Archive for June, 2010

The United Bank Plaza, Charleston, WV.

One of the better public spaces in downtown Charleston is actually a private space.  The United Bank Plaza is a welcome oasis from the scorching sun and the glaring concrete on a much too hot summer afternoon.

It would be easy to say that if you plant a few trees and add a little water, you’ll have a successful space, but we can all probably think of plaza that, despite an abundance of trees and a water feature, just doesn’t seem to be very inviting.  There are subtleties in the design of the United Bank Plaza that we should take note of.

First, let’s look at it as a greenspace.  Yes, there are mature trees that make a strong visual impact, but there is something else at work that contributes to the effect.  The trees are in planters and the ground below is planted in grass.  What is different is that the grassy areas are slightly mounded.  It’s not something you consciously notice, but the mounding makes the grass much more perceptible and enhances the green effect, even if you’re just driving by.

Trees are planted in grassy berms which greatly enhance the effect of the greenspace.

Another nice touch is the use of curves in the design.  Downtowns usually consist of relentless straight lines and right angles.  The circular sculpture fountain at the corner of the property is the focal point of the plaza and dictates that the walkways around it reflect its shape.  The result is a welcome relief from the rigidity of the downtown streets and an inviting entrance for pedestrians.   Further inside the plaza, more circular shapes help create a relaxing atmosphere.

As we’ve established before, ample seating is a requisite for a successful public space and there is definitely no shortage in the United Bank Plaza.  Want to have lunch with a coworker?  No problem.  Want to find a bench to yourself?  No problem.  Want to stretch out on the grass?  I suppose you could.  Or sit on the wall around the fountain or on one of the brick planter walls.   Plenty of places to sit.  Plenty of variety.

Seating opportunities abound at the United Bank Plaza.

Part of the attraction of urban areas is the architecture.  From just about anywhere in the plaza there are opportunities to appreciate various styles of architecture, from the historic structures nearby to the modern design of the United Bank building.   Inside the plaza are interesting details such as the brickwork where the plaza, planters and light poles meet.  Throw in the downtown sport of people-watching and you should have no excuse for escaping boredom.

You can enjoy Charleston's architecture from the plaza...

...or the details at your feet.

I’m now going to break my rule about saying only good things about public spaces.  While I really admire the United Bank Plaza, I would feel less than honest if I didn’t mention the big electronic stock ticker in the middle of the plaza.  It’s huge and distracting.  How can I not mention it?  I wish I could say it really adds to the plaza, but the truth is, I can’t imagine occupying one of the benches in front of it and watching the stocks on my lunch hour.  In this day of smart phones and instant access to information, do we really need a giant scoreboard?

Having said that, I very much appreciate the United Bank Plaza.  There are many attributes that other institutions would do well to emulate.

Design by committee.

Posted: June 20, 2010 in Uncategorized

A few weeks ago Joseph Higginbotham challenged me as follows:

Perhaps in a future post you will give us the benefit of your 30 years experience in the design of public spaces and write a post that is a kind of “white paper” on what a municipality should do before it spends one dime of taxpayer money on a public space. How does a muny prevent their public space from ending up looking like it was designed by a committee instead of by an expert like you? How does a muny start this process of evaluating its public space needs? How does that muny end up with a public space that looks like it was designed by an expert and not by a committee of amateurs?

Ok.  Easy questions with easy answers.

Response to Question No. 1:  A municipality can prevent their public space from ending up looking like it was designed by a committee by not allowing a committee to design it and instead, trusting their appropriately qualified design professional to know what to do.

Response to Question No. 2:  A municipality can start the process of evaluating its public space needs by forming a committee to study the needs of the people it serves.

Response to Question No. 3: See Response No. 1.

While my responses may seem sarcastic, they’re actually true.  Only the owner of the project, the municipality, can ensure that the space is not designed by committee.  The design professional can guide, direct, and suggest, but often a public-input committee has met and developed the program for the project long before the design professional has been engaged.  By then, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to undo the established program.

My response to question No. 2 is also true.  Public input is important in evaluating public space needs, and while committees are a good way to have group input, the process needs to be carefully controlled to evaluate and take suggestions.  They should stop short of developing the actual program that will drive the design.

Why?  One of the most serious mistakes a municipality can make is trying to cram too many good ideas into a public space.  Committees can cause that.   A public meeting can generate many good ideas, but more often than not, a pubic space that tries to do too many things will be less successful.  The space may have an ambiguous identity in the eyes of the public.  Too many different use areas can create user conflicts.   And sometimes it can just get too cramped.

Most civic leaders want to do the right thing and gaining public input is a good instinct.  Committees are almost automatic.  Only the civic leaders have the power to control the power of the committee.

This is not to say that the civic leader should eschew the committee in favor of an autocratic approach to program development.  Your typical civic leader is not trained in the design and development of public spaces and their attempt to bypass the committee by laying out the public space themselves seldom produces good results.  The are just too many design issues — spatial relationships, use-area conflicts, and user safety, to name a few — for the untrained professional to get right.

Which brings me back to why I write this blog.  If creating good public spaces were as simple as writing a white paper, I’d do it and be done.  Committees will be formed, good ideas will come forth, and public spaces will be designed.  But if we can learn more about what makes good public spaces before we join the committee, the results will be better.

Did you know that the first municipal parking garage in the United States was in Welch, West Virginia?

Did you know that the Cincinnati Reds have played baseball in Welch?

Did you know that in 1960 Welch ranked number one in coal production in the entire country?

The coal-fueled economy of the first half of the twentieth century made Welch a boom town and pushed the population of McDowell County close to 100,000.  But those days are long gone.  If you know Welch or McDowell County at all, you probably know them for the economic hard times they have endured over the last few decades.

Then again, have you seen downtown Welch lately?  Probably not.  If you’re interested at all in downtown revitalization, you should take a look.  It would be worth the drive.

Last week we looked at the McArts Amphitheater in McDowell County and learned that an elaborate design is not always necessary for a place to be memorable.  Then again, a good design can transform a mundane place into something really special.  Such is the case with the Welch Riverfront Park.

A highlight of the Welch Riverfront Park is the amphitheater, which is not only a venue for performance art, but makes an ideal place for downtown workers to enjoy lunch.

From the opposite side of the Tug Fork River, the different levels of the park are more obvious.

The lower level walkway is a great place for a casual stroll.

The view from above is always a favored vantage point.

Built along the banks of the Tug Fork River, the park calls out for people.  People to sit and watch the cars go by.  People to sit on the upper level promenade and watch the world from above.  People to lounge on the concrete steps of the amphitheater and enjoy a sandwich at lunch or take in an evening concert.  Or maybe stroll along the curved sidewalk just a stone’s throw from the sparkling river.

There are so many opportunities to engage the public.  It’s an obvious place for public gatherings and a good choice for more subtle get-togethers.  It’s the kind of space you might expect to find in Charleston, Huntington, or Morgantown.  In Welch, it’s a total surprise.

I don’t know the mechanics of how Welch put such a project together.  I don’t know how it was funded.  But what I do know is that someone in Welch had that vision thing.  Someone had an idea and dared to think big.  I suspect that Mayor Martha Moore played a major role.  I can imagine all the nattering nabobs she had to endure.  And probably still does.

There is no guarantee of a prosperous future for Welch or McDowell County.  Boom times of years gone by seem unlikely.  But the development of the Riverfront Park is a strong step towards building an economically viable downtown.

The old stone wall on the lower level not only adds interest to the park, but could be a metaphor for the history and strength of Welch's past as a foundation for its future.

McArts Amphitheater in McDowell County.


McArts Amphitheater stage.

The photos were taken on my first visit to the McArts Amphitheater in McDowell County, West Virginia.  No, it’s not an impressive facility.  It’s at the top of Tom’s Mountain, just a few hundred yards from the relatively new Mt. View High School.  Just about any designer or urban planner would take one look at the place and jump to the conclusion that it’s not a very good space for people.  Let’s see if that conclusion is justified.

First, the blink test.  Is there a reason to enter the space?  Hmmm.  Not really.  Not at the time of the photo, anyway.  Does it feel safe?  It’s deserted.  Kind of secluded.  No, it doesn’t feel safe.

Does it have adequate seating?  Well, there’s quantity.  Not so much quality.

How about the concept of “a room with a view”?  It’s more or less one big room, with a view of an empty stage. 

So maybe it’s a justified conclusion.  Maybe it’s not a great space for people. 

Not so fast.

Before you can judge the success of a place you must understand its purpose.  The McArts theater is not a park.  It’s not a place where you go to meet friends for a quiet conversation.  It has one purpose. It’s a venue for theater production.  It’s not all things to all people all the time.

Ok, I admit that as theaters go, this one is fairly primitive.  On my first visit, I had a hard time envisioning how the facility would be adequate for any kind of production. But that was before I actually went to see a play.

It was a warm July evening when my wife and I went to a production of “The Terror of the Tug,” a play written by local playwright Jean Battlo which chronicles Sid Hatfield and the coal mine wars of the 1920’s.  We pulled into the grass parking area and were surprised to see dozens of cars already there.  Concessions were being sold from fold-up tables.  It was all very down-to-earth.  To say we felt safe would be an understatement.  We were treated like family members at a reunion.  One of the first persons to welcome us was Jean Battlo herself.

The rickety bleacher seating had been supplemented by cheap plastic lawn chairs.  We found some space in the bleachers and watched as the rest of our “family” made their way in. 

That evening, West Virginia Culture and History Commissioner, Randall Reid-Smith, was in attendance.  Of course being a VIP, he was introduced, and with very little prodding, he was coaxed into giving an impromptu performance.  Not knowing his capabilities, I was prepared to be embarrassed for him.  Instead, I was amazed at the great voice and musicality he possessed as he tore through a Broadway-like number extolling the virtues of West Virginia.  The evening was off to an impressive start.

I wasn’t sure if the play would live up to the professionalism of Reid-Smith.  I should have known better.  Jean Battlo has written an engaging play that recounts an important part of the history of our state.  The actors were amazing.

By the last curtain call (sans curtain), the evening had turned cool.  The flood lights dimmed and gave way to the twinkling of a thousand stars in the sky.  We reluctantly said goodbye to our new family and began the trip back to St. Albans.  It had been a great night and our memories of the McArts Amphitheater will forever be colored by that very positive experience.

There’s a lesson in this story for all of us who are involved in planning public spaces.  A public space is successful when it meets the needs of people.  A public space is successful when good things happen there.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  We shouldn’t become so enamored with our designs and facilities that we forget to think about the people that will use the space.

This year, the McArts Amphitheater will get a bit of a makeover.  Now don’t get me wrong, new seating will make the place much more comfortable and accessible.   But I think it will always be about the heart of McDowell County and bringing new people into their family.

Welcome to Ritter Park, Huntington, West Virginia.

Another day, another really nice park.   This time, it’s Ritter Park in Huntington, West Virginia.  It’s just so nice.  I could leave it at that and show you the pretty pictures and you would agree.  I’ll show the pictures but let’s try to get a little deeper.

First, let’s talk about socio-economic context.  Ritter Park is located in a rather tony residential neighborhood.  Old-school mansions line the street directly across from the park, and in the nearby hills are more up-scale neighborhoods.  At first glance, one might conclude that Ritter Park owes much of its popularity to its affluent setting.  But the downtown area and other less prosperous neighborhoods are also close by and it wouldn’t be surprising if Ritter Park had its share of trouble.

I’ve been discussing safety in public spaces in one of my LinkedIn discussion groups and one associate pointed out that feeling safe is more about perception than reality.  Some spaces that seem scary may actually be no more dangerous than Main Street at noon.  But perception almost always trumps reality and if a space seems dangerous, people will stay away.

Ritter Park feels safe.  Why?

Malcolm Gladwell argued in his bestselling book, Blink, that our “gut feelings” are actually subconscious decisions that we make as we quickly process information.  When we visit a public space, we will consider many things from a safe vantage point.  First, we’ll look for a reason to enter the space.  What is the attraction?  If we enter, will we still be in the view of other people?  If we enter, will we be forced to interact with people with whom we may not want to interact?  Can we steer clear of scary people?  If we enter, are there adequate escape routes?   We won’t necessarily consider these things on a conscious level but in a matter of seconds, we will have a “blink” moment and decide whether to engage in the space or leave.

At Ritter Park, there are attractions.  The extra-wide perimeter walkway is perfect for walking (with or without dogs), running, or sitting on a bench watching everyone else.  Huge lawns invite informal ball games or casual strolls to enjoy the occasional works of art.  The children’s playgrounds are challenging adventure lands.

As for the safety considerations, park administrators have been able to avoid the temptation of trying to cram too many good ideas into the park.  As a result, open space is preserved, the user has many choices of where to go, and escape routes are everywhere. 

Ritter Park is largely an inclusive space, meaning that very little is done to exclude perceived trouble makers.  Everyone, it would seem, is welcome.  Well, maybe not skateboarders.   Anti-grinding angles are anchored to the edges of low walls and a lot of the walkways are not suitable for skateboards.  But on any given Saturday you’ll find a broad cross-section of people, ranging from the youth of the counter culture to middle-aged dog walkers who seem to fit right in with the swanky neighborhood. 

Lessons learned at Ritter Park can be applied to other public spaces, both large and small, but you have to look beyond the pretty pictures.  You have to understand the behavior of people.  You have to understand their needs (security) and their desires (attractions).   Enjoy the pics.

Crushed-aggregate walkways are great for pedestrians and are wide enough to allow people to avoid unwanted interactions.

Huge expanses of lawn invite active or passive recreation in a non-threatening setting.

Ritter Park is famous for its adventure-style playgrounds. This recent addition offers rock climbing and zip lining.

Because Ritter Park is so interactive, even the more secluded trail across the creek feels safe.