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The village green at MainStrasse, Covington, Kentucky.

The village green at MainStrasse, Covington, Kentucky.

Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy?

Yes, it’s been a while. The truth is, I’ve exhausted the good public spaces in my corner of the world. So exploring I go.

I’m working on a project in Covington, Kentucky, a city I first came to know at my niece’s wedding.  What I remembered from that visit is the spectacular view of the Cincinnati skyline across the Ohio River.  But now I’ve been able to walk the streets of Covington and have discovered some nice spaces. I’ll be sharing those with you over the next few weeks. First, let’s got to MainStrasse Village.

MainStrasse is on the National Register for Historic places and it’s easy to see why. Historic homes and buildings are everywhere, as are references to the Village’s German immigrant roots.  All of this is good for history buffs, but what I like is that it’s a great place to hang out and be among people.  In other words, a it’s a great public space.

To get there, I traveled west on Sixth Street, under a railroad overpass, into what feels like another world. The first thing you notice when entering this way is the wide median separating the streets. Kind of a village green. In fact, the green was once used as an open-air livestock and produce market.

As you travel west on Sixth Street, you come to the intersection of Main Street and Sixth.  This is where the action begins.  On Main Street are shops, restaurants and pubs – everything you could want for a lazy afternoon. Sidewalk cafes abound, and then spill over into the Sixth Street village green plaza. It’s here we can see some of the principles of good design at work.

At lunch time, the plaza attracts a crowd, and the moveable table and chairs allows for that little bit of freedom to sit where you want. It’s one of those very subtle liberties that you’re not even aware of, yet it has a significant impact on the subconscious when we look back at the sum total of our experience. When tables and chairs are anchored into the pavement, it feels like an institution. When you can scoot your chair a little, even if it’s just a few inches, it feels more like a party.

The plaza is the center of life in MainStrasse.

The plaza is the center of life in MainStrasse.


Sidewalk cafes on Main Street.

Sidewalk cafes on Main Street.

Another good design principle at work is the choice of levels of intimacies. You can snuggle right next to someone special (intimate space), keep an arm’s length distance (personal space), chat with the people at the next table (social space), or have a seat on a bench along the green with reasonable assurance that no one is going to bother you (public space). In fact, the green is so broad that even someone walking down the middle of the walkway will feel comfortable because they are in their own public space zone.

I’m fairly sure MainStrasse Village is not the result of someone’s grand design. It looks like it just happened. But give the city leaders of Covington credit. They have recognized a good thing and preserved it. It’s a lesson for all of us.Sidewalk cafes on Main Street.

The grand hall of the new Canaan Valley Resort State Park Lodge welcomes visitors,

The grand hall of the new Canaan Valley Resort State Park Lodge welcomes visitors.

We typically talk about outdoor public spaces in this forum, but when I first visited the new lodge at Canaan Valley Resort State Park, I discovered interesting indoor spaces that address many of the same issues that we face in developing outdoor spaces.

The first thing you see when you enter the lobby is the grand hall with soaring ceilings.  A large window at the far end draws the visitor like a moth to a flame.  You’ll see beautiful, organic material – tile floors, stone walls – as well as comfortable carpets and eye-catching artwork.  Really a warm and inviting space.  But what’s interesting is the variety of spaces within the grand hall.  Rather than simply providing boring benches or a haphazard collection of chairs, the designers have created a real variety of seating opportunities with conversation nooks and gathering alcoves.

A grouping of four chairs makes a great place to share a cup of coffee.

A grouping of four chairs makes a great place to share a cup of coffee.

The sprawling sectional can easily accomodate a small group.

The sprawling sectional can easily accomodate a small group.










In one area, four high-back upholstered chairs make a nice space for a small group to share a cup of coffee.  In another area, a sprawling, upholstered sectional provides a place for a larger group to get together and hang out.  While these two spaces are nice and will fill a need, I’m really interested in two others.

Sofas and chairs offer seating that could encourage social interaction.

Sofas and chairs offer seating that could encourage social interaction.

The facing chairs are spaced in the social range, while the fireplace serves as a point of triangulation.

The facing chairs are spaced in the social range, while the fireplace serves as a triangulation point.










One of the things that makes a good public space is the opportunity for social interaction.  The placing and arrangement of seating plays an important role in determining the sociability of a place.  I saw two areas in the Canaan Lodge that could encourage social interaction.  One is just a typical arrangement of sofas and chairs.  They are spaced is such a way that one person could occupy one end of the sofa and a stranger could sit in a chair at the opposite end without violating the other’s personal space.  Four to twelve feet is the social space range.  We’re generally comfortable if the stranger is at least four feet away, and yet they are close enough to engage in conversation if we would want.

A similar situation exists in front of the fireplace, although I would move the two wood weave chairs to encourage easier access.  The opposite-facing upholstered chairs are around four feet apart and the fireplace provides a point of triangulation.  Could be a great place for making new friends.

Next time you’re in the area, stop by and check out the new lodge.  It’s a great place for apres-ski.  And while you’re there, see how people are using the space.

Are you open to new ideas?

Chuck Marohn, founder of, will be speaking at Marshall University Foundation Hall in Huntington at 6:30pm Wednesday November 20th.   He is both a planner and a civil engineer, and is nationally-known for his strategies to use productivity or a “return on investment” mindset to make decisions on funding public infrastructure.

Instead of pretending that the United States is still in 1952, Marohn points to cities built before World War II as a model our society needs to revisit.  These cities—like Huntington—were built without state or federal subsidies.   If they weren’t financially viable, they didn’t last.

Check out the Strongtowns website and see if it’s the kind of thing you might be interested in.  If so, I’ll see you there.


entrance for web

Charleston has a new park on Dixie Street in the city’s East End, appropriately named East End Community Park.  As the name implies, it’s intended as a public space for people who live nearby.  It’s not a complete park yet; there are major features to be added in years to come.  Right now, though, the neighborhood has a really nice mini-plaza in which to hang out, enjoy that morning cup of coffee, and maybe read a good book.

The plaza’s design is unique for West Virginia, where wood benches and brick pavers tend to dominate such spaces.  Here, the benches are concrete and emit a soft blue LED light at night.  Large pavers complement scored concrete and run off in angles other than ninety degrees.  Instead of the typical laminated wood park structure, a shelter at the far end of the plaza is fabricated from steel and reaches into the sky in wing-like shapes.  Lush landscaping softens everything and gives the space a nice feel.

Among things to be finished this fall is a nice greenspace beyond the shelter and the construction of a walking path around the park.  Future plans call for a playground, a sprayground (an interactive water feature) and possibly a skate park.

So let’s give the designers, the city leaders, and the neighborhood their due praise for turning what was once referred to as “Hobo Jungle” into a really nice and inviting space, and the potential to become one of the gems of the city.

But we also have an opportunity for study.  We can watch a park grow and develop.

Although the park is not officially open, anybody can access the space right now.  I’ve been there three times already: once on a Friday morning (warm and sunny), a Saturday morning (warm and sunny), and a Saturday afternoon (4:30, warm and sunny).  So far I’ve not seen enough activity to establish any kind of patterns.  I’m going to make it a point to stop by at different times of day and during different weather conditions.  I suspect two things:

The park will be used more when it’s not quite as hot.  I also think it will be used more when the greenspace and walking trail are finished, and even more when the other features are added.  The more diversity of uses, the more it will attract people.

Let’s watch and learn.  Feel free to post your observations as well.

bench for web   shelter for webplaza for web

There’s an episode from the tv show House, where his gang of subordinate doctors accuse him of hiring a doctor just because she’s pretty.  House defends himself (sort of) by asserting that all other things being equal, meaning qualifications, what’s wrong with hiring the better looking doctor?  I’m not sure if the exchange is in reference to Olivia Wilde’s character, Thirteen, but the defense applies.   All things being equal, who wouldn’t want to work with Olivia Wilde?

We have a natural predisposition to like things that are pretty.  In fact, most of us will choose pretty over not-as-pretty even when all other things are not equal.  Whether we’re talking about people, flowers, cars, architecture – even public spaces – we are bedazzled by beauty.  Yes, we can be stupid like that.

It takes a real conscious effort to look beyond the superficial beauty to see the qualities that really matter.  If we’re talking about people, feel free to plug in your own defining characteristics.  With public spaces, the evaluation should be more objective.

We designers love to give you beautiful renderings, complete with kids holding balloons and couples lounging on blankets on the grass.  It’s easy to love the image and assume that the designer has done everything right.  Often, though, the designer is seduced by the imagery as well.  What should we really be looking for?

Will the space draw people?  Is there more than one entry point?  Is it wide and inviting?

Are there opportunities for multiple uses?  Can the space accommodate activities that you may not even be aware of at the time of construction?  In other words, is there an inherent flexibility in the space?

Are there are opportunities for being social?  Has the seating been spaced to encourage social interaction?  Will the users of the space have any say in where and how they sit?

Have you allowed for people to have food and drink?  Or have you allowed for the possibility in the future?

Was the community involved in the planning of the space?  Is the design what they want/need?

Once all things are equal, then yes, make it beautiful.  Just make sure you’re not seduced by the image.  It’s a real challenge for both designers and clients.