Archive for April, 2011

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take Spaces for People live and gave a presentation at the West Virginia Construction and Design Exposition in Charleston (WV), known more commonly as Expo.  In the audience was Kit Anderson, the Assistant Public Works Director for the City of Huntington.  He had wanted to talk a little bit about public spaces but time ran short at Expo and instead, we later met outside Starbuck’s at Pullman Square in Huntington.

It was my typical Pullman Square experience, a nice day, even if it was a bit cool and breezy.  As usual, there was a good mix of people just hanging out.  Moms and kids, business folk, college students and slacker teens.  Everyone just enjoying the day.

As Kit and I talked, a thought that had been nagging me finally bubbled to the surface.  I wondered aloud whether Pullman Square would be such a lively place were it not for the shops and restaurants surrounding it.  Kit took my thought a bit further, pointing out the diversity of people, the diversity of their activities, and most importantly, the diversity of the times of day people engage in the various activities.  Pullman Square doesn’t just cater to a lunchtime crowd of office workers.  People stop at Starbucks all hours of the day and night.  The restaurants likewise attract people for lunch, dinner and a quick bite after a movie.  Did I mention the theater?

There is an economic and social diversity that makes the good design of Pullman Square successful.  Without that diversity, the green park of Pullman Square would be just another lunch crowd hangout, essentially lifeless after dark.

Kit went on to suggest that I read Jane Jacobs’ “Death and Life of Great American Cities.”  Jacobs was on my radar but at Kit’s urging, I moved the book to the front of my reading list.  Here’s one thing she had to say about parks.

Only a genuine content of economic and social diversity, resulting in people with different schedules, has meaning to the park and power to confer the boon of life upon it.

If you’re like me, you may need to go back and read that again before it starts to sink in.  What she is saying is that the best designed park in the world will not have the “boon of life” unless it is fed by that economic and social diversity.

Please indulge an absurd example to illustrate the point.  Take Bryant Park in New York or Millennium Park in Chicago or any other well-designed and popular park and transplant it on the moon.  Will anyone visit?  Of course not.  What if we put the park just outside an industrial complex?  Better chance, but still no.  The suburban office park?  You’ll get the lunch crowd, but that’s about it.  The closer you get to that diversity of people and schedules the more successful the park will be.

This blog began as a study of the good design of public spaces, as if that is what determined their success.  Design is important, but there’s much more to it than that.

Build it and they will come?  Not necessarily.

The Explanation.

Posted: April 17, 2011 in Uncategorized

Did you get it?

Last week I told you about Daniel losing his job.  Of course he was bummed.  Instead of going home, he went to the park just a couple of blocks from his office to think about what had just happened.  Fortunately for him, he was the only one in the park.

Did you pick up on the clues that it was a new park?  There were teak benches, landscaping, a water feature, and even a sculpture garden.  All the right stuff.  And yet, on a beautiful spring afternoon, Daniel was the only one there.

Why would that be?

Then Daniel decides a little food might be a good idea.  That’s not an option at the new park.  So he leaves.

He makes his way to the Old Town district.  It’s far from perfect.  The sidewalks are narrow and the pavement is in bad shape.  There are not enough benches. But there are restaurants, antique dealers and a coffee shop.  And most importantly, there are people.

Why would that be?

The success of a public space is dependent upon much more than having made good design decisions.  Sure, good design can enhance the user’s experience and bad design can cause people to stay away.  But there’s a wide gulf between the two extremes that the public will tolerate if it’s an enjoyable place to go.

What makes it enjoyable?

Other people.

Let’s recap.  A beautifully designed park with no people will not attract people.

A less than perfect park with people will attract people.

Public spaces need people.

So what determines if a public space will be populated?

Check back next week.

The Park

Posted: April 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

“We’re going to have to let you go.”

He already knew they were words that would forever stain his memory.  They were so unexpected.

“What?” he had asked.

“We’re going to have to let you go, Daniel.  It’s just not working out.”


Everything after that was a muddle, but those first eight words were there to stay.

*    *    *

A breeze blew his hair across his eyes and he brushed it back as he stretched out his legs and folded his arms across his chest.  He stared in the direction of the fountain, unaware of the trickling sound as the streams of water splashed in the pool below.

What was he supposed to feel?  Anger?  Humiliation?  Resentment?

He looked away from the fountain and scanned the park.  He was alone.  Being alone wasn’t so bad.  It was a beautiful place.  Tulips were blooming.  The grass was greening.  As if on cue, a squirrel scurried in front of him, stopped and gave him an inquisitive look, then darted up one of the newly planted oak trees.   Daniel managed a smile.

He uncrossed his arms and ran his hands over the smooth wood of the teak bench.  It still had that new wood look.  Another year or two and it would take on a grey, silvery tone.  He looked around and saw that there were at least a dozen benches in the park, all looking pristine.

At the far end of the park, movement in the sculpture garden caught his eye.  It was a kid on a bike.  No, wait.  Not a bike, a wheelchair.  And not a kid.  It’s that guy.  Figures.

Daniel glanced around the park, looking for someone else.  No one.  He stuck his hand in his right pocket and felt the two one-dollar bills.  In his left pocket he felt the larger folds of cash.

“Hey, buddy, can you help me out?” the guy in the wheelchair began when he was still ten feet away.  “I need a few bucks to get me some dinner.”

The man looked pitiful.  He was dirty, his clothes were ragged and he wasn’t wearing shoes.

“Will a couple of dollars help?” Daniel asked.

“God bless you, son.”

The motor on his wheelchair whirred and in seconds Daniel was again alone in the park.

“Not a bad idea,” he thought.

*    *    *

He had been walking for about ten minutes, lost in thought, when he scuffed his foot on the pavement and lurched forward.  He looked back and saw the warped brick, typical of the Old Town district.  He looked ahead, eyeing the mishmash of unmatched pavers, the result of years of unskilled repair jobs.  He skirted around a mulched tree pit, its occupant somehow thriving in its less than ideal environment.

From across the street the smell of steaks grilling at B.J.‘s tempted him to cut his journey short.  Maybe later.  After all, he had plenty of free time.

In front of the Antique Attic, an old rocker, a white breakfront, and other pieces of grandma’s furniture blocked most of the sidewalk.  Daniel stopped and let an elderly couple pass by before he edged along the curb and passed the collection of yesterday’s treasures.

It had been a few months since he had stopped by the Renaissance Cafe, or the Cafe as it is known by the locals.  It was November.  Maybe late October.   It had been an unusually warm afternoon and there had been quite a crowd on that day as well.

He weaved through the bistro tables toward the front door.  A good mix of people.  Some tourists with cameras dangling from their necks.   Young lawyers in their crisp white shirts unbuttoned at the collar, ties hanging loose.   Teens thumbing on their phones.  A woman looked up from her laptop and smiled as he pulled open the front door.

Inside, it seemed even more crowded.   Across the room, he saw a familiar face. John Bartrum. A client.  An ex-client.  He started to look away but he had already made eye contact.  He waved and turned back to the counter.

“Tall dark roast and a cookie, please.”  With his order in hand he turned to wave again to Bartrum but he was gone. “Just as well,” he thought.

Outside, a scruffy teenager had taken out a guitar and was playing for tips.  A few people turned to look as he started singing, but soon turned back to their conversations.  Daniel looked for an empty table and was surprised to see the wheelchair guy , a cup of coffee his only companion.  As he walked by, he put his cookie on the table and patted him on the shoulder.

A few feet up the street, he took a seat on the ledge of a planter in front of an art gallery.  Others were finding similar makeshift benches.  The steps to the law office seemed to be popular.

He sipped his coffee as the breeze again blew his hair across his face.  The strumming of the guitar proved soothing against the backdrop of the gentle chatter from the coffee shop.  Daniel knew he was at one of life’s crossroads.  Serious thought and contemplation were in order.

But not now.   Not in this moment.

“That guy’s pretty good.”

A few seconds passed before the words registered.  He turned in their direction.  She was smiling, and glanced toward the guitar player.

“Oh.  Yes.  The music.”  He turned back to her and smiled.  They sat silently for a moment.

“Perfect end to the day, isn’t it?” he said without looking in her direction.

“Couldn’t be better.”