Build it and they will come. Maybe.

Posted: April 26, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

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.

  1. I really love this post. Too often it does seem that the powers that be don’t quite “get” the public aspect of public space. Public doesn’t just mean open to everyone, to be successful it has to mean everyone actually goes there!

  2. Debra Martin says:

    I often think that the Pullman Square model is the one that Charleston should be considering for the Slack plaza area. Instead of making it just an open park that’s basically just a place to eat your lunch on a sunny day, put some retail establishments in, create traffic flow that draws people from the Capitol Street area to the Town Center and vice versa.

    • Joseph Bird says:

      You just made me (and Jane Jacobs) smile, Debra. You are absolutely right. It needs to have that economic and social diversity to draw people. Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting.

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