events, and writers' workshops
  • Free knitting, yoga, and tai chi classes, chess, pétanque and ping-pong tournaments
  • Bryant Park After Work is a concert series timed to give midtown office workers a pleasant soundtrack to their evening commute; Broadway in the Park is the first program to bring Broadway musicians to perform showstoppers to the public for free
  • Le Carrousel, a custom-built, decorative merry-go-round on the south side, is popular with children year-round
  • First privately managed public space in U.S. to offer free wi-fi network (2003)

Calming Atmosphere in Midtown

  • Landscaping modeled after a Parisian garden with twin promenades running north and south along the lawn lined with London Plane trees; BPC's Horticulture Department cares for six flower beds with more than 100 woody plants, 200 planters, 100,000 daffodils, and 20,000 seasonal bulbs
  • Beaux-Arts facade of the central building of the New York Public Library, built in 1911, contributes to park's idyllic charm
  • Landscape architects Robert Hanna and Laurie Olin redesigned space in 1988 without radically changing its historic 1930s feel; according to Whyte, their plan "looks very much like the old one, but is opposite in function"
  • Fountain Terrace on the west end, Upper Terrace on the east end, and Library Terrace at the rear of the New York City Public Library's central building are focal points of the park

World-class amenities, including restaurant pavilions, food kiosks, and meticulously kept restrooms, are the rule in Bryant Park and make the area inviting to pedestrians. Photo courtesy of Maureen Hackett.