The Rapidian Home

DGRI to bring leading public space designer to Grand Rapids

EVENT POSTPONED: Dan Biederman, who revived Bryant Park in New York City from an under-used unsafe public space to the most densely-used and widely-praised public park in the country, will be speaking at the GR Forward Thinking Speaker Series on March 12.
Underwriting support from:

Update from DGRI: "GR Forward Thinking Speaker Series: Dan BIederman DELAYED** Due to a family emergency, Mr. Biederman is unable to visit Grand Rapids this week. The Speaker Series will be re-scheduled in the near future, so please stay tuned!"

At the age of 26, Dan Biederman started working to revive Bryant Park in New York City. The park, underfunded and underused, had become a haven for dangerous activity and was in need of a clean-up. Biederman, determined to do more than just clean up the tagging and garbage, instead lead local neighbors and businesses in the work to turn Bryant Park into one of the most highly-used parks in America. The park is now solely funded by private funds, with investors ranging from local private businesses to corporate sponsorships, as well as income sources such as events, Business Improvement District (BID) funding and rent from concessions providers. Biederman continues to manage the park, while consulting in other states to spread the concepts and success he's learned in his work.

On Thursday, March 12, Biederman will bring what he's learned in the process of bringing the park from dull and dangerous to safe and vibrant, and share not only what he's done in New York City but what he sees as applicable approaches in Grand Rapids, Mich. The presentation, the last of a series in the GR Forward Thinking Speaker Series put on by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI), starts at 6 p.m. in the Kendall College of Art and Design Federal Building (17 Pearl Street NW). The event, titled "Driving Vibrancy in the Public Realm," is free and open to the public.

"Vibrancy means the space is well appreciated, well used. There's a lot going on: it's attractive [and] people want to visit," says Biederman. He says a main goal of vibrancy is to create a safe space for the visitors and neighbors, often done by creating a space that is used more than just during regular business hours or during the warm months. He says work to build vibrancy in public spaces is not just about creating fun spaces on their own, but about reclaiming safety for the neighborhood.

Biederman warns against the common approach to public space revitalization- a trend towards hiring architects and designers to create what his team calls "studio concepts." 

"They have more to do with the artistic leanings of the designers than with the desires of the neighborhood people who would use the park," he says, adding that the approach of his team was very different. His team's approach- listening to community needs and building around the community's best uses for the space- was able to transform it from a rarely-visited park full of crime, muggers, drug dealing and a "tremendous amount of disorder" into what's regarded as the "town square" for Midtown Manhattan.

"People name their buildings after it. They move there because young employees want to be next to it," he says. Bryant Park, now described as an "urban oasis" according to Google Maps, has become the central gathering place for Midtown. "Young employees view it as something they're in three times a day because their social life is dependent on it."

Bryant Park, before the transition lead by Biederman, was run by and funded by the City of New York with a yearly budget of approximately $200,000. The park is now solely funded by private funds with a budget 50 times that of the City's previous budget, to the tune of $11-12 million per year.

"We use every penny of it well," says Biederman. "Every dollar that we take in for park operations is from private business deals. We don't take any government money as a matter of principle."

Moving the funding to private sources, says Biederman, not only leaves government money for other parks that are needier, but also provides a way for local people to invest in their own public spaces. Funding at such levels didn't happen overnight, of course. Public interest was gradually built, starting with cleanup and increased programming in the roughly six acres in the middle of the Midtown neighborhood in Manhattan. 

Biederman sees many similarities and precendents that lead him to believe that Grand Rapids could also approach parks in the same way.

"I married a Midwesterner, and in my family we always joke about Midwestern common sense. People kind of laugh when I say it when I'm in the region, but we believe there's a common sense attitude in states like Michigan that would make these approaches attractive," says Biederman. "[Grand Rapids] was characterized to me as a smaller but very successful city- a lot of good things happen."

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.


There are really fascinating concepts. Some counter-intuitive. Most importantly, notice that the chairs aren't bolted to the ground. Allowing people to move the furniture to foster human connections is critical. Also the human scale is important. And rich people working in the neighborhood