Archive for May, 2010

Odds and ends.

Posted: May 23, 2010 in Uncategorized

About this blog…

It all started at Pullman Square in Huntington.  My wife and I were enjoying a cup of coffee, basking in the sunshine, and watching people.  Being an analytical sort, I started trying to figure out why we liked the place so much and began to recognize some of the good qualities of the place.  While Pullman Square is nice, it’s not what I would call an extravagant space.  No interactive fountains.  No LED special effects.  No Frank Gehry design.   I realized that creating a good public space is not so much about spending a lot of money as it is about understanding the needs of people. 

The place that started my thoughts about public space - Pullman Square in Huntington.

I have also visited some really bad public spaces.  Scary places.  Uncomfortable places.  Places that will remain nameless. 

One method of understanding how to create good public spaces is to learn from the mistakes of others, to analyze the bad public spaces.  That’s too easy. Who can’t sit back and be a critic?  Instead, my vow is to look at good public spaces and, when I can, talk about the principles that make it work.

Having said that, understand that even with the public spaces highlighted here, some are better than others.  Some may have significant flaws.  But if I present a public space, it means that I think the good aspects significantly outweigh whatever shortcomings may exist.

Designers of the future…

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of serving as one of the judges of the presentations of the top seniors in the Landscape Architecture department at West Virginia University.  They all had amazing presentations representing their work as students and their budding design philosophies.  Two of the students are heading to graduate school, including one who was accepted into the Harvard Graduate School of Design.  The others are ready to begin their professional careers.  They all have an understanding of the importance of their work and the impact it could have in making the world a more livable place.  Congratulations to the students and the faculty at WVU.  And if you need a good designer, let me know and I’ll connect you with some very good candidates.

WVU landscape architecture seniors: Andrew Kelly, Nina Chase, Laura Grunert, Kyle Stauffer, Ryan Seacrist, and Rob Dinsmore.

A call for spaces…

I keep a running list of public spaces I want to visit and you never know when you’ll see a skinny stranger taking pictures in your community.  As recent posts will attest, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in southern West Virginia.  I am traveling to parts north this summer so if you have a space that works for your community, let me know about it.  If you’re shy and don’t like to post a comment, just shoot me an email at

About you lurkers…

There are several blogs that I find interesting but I hardly ever post a comment.  The cyber world has a name for people like me.  We’re called lurkers.  This blog has many such lurkers.  Lurkers are good.  It means that you’re interested in the subject matter.  If you’re like me, you may have started to post a comment but then deleted it, for whatever reason.  I encourage you to go ahead and post your comments or questions and join the conversation.  It’s how we learn.

And finally…

I’ve had a few comments regarding RSS feeds and Subscriptions.  From my independent tests, everything seems to be working like it’s supposed to, but I would appreciate some feedback.  If it’s not working let me know.  If you are getting the RSS feeds and everything works, let me know that as well.  Again, either post a comment or shoot me an email.

Thanks for reading.  Next week, we’ll check out another space.

With the Clay Center in the background, a crowd gathered on Sunday for the dedication of the Mary Price Ratrie Greenspace.

May 16, 2010, Charleston, WV

Sunday was a big day for the City of Charleston.  An important new greenspace was dedicated and officially opened to the public.  Bands were playing, dignitaries of all sort enjoyed the afternoon sun, and kids climbed boulders and splashed in the water.  It was a picture-perfect day. 

The Mary Price Ratrie Greenspace is located a few blocks from the core of downtown Charleston and it fits in well with the high design of its neighbor across the street, the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences.  The space was designed by the nationally-known firm, Andropogon Associates, of Philadelphia.  Andropogon is a leader in sustainable design and was designing “green” long before it was hip to be green.  As I would have expected, their design is heavy on the use of indigenous materials and bears the unmistakable mark of West Virginia.  Terraces suggest the mountains of our state and if there were any doubt, the project comes complete with boulders, springs, a pond, and even a stream.  

Everything a kid could want: boulders, rocks and water.

Attention to detail is a credit to the designer and contractor.

The requisite hardscape elements are also there – concrete pavement with brick accents complement similar pavements used at the Clay Center.  Stone retaining walls provide virtually unlimited seating and interesting views.  And there is plenty of elbow room.  No reason that the park couldn’t be used by lots of people without sacrificing personal space. 

Even a greenspace needs some hardscape.

One of the goals of the project was to bring some green to a section of town that was a sea of asphalt and concrete.  This place will definitely provide that and will serve as a beautiful gateway just off one of the busy interstate exit ramps into the city.  

How does it function as a public space?  If everyday could be like Sunday, it would be a tremendous success.  I can easily imagine symphony crowds mingling in the space before and after a concert.  And without at doubt there is an educational component that will attract school kids.  But I suspect that this greenspace is less about being a public gathering place and more about being a visual oasis and a symbol of Charleston’s commitment to developing good public spaces.


I’ve been spending a lot of time in southern West Virginia lately. Today, we’ll take a look at a public space in Lewisburg, the Center Green.

You can’t tell it by the photo, but the Lewisburg Center Green is located at the busiest intersection in town.

Lewisburg is everyone’s favorite small town. In my years of working with the St. Albans Renaissance Group and interacting with other Main Street communities, Lewisburg was always the model for what their city could be like. Everyone wants to be Lewisburg.

And why not? Lewisburg is ten minutes from the world famous Greenbrier Resort. (Which explains why Lewisburg is one of the few places in West Virginia where an art gallery offers paintings for $25K). The town is nestled in some of the most beautiful mountains in West Virginia. Opportunities for recreation, shopping, eating, and cultural activities seem to be everywhere. Washington Street is the epitome of Main Street, USA. Yeah, Lewisburg’s got it all. On top of all that, a couple of years ago a public square green space was completed. It’s almost not fair.

The Lewisburg Center Green is at the corner of the busiest intersection in town and is challenged by a serious grade change. But rather than being a detriment, the difference is actually used as an advantage to raise the square above the ruckus of the busy intersection.

More than just a generic green space, the square acknowledges its geographic and cultural context. Interesting boulders reflect the underlying Karst topography (and serve as overflow seating) and stones from a structure that originally occupied the site form a mini-monumental staircase entrance. Landscaping is lush and features native dogwoods.

The entrance from the lower level is by semi-monumental stairs which incorporate stone from one of the first buildings on the site.

The laid-back atmosphere of Lewisburg allows the square to work well as a passive space. Non-shopping spouses have a place to go.  Because of unseasonably cool weather, on the day of my most recent visit there was no one actually using the space, but the green gets plenty of use.  On warmer days, a ground-level fountain invites a certain amount of interaction as kids find the water irresistible.  And last fall, I saw teens just hanging out.  No, they weren’t grinding the walls with skateboards, they were singing.  Yes, singing, with guitar accompaniment.

From the upper level, pedestrians are invited in and offered a variety of seating opportunities.

The potentially overwhelming retaining wall is greatly softened by an abundance of landscaping.

If you want to experience Lewisburg at its best, I suggest the first Friday of any month. Blatantly stealing the line from the downtown merchants association, that’s when you can “Gather in Lewisburg to enjoy friends, music, art and fun!”

My work takes me all over West Virginia.  Last week, as I was driving to Mingo County for a project at Laurel Lake Wildlife Management Area, I was thinking of my previous post about Millennium Park in Chicago, and the contrast between Chicago and Mingo County.  As different as night and day in so many ways.  But what Mingo County (and all of southern West Virginia) has that Chicago doesn’t is an incredible, rugged beauty with lush forests and an ever-changing landscape.  Even the highway cuts through the mountains are fascinating glimpses of the underlying geology.  And deep in the heart of the mountains, is a beautiful, tranquil lake.  No interactive, giant fountains spewing water from someone’s mouth.  No giant, shining stainless-steel beans.  Just a lake.  You don’t even need a bench – there are plenty of rocks that will do just fine.

You won't find this in Chicago.

My motivation in writing this blog is to encourage the design and development of good public spaces, primarily in urban settings.  The first urban parks were intended to offer city dwellers an escape from urban life, a place where they could relax in a natural setting. 

In Millennium Park there are indeed areas of the park that allow the visitor to connect with nature, but there are also elements that seem to be from another world.  Clearly the concept of the urban public space is ever evolving.

In West Virginia, urban living is on a completely different scale compared to Chicago.  A resident of downtown Charleston can travel five minutes in almost any direction and get back to nature.  Because it is so easy for us to escape the city, our urban parks can be more about embracing the vibrant downtown environment and social life.

Views like this are easy to come by in West Virginia.

That’s not to say that a naturalistic design in a West Virginia urban park is inappropriate.  In fact, depending on the geographical and socio-economic context, it may be very desirable to provide an oasis of green in a concrete jungle.  But we need to recognize that with such easy access to the mountains of West Virginia, there are opportunities for our urban spaces to meet other needs. 

Fancy benches aren't always necessary.

Are there Frank Gehry structures in the future of our public spaces?  Probably not, but there is room for thought-provoking architecture.  There is room for unusual art.  There is room for the urban experience that can’t be found in our beautiful mountains.