Highly Public

A study of New York City’s existing system of public spaces, a framework that responds to the privatization of a highly vertical city, and a proposal for weaving different types of public spaces into a richer and more vertical urban fabric.

As cities grow, their urban centers rely on a foundation of infrastructure and public space that remains flat and unresponsive to variable use. The future city can and should be as fluid as the human interaction it accommodates.

As private developments continuously push the height of the city upwards, public and collective spaces are left at the bottom of dark craters in a highly vertical city. But what if these developments pulled the plane of public space up with them? The resulting cross-section is that of an arc, which offers a greater potential for the programming and usage of public space, combining multiple types of public space into a richer and more vertical urban fabric. Additional echoes of this plane have the potential to completely fill in New York City’s urban canyons while also providing more flexible spaces that better respond to the needs of the city.

This new kind of public space in Midtown is backed by a private-public partnership but gives priority to public use rather than private profit. For the first time, the sky can belong to the people, creating a site that can be what all public and collective spaces should be in the vertical city: Highly Public.

Public vs. private: spaces are not just black and white

Public space is open and accessible space owned by the government. Though there are limitations to use, that use is free and generally unencumbered. Private space is owned by private individual or entities that restrict use. But spaces are not so black and white — many spaces are privately owned but still serve the public in ways similar to actual public space.

Collective spaces are the gray area between the formal definitions of public and private space. They subject people to additional rules, advertisements, or financial barriers.

The spectrum of public and collective spaces

To better understand existing public spaces, this classification system sorts them into six categories. They are placed on a spectrum of enclosure, but more characteristics are added to each type, making this particular version specific to Midtown, Manhattan.

Mapping Midtown’s public and collective spaces

Midtown Manhattan, one of the densest areas in the world, has only two public spaces - Central Park and Bryant Park. The rest of its cultural and social moments are supported by collective spaces.

What if private developments in a vertical city pulled public space up along with them?

If the middle of a public space canyon anchors itself to the city, but private growth pulls up its edges, it’s bent into an arc. Echoes of the arc reverberate up and down the canyon, filling it with layers of public space. A vertical reflection frees the arc and its echoes from the canyon, adding even higher layers of public space. The clusters of public space at the top and bottom of the canyon encapsulate the open area between them.

The canyon becomes Highly Public.

Low Buildings


Urban Canyons


Public Space Arc


Public Space Echoes


Public Space Mirror


Highly Public Canyon

An arc as a new plane of public space

The arc, its echoes, and its reflections give the plane of public space more physical and functional depth. Different public space classifications apply to different sections and inclines of the arc. Interior programming fits under the various heights of the ribbons above.

The X-Y module of Manhattan and the X-Y-Z module of Highly Public

Manhattan’s urban grid subdivides into an 8’ x 20’ module. This module informs the city’s sidewalks, streets, and blocks. Highly Public uses the same base module, continuing the rhythm of the city through the design of the site.

Manhattan Module




1-Way Street


Parcel / Half Block


Ribbon Classifications and Programming

A continuous path of Type F public space winds through the site across 10 ribbons of public space (R1 - R10). The plane of public space now has a cross-section that is 30 feet high. Structure and interior programming is added below each ribbon using the same base module.
Diagrammatic Plans
Diagrammatic Plans

Project Info

New York, NY
Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Urbansim and Planning

All work ©2020 Vonn Weisenberger unless otherwise noted.