A group of 15 politicians and officials from Eskilstuna, Sweden traveled all the way to New York City, to have a closer look at Bryant Park (located in Manhattan’s midtown area between 40th and 42nd streets, between Fifth and Sixth avenues). Bryant Park is of special interest as it is a true New York success story having gone from a dangerous drug haven to a place people from everywhere want to visit.
The Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (later changed to BPC—Bryant Park Corporation) was co-founded in 1980 by Dan Biederman and Andrew Heiskell, chairman of Time Inc. and the New York Public Library. Though initially supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, BPC is now funded by assessments on property and businesses adjacent to the park, and by revenue generated from events held at the park. The successful privatization may be seen as a tribute to a selfless innovation by the public sector—permitting the private sector to step in with resources and operational skills to restore and manage a splendid public space. Most public officials probably wouldn't have the courage to let the private sector take over. All this, the group from Eskilstuna felt, is something they could benefit from when it comes to rejuvenating their Fristadstorget, a city square.
“We need to learn from the people who have made Bryant Park a success,” said vice mayor of Eskilstuna and chairman of the Town Planning Committee Magnus Johansson. “Bryant Park is a place that makes meetings possible, it has a positive atmosphere, and people come here to do the things they enjoy: Whether it is playing a game of boules, having lunch or working. If you have a lot of people doing what they enjoy doing in a defined area, you have a good thing going.”
Johansson explains a lot is happening in Eskilstuna at the moment: The population is increasing, there has been political change and a generational shift within the different political parties. Johansson believes that Bryant Park can teach the politicians of Eskilstuna to be more flexible, to think outside the box, and most importantly, to reach out across the borders. The trip has been heavily criticized in Swedish newspapers, however. DagensTidning.nu printed an article titled: "Eskilstuna politicians having fun with taxpayers’ money.” Johansson staves off the criticism: “Many people felt it was unnecessary to spend a lot of money on a trip like this one, but when we manage to get the right people and when we get to take part of the knowledge and can see the possibilities, then things will happen. Private landlords and police must be able to meet up and collaborate—when they do it’s a win-win situation for everyone.”
What Johansson and his 14 colleagues wanted from their trip was to experience Bryant Park for themselves, and get some ideas on how its successful changes can be applied to Fristadstorget.
Group member Andreas Sjöberg, director of Marketing for Building Owners Central Sweden, says, “Talking to and meeting all these people here, especially Jerome Barth, the vice president of Business Affairs at Bryant Park, has opened our eyes, and we will return with new ideas. It’s not simple to just import ideas. Eskilstuna is great, but will be even greater in the future.”
Johansson agrees: “To develop Eskiltuna is a long-term project, this is just one part of it. We need more knowledge and ideas.”
What they in particular agree is so attractive about Bryant Park is that it is a place alive with activities. Here you can rearrange chairs and tables to suit your needs, you can read a book, buy coffee or take out lunch from nearby places. There’s a free ice-skating rink during the winter months, and a film festival in summer; there’s also a slew of games available.
“I see how we could incorporate many of these ideas to Fristadstorget at home,” Johansson says. “Since there’s the city park nearby, maybe morning exercises could be something? We’ve got to learn from people who’ve done this.”
In the end, Johansson says it’s the inhabitants of Eskilstuna themselves who will get to decide what to do with Fristadstorget, though with politicians better informed and better equipped with how to work, the wishes and dreams of the people of Eskilstuna are more likely to come true.