Hidden Gems of NYC – Herald and Greeley Squares
by Gary Sorge, FASLA

The parks at Herald and Greeley Squares in New York City have become the not-so-secret treasures that are tucked right in the middle of Manhattan’s shopping district. Although the area is generally referred to as Herald Square, it comprises two triangular plazas facing each other. Shaped like a bow tie, Herald Square is situated on the northern end and Greeley Square is on the southern (downtown-facing) end. These parks have become one of my favorite urban design success stories.

The parks are located in Manhattan’s shopping district, nestled between some of the city’s busiest streets. Image courtesy Stantec.

In the early 1990s, the parks were still small and the sightlines through and across each were essentially wide open. Tens of thousands of people passed by these parks each day on adjacent streets and sidewalks that are some of the City’s busiest. It’s difficult to imagine, but prior to the park renovations in the late 1990s, the actual squares were spaces to avoid—even in as dense and bustling an area as Manhattan. 

TBefore the renovations, the parks were largely avoided by pedestrians. Image courtesy Stantec.

Why? At the time I asked my wife, who then worked at a nearby magazine publishing company and lived in the area. She simply said, “It’s scary.” Although you could see clearly across to the other side of each park, the monuments in the parks provided some places to hide. She believed that if you entered one of those parks, you wouldn’t reappear on the other side.

During the 1990s, the 34th Street Partnership (34SP) and the City’s Department of Parks began to refurbish these spaces. First, they removed all the graffiti, cleaned the streets and squares, and put in security officers around the area. Then, they added $3 million in improvements that include flexible seating similar to Bryant Park a few blocks up Sixth Avenue, lush planting, a healthy tree canopy, as well as comfortable tables and chairs, new lampposts and trashcans, sandwich kiosks, and free public restrooms.

Today, the once-foreboding spaces are an inviting, vibrant, and relaxing amenity for shoppers, residents, and workers. Image courtesy Stantec.

While my wife and I were living away from the City when the two parks were under construction, we have been back to Herald and Greeley Squares numerous times since and they are as welcoming now as they were when they first reopened to the public in 1999, when 34SP formally took over the management of the squares. The spaces are now inviting, social, and overflowing with shoppers taking a break, locals chatting over coffee, commuters eating their lunches and the like. Sure, the granite walls and pavers show signs of wear and have accumulated a bit of urban basting, but the appeal of the spaces was dramatically transformed by 34SP and the City. The success of these public parks demonstrates the value of designing for ease of maintenance, flexibility in seating, traditional and simple material palettes, seasonal planting, and attention to detail. 

Herald and Greeley Squares are great places to visit, with plentiful shopping, and with Bryant Park and Madison Square Park—other city gems—nearby, as well as many fine landscape architecture firms in between.

Gary Sorge, FASLA is senior principal at Stantec Consulting in Hartford, Connecticut. He can be reached at: gary.sorge@stantec.com.

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