Archive for January, 2010

At a recent city council meeting, a retiring police officer being honored by the city for his years of service took the opportunity to make his pitch (very directly) for more financial support for the local police department.  In doing so, he implied that the city should not be spending money on pretty streets (and other unimportant things) until the police department is properly funded.  Without getting into the merits of his particular special interest, I’ll just say that it’s not unusual to hear the sentiment that money spent on beautification could be better spent elsewhere.  There are, after all, real needs throughout a typical city including funding for police protection, fire departments, street paving, water and sewer systems, senior citizen needs, facilities for youth, and on and on.

All are important.  All need money.  All must be taken care of.

But if you think you can put the upkeep of the appearance of a city on the back burner and ignore things like parks and other public spaces and still have a vibrant, growing city, you’re just wrong.  

That’s the challenge facing mayors and other civic leaders who really want the best for their cities.  They have to understand the importance of what is too often thought of as unimportant.

If you’re the least bit interested in improving your community, you’ve probably noticed the “create” groups springing up in city after city.  These groups are dedicated to revitalizing their communities by building a new economic model based on attracting so-called creative professionals, as espoused by “create” guru, Richard Florida.  One way to attract these professionals is by providing the amenities that these creatives desire – everything from coffee shops to art museums.  (For a good presentation of the concept, including local examples, go to Joseph Higginbotham’s post at higginbothamatlarge.blogspot.com).  Though not everyone buys into the “create” movement, it’s hard to argue that these amenities don’t attract visitors, who become shoppers, who become residents, who become home buyers, who become car buyers, and so on.  Of course not everyone who drinks a cup of coffee at Pullman Square will end up buying a house in Huntington, but if it weren’t for Pullman Square’s public space, my wife and I would never have stopped and bought a cup of coffee, or a cone of ice cream, or books from the bookstore, or fashions from the shops, or eaten at the restaurants. 

My years of working in community revitalization have taught me that the appearance of the city and the impression created by that appearance has much to do with whether a business will locate in one community or another.  Think a high-end furniture store will locate in a section of town that looks run down?  Or a bakery?  Or a law firm?  It’s all part of the total package.

Which is more important, helping businesses succeed or having a good police force?  At any given moment, one may be more important than the other.  But in the long run, they’re both important.  A city with no economic activity won’t have a police force for very long.  A city without a good police force will lose much of its business.  The hard part is for city leaders to find the right balance.

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You have to admit, that even if you’ve never been to Pullman Square in Huntington, West Virginia, the glowing-lights photo makes the place look really inviting.  A great snapshot doesn’t necessarily mean the space really works for people, but in this case, the evidence is in the photo itself.  First of all, you’ll notice people are occupying the space.  And in this particular photo, there isn’t a big event taking place; there’s no special reason for people to be there other than they want to be.  All very well and good, but so what?  All that space could have been used for retail or parking, right?

What’s interesting to note is that Pullman Square is a private development.  I’m sure there is a “green space” requirement that the developers had to meet, but they could have met that in a more perfunctory way.  The fact that they created a space that actually attracts people says something about the value of the space. The developers know it’s not wasted space, but helps create a more pleasurable shopping experience.  (There is a lot more to say about the value of good public space but I’ll save that for another time.)

Why does the space work?  For one, the designers understand human behavior and they understand how to give people the opportunity to do what they want.  They’re also smart enough not to screw it up with good ideas.   How can good ideas be bad?  Allow me a short digression.

Let’s say your community has been given the opportunity to develop a piece of property for some type of public use.  A committee is formed to come up with a plan for the property that benefits the rest of the community.  Good ideas spring forth.  An interactive fountain, a skating rink, a farmer’s market, a stage, art displays, memorials, flagpoles, and so on.  They’re all good ideas so you start to figure out how to cram all of the good ideas into the limited space.  And if you’re not careful, you’ll get a space that doesn’t allow people to do what they really want to do. 

What people really want to do is to sit back, relax, talk, and watch other people.  (Yes, I know there are exceptions.  They fall under my “seat belt” maxim.  People are usually safer wearing seat belts, but you occasionally hear stories about people surviving a car crash because they weren’t wearing a seat belt.  So wear your seat belt and don’t nit-pick about exceptions.)

This is what Pullman Square does really well.   Take a look at the illustration below.

First, let’s look at the big room, the large space formed by the two “walls” of planters to the left and right, the “wall” at the rear formed by the pavilion, and the “wall” in front formed by an actual wall and benches.  While these walls do form a small physical barrier, they function much more effectively as a psychological barrier.  They define the overall space and make it clear that the space inside the walls is special.  It draws you in.

What’s inside the big room at Pullman Square is really what makes it such a great space.  There are smaller rooms.  Rooms for solitary contemplation, rooms for couples to share ice cream, and rooms for teens to hang out and do nothing.  A quick study of the photo and you’ll see what makes a room a room.  First, a place to sit in relative privacy.  Usually, a “wall” to your back.  The best rooms also have a “ceiling”, which in this case, is a tree canopy.  Perhaps most importantly, each room has a view.

Of course the focal point is the fountain (primary views illustrated by the blue arrows).   It’s just your normal, traditional fountain, nothing too fancy.  But its visual and auditory qualities give you something at which to gaze.  Turn your head to the left or to the right or across the street to the stores and the scene changes (illustrated by the green arrows).  Check out the skater dude and his tats.  Or the students pretending to study.  There’s your doctor and her husband going to a movie.  You can observe all manner of humanity without leaving the comfort of your little private room.

As a landscape architect, I could talk about all kinds of design principles that have been nicely executed at Pullman Square.  Things like scale, proportion, repetition, rhythm, variety and so on.  But it all starts with an understanding of the needs of people and not trying to do too much.  Observe, study, accommodate.  It’s not really that hard.  Feel free to try it at home.

Would you rather be here?

Outside my window, it’s 25 degrees.  Snow is on the ground.  My space heater is cranking.  I wish it were spring. 

Remember spring?  Remember sitting outside, maybe on a bench, maybe on the ledge of a fountain, splashing water in the background?  Go ahead, take a few moments and take a trip back in time to your favorite outdoor place.

What do you like about it?

Is it peaceful?  Are there other people to watch?  Do you feel safe and secure?  Are you enjoying the sun or sitting in the shade?  Maybe you’re sipping on your beverage of choice.

Nice, huh?  Maybe you’re in a completely natural environment.  Maybe in the woods or in a park.  Or maybe you’re outside your favorite café downtown or in public plaza. 

Where ever your favorite place may be, there are reasons that you enjoy it so much.  There are certain things about a nice place that make us feel comfortable.  Sometimes they occur naturally; other times they are the result of a skilled designer. 

With this blog, I hope to start a dialogue among people interested in improving the public spaces within their community.  We will explore the elements and design principles that help create great spaces.  We’ll talk about the importance – socially and economically – of creating and maintaining public spaces.  We’ll go from the big picture to the smallest detail.

There is one caveat.  I will present only good examples.  Yes, you can learn from mistakes, but I’m going to let you find those places on your own.  Here, we’ll learn from what works.

To do all of this, we’ll take a tour.  And because I live in West Virginia, most of the places we examine we will be in West Virginia.  Want an example of a good public place?

Pullman Square, Huntington, WV

How about Pullman Square in Huntington?  First of all, there’s a reason to go there.  You can go to a movie, shop, or just grab a cup of coffee.  And once you’re there, its hard not to relax in the public space.  We’ll look at the details of the space in a later post, but, as you can see from the picture, it’s not a huge or extravagant space.  Actually, it’s kind of simple.  But it works amazingly well.  Why?

Here’s a clue:  It’s not just one big space; there are spaces you can call your own.

I can’t wait until it warms up.  Time travel is just not the same. 

Catch you next time and we’ll take a closer look at Pullman Square.

Photographs courtesy of DRB Group, LLC.