Even though it’s been unusually mild, it’s still winter.  People around here don’t really start populating outdoor public spaces until the leaves begin to open their buds.  So for now, I invite you to join me in visiting some public spaces via the internet.

A few months ago, the folks at Planetizen, in collaboration with the Project for Public Spaces, asked its readers to nominate their favorite public spaces.  While this was simply a “get out the vote” effort and not a critical evaluation of the merits of public spaces, it is nonetheless interesting to see what people like.  The winner is a place called The Circle in Uptown Normal, Normal, Illinois.  The professional photos look nice.  There are kids playing in water, moms with strollers, couples lounging on the lawn, and more kids playing in water.  But I have to confess, I don’t get it.  The Circle is a traffic circle.  A roundabout.  The public space is in the center of the circle.  You have to cross the street to get to it.  So I’m skeptical.  Anyone from Normal out there?   Aside from events and photo ops, how much use does The Circle get?

As I read through Planetizen’s top ten list, there was one thing I noticed over and over again.  Many of the favorite places included cafe’s, restaurants, food kiosks, and moveable tables and chairs.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Food and drink go hand in hand with socialization.  And sociability is one the hallmarks of a great public space.

Planetizen also polled some prominent critics and designers about their favorite public spaces.  Whereas the popular vote produced surprises like The Circle, the professionals’ picks were more predictable.  I couldn’t really tell if their favorites were simply more about personal preference or if they were judged by some criteria for determining successful public spaces.

In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter.  If the people in Normal, Illinois love their Circle and use it as a true public gathering place, then it is, by definition, a success.  But not all public places are favorites.  Not all make the top 10. There are reasons why some places make the list and why others do not.

Visit.  Observe.  Read.  Analyze.  Think.

It’s easy to develop a public space.  Developing one that’s successful is a different matter.

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