Archive for April, 2010

I’ve got to get out more.

Chicago's Millennium Park

I recently wrote about security issues facing public spaces, and although the post received no “official” comments, it did generate some discussion in other venues.  In a LinkedIn discussion group, a landscape architect from Chicago brought up the differences between an interactive public space and one that’s more passive.  A passive space is more about relaxing and sitting on a bench and watching the world go by.  An interactive space encourages the public to more directly get involved.  Don’t just look at the water feature, get wet.  Don’t just walk through a park, stay and watch a concert.  Don’t just look at art from a distance, walk around, under it, on it and touch it.  The interactive public space draws a broader cross-section of people and through inclusion, creates a safer public space.  The Chicago landscape architect used an example she was familiar with – Millennium Park in downtown Chicago.

Although this blog is intended to be about West Virginia public spaces, I’m all for learning from other places, especially when it’s a mind-blowing space like Millennium Park.  Now I’ve never been to Millennium Park.  I’ve never been to Chicago.  But through the magic of the internet, I’ve learned enough about the park to know it’s now on my list of must-see places.  Take a look for yourself.  I’m not sure where to start, but I love water features so let’s start there.

The Crown Fountain is something else.  Two fifty-foot glass-block towers face each other, separated by a reflecting pool.  Water shoots from each tower into the pool.  But what makes this fountain (if you really want to use such a mundane term for a spectacular effect) are the images projected on each tower.  Faces of Chicago residents are projected onto the towers in such a way as to create the illusion that water is spouting from their mouths.  I have got to see this in person.

Crown Fountain

Then there’s Cloud Gate, a huge, highly polished, stainless steel sculpture that looks like a giant bean from an alien space ship.  Not only can you see distorted reflections of the Chicago skyline on its surface, you can walk up to it, touch, and walk under it.  I have got to see this in person.

Cloud Gate

The Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a Frank Gehry-designed concert venue, looks like the alien mother ship that birthed the giant, stainless-steel bean.  I have got to see this in person.

Pritzker Pavilion

And there is so much more.  Gardens, pavilions, galleries, an amazing Frank Gehry bridge.  I have got to see this place in person.

Ok.  Back down to earth.  Chicago is Chicago.  What can we learn that applies to public spaces in West Virginia?

First, I’ll restate the mantra that I learned from the great Chicago architect, Daniel Burnham, “Make no small plans”.  Too often we’re afraid to think big.  We need to take advantage of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and embrace bold ideas and concepts.

I think my colleague in Chicago is right when stressing the interactive nature of public spaces, especially when addressing areas that have troubling socio-economic or geographical contextual challenges.  In other words, if we’re wanting to transform a public space that has a history of problems, we have to draw a broad cross-section of people.  And we need more than benches to do that.  We have to think of interactive solutions.

Enjoy this trip to Chicago.

Millennium Park Overview

Come home with fresh ideas.

It’s not a park.  It’s not a plaza.  Most people wouldn’t even consider it a public space.   Functionally, it’s not much more than a sidewalk, but it accomplishes much more.

The Bridge Road shopping area is a welcoming place.

The South Hills section of Charleston, West Virginia is primarily a residential area across the Kanawha River from downtown.   Bridge Road winds through the hills and about halfway up there is a small shopping area.  Although it’s always been busy, it hasn’t always been pedestrian-friendly.  A couple of years ago, a project was completed that created a unique environment and made the area much more walkable by incorporating some of the basic principles of good public spaces.

Openness and landscaping help make the walkway feel like a public space.

A plain concrete sidewalk would have met the basic functional requirements but would have done little to actually encourage people to walk.  Instead, the walkway is enhanced by a curved design, plenty of landscaping, and several benches.  But the most unique feature of the walkway is the hand-forged, treescape railing with elements suggesting Charleston’s identity as a river community. 

The walkway provides one of the main criteria for a succesfull public space - plenty of seating.

Hand-forged railing and decorative ironwork provide interesting details along the walkway.

The design elements grab your attention, draw you in and make walking a pleasant option.  Besides providing access to the South Hills shops, locals know you can park along the street and enjoy a short walk to one of South Hill’s trendy hot spots, Lola’s.  Lola’s is located in an unassuming old frame house and is famous for its gourmet pizza and casual, friendly atmosphere (a cool space in its own right).   Thankfully, the sidewalk project doesn’t end before it gets to Lola’s.  In fact, more landscaping, benches and a monumental sign all serve to create a unique public space.

It doesn't hurt that the walkway leads to Lola's, a great place to cap off a day.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:  for Thou art with me.” – Psalm 23: 4a

Without getting too theological about it, have you ever entered a public park and had that kind of thought?  Maybe you haven’t feared for your life, but have you felt threatened in other ways?  Have you avoided public spaces because of that fear?

The measure of success for any public space is whether or not it is used by the public.   

I don’t have studies or statistics to indicate what percentage of public space failures are due to concerns of personal safety, but I would guess it’s pretty high.  In the greater Charleston, WV, metropolitan area I can think of many spaces that suffer from such concerns.  Some are time-of-night issues; others are scary in the middle of the day.

And here’s the unsettling truth:  It isn’t the space itself that creates the fear.  It’s people.

I’m going to speak in broad generalities.  Not everyone will have the same fears.  Police officers or Special Forces soldiers will have much less fear than an administrative assistant on a lunch break.  But the fears of the general population are somewhat predictable, if not always logical. 

Who do we fear?  It varies.  One kid with a skateboard is not scary.  Five or six teenage kids bullying their way along a sidewalk might be intimidating to some.   One 20-something with tattoos and piercings may be little cause for concern.  A small group of his friends hanging out in the shadows of a park would likely be reason enough for most folks to avoid the park.   Go ahead.  Visualize your scary people of choice.  The less someone looks like us, the more we avoid them.   And don’t bother with the argument that we shouldn’t judge people by the way they look.  While this is true, we have to acknowledge that we’re dealing with emotional responses and not pure logic.  The perception of fear is all that really matters. 

So if scary people contribute to the failure of a public space, how do we deal with them?   There are two broad schools of thought:  Exclusion and Inclusion.

Exclusion means keeping the undesirables out of the public space that is intended for law-abiding citizens.  Well, sure, those involved in criminal activities should be arrested.  But what about those who have broken no laws, but we’re afraid they might and that we might be their victims?  Can we exclude the skateboard gang or the kids with tats and piercings?  Yes, we can, by various legal means, but do we really want to?

The other argument is for inclusion.  Sure, let the skateboard gang hang out (as long as they are not breaking laws or damaging property).  Public space is for everyone, regardless of whether or not they look like us.  But in order for the inclusion argument to work, there must be a broad cross-section of people using the park.   In addition to the skateboarders and body piercers, there must be lawyers, accountants, construction workers, city managers, administrative assistants, artists, retirees and, of course, kids.  Such a cross-section of people provides a self-policing environment.  There is a sense that if an evil-doer tried something, there would be someone else willing to help stop him. 

Both methods work.  Exclusion keeps out undesirables, but who sets the definition of undesirable?  You can see the trouble that could cause.  And even if we all agreed, it would seem that as a society we would be depriving ourselves of the opportunity to know more about each other – even those who are not like us.

But inclusion has its challenges.  It’s the chicken and egg syndrome.  How do you get the broad cross-section of users if a public space is occupied by scary people?

There are many issues involved in attracting people to a public space.  Design is one.  Location is another.  Socio-economic context is another.  All of these factors may attract one set of people while discouraging another.

In this forum, I write to encourage those who are involved in the development of public spaces to explore the issues that can make them successful.  I hope that by doing this, we can all learn and ultimately help create better spaces.   But it needs to be a two-way conversation.  So now I’m going to specifically ask for some input.

If you are a civic leader, a mayor, a city manager, or an urban planner, and have some thoughts on how to make public spaces safe, please share your thoughts.  Likewise, if you’re a design professional, let us know what has worked with some of your projects.  Or if you’re just someone who has given this some thought and want to weigh in, please do. 

What do you think?

It was inevitable that I would eventually reference “Seinfeld”.  (For some of you this may mean the end of Spaces for People.  I’ll take that chance.)  One of Elaine’s boyfriends, Aaron, played by Judge Reinhold, was a bit of a close talker.  When engaged in conversation, he routinely stood within inches of the other person.  The concept of personal space was lost on him.  Most of us don’t have that problem, though the measure of how close is too close may vary a little.  Even so, there are some generally agreed upon standards. 

Intimate Space: 0 to 18 inches.  As the name implies, a person’s intimate space can only be shared with someone very familiar.  In most cultures, it is generally not acceptable for two people to share intimate space in public.  There are exceptions.  In a crowded elevator or subway we are sometimes forced to share intimate space, but the rules change in such situations.  We generally avoid conversation and eye contact.

Personal Space: 18 to 48 inches.  This is the casual conversation bubble.  From about 18 to 30 inches we’re only comfortable with spouses or good friends being this close.  With everybody else, we’re more comfortable if they are 30 to 40 inches away.   This is where Aaron should have been.  Just outside of touching distance.

Social Space: 4 to 12 feet.  Outside the zone of personal space lies a somewhat disconnected social zone.  Within this area, conversations are no longer private.  Most business meetings occur here, with more formal exchanges occurring in the outer range of the zone.  It’s also important to understand that there are a lot of public spaces where people are thrust into this zone.  Think of waiting rooms or the food court at the mall.  Here, it is socially acceptable to engage strangers in conversation – or not.  It’s a relaxed zone with the potential for good social interaction.

Public Distance: 12 feet and beyond.  In this zone there are no expectations of social interaction and people become more like elements within the space.  Conversations between two people outside of someone else’s social space are essentially private.

There are obvious implications when considering all of this in the design of public spaces.  For example, benches placed 8 feet apart will encourage interaction among people.  If they’re 12 feet apart, that’s much less likely to happen.  If part of a space is a public corridor, it may be desirable to provide plenty of “public space” to create a sense of protective isolation from strangers.

It’s absolutely no problem if a public space has a combination of all of these zones, but it should be planned to meet the functional requirements and objectives of the space.  And how these different comfort zones are provided also has an impact on the perceived safety of a public space.

Next time, we’ll get more into the issues that make people feel safe, or threatened, in public spaces.

“Introduction to Landscape Design” by John L. Motloch was used a source of information for this article.