Are you open to new ideas?

Chuck Marohn, founder of Strongtowns.org, 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.

Follow the money.

Posted: May 28, 2013 in Uncategorized
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Speaking of bike lanes (as we were a few weeks ago), I’ve discovered a new blog site dedicated to the development of good bike lanes.  One post in particular caught my eye.   It seems that in New York City, protected bicycle lanes have provided a boost to local businesses.  Check it out at the America Bikes blog.

Before

Fifth Avenue Before

After

Fifth Avenue After

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I just saved a lot of typing.

Which street scene is more appealing?  Which one looks safer?  Which one would have a positive impact on the community?

Rob Dinsmore, landscape architect (to be) created those sketches as part of our Expo seminar last week.  He and Kit Anderson applied a little road diet to Fifth Avenue, the four-lane highway that bounds Marshall University in Huntington.  It exists now in the Before sketch, truly a Frogger situation if there ever was one.

Yes, the After sketch is so much better, but is it really possible, you may ask.  Certainly.  All Rob and Kit did was reduce the lane widths a little to make room for the center island.  And change Fifth Avenue from one-way traffic to two-way.  All of which serve to slow traffic.

Why slow traffic?  Well, for one, to create an atmosphere where cars and people can safely coexist.  To extend the edge of a public space and create a more social, livable community.  To create an atmosphere where people are much more likely to stop, enjoy themselves, and maybe even spend money shopping or dining.

No, it’s not for every situation, but it applies more often than not.  Particularly downtown.  Use your imagination and picture your own After sketch for the Frogger street in your city.

It’s also about the money.

Spaces for People is going live!  On Wednesday, March 20, at 1:00 PM, Rob Dinsmore and Kit Anderson will join me for a presentation at the West Virginia  Construction and Design Expo at the Charleston, WV, Civic Center.  We’ll be talking about how good quality public spaces not only enhance the quality of life, but also help generate revenue for cities. 

Think good public spaces is just about making things pretty?  Think again.  Kit Anderson is the Executive Director of the Huntington, (WV) Sanitary Board.  He’s charged with finding ways to fund big infrastructure improvements and rate increases are not always the way to go.  Stop by and hear Kit’s ideas on how cities can raise revenues with the right attitude about public spaces and the quality of life.

Rob Dinsmore is a young award-winning landscape architect.  (Rob is so young, in fact, that he’s not yet officially licensed.  I’m not supposed to call him a landscape architect, but soon he’ll be licensed and he can proudly proclaim his professional title.)  Rob will be talking about basic design principles for developing good public spaces.

As for me, I’ll go beyond design and talk about the magnets that draw a diversity of people to public space for different purposes throughout the day.  Jane Jacobs stuff.

So stop by our Expo seminar. It’s free.  Hope to see you Wednesday at 1:00.

 

 

 

The Charleston Town Center got a major makeover, but it's the new furniture that makes a difference.

The Charleston Town Center got a major makeover, but it’s the new furniture that makes a difference.

When searching my corner of the world for good public spaces, I didn’t expect to find anything at the mall. But during a recent shopping trip, I was surprised. The Charleston Town Center has changed.

First, some background.  The Town Center opened thirty years ago as one of the few urban malls in the country.  While suburban malls typically drained business from downtowns, the Town Center, situated in an urban renewal area of downtown Charleston, at least kept the business in the city.  Yes, some of the local shops were affected by the mall, but the old downtown retail area has managed to develop a new identity over the years and today is doing fairly well.

In 1983, the mall, at least by West Virginia standards, was grand.  Three floors of shops, a center atrium and a three-story, cascading fountain made the mall the place to go.  Amenities, though, were standard mall fare. Wire benches were placed in short rows with seemingly no more thought than to give tired shoppers – usually dads and grandfathers – a place to impatiently wait out the whole shopping adventure.   Nonetheless, you could count on a good crowd at the mall, especially around holidays.

Then in the late 1990’s, there was a boom of commercial development on the outskirts of the city.  Big box stores and their national-chain satellites gave Charleston shoppers more choices.  Despite the fact that you had to drive in crazy traffic to visit any of the stores in the big box solar system, the stores on the Corridor, as they are known by the locals, became the destination of choice.  The mall became the place that nobody went to anymore.

Last year, the Charleston Town Center changed its look, as well as its attitude toward shoppers.  After thirty years, the mall needed some updates.  Every square foot of flooring is either new tile or new carpet.  Old steel railing was replaced with a shiny new glass rail system.  The three-story waterfall is gone, and in its place is a more modest water feature.  Of course everything that didn’t move was painted.  But what really caught my attention was the change in seating opportunities.

The rows of wire seating have been replaced with clusters of upholstered, comfortable chairs.  Instead of worn-out dads waiting for the day to be over, you see couples enjoying coffee together.  Kids kicking back with their smart phones.  Now when grandpa takes a seat, he can lean back and actually relax a little.

The clusters are more social spaces, with spacing more encouraging for social interaction.  There are lots of cafe tables and even movable chairsHolly Whyte would be pleased.  It’s a huge improvement over the old seating patterns.  But you have to do it right.   I’ve seen other malls attempt the upholstered seating with less success.  You really do have to pay attention to how you arrange the furniture. 

No, the mall is not the perfect public space.  It’s still a controlled environment and interaction between socio-economic classes is limited.  It’s not a town square environment where freedom of expression reigns.  But something good is happening. Social spaces in malls aren’t created because of any sense of altruism.  Profit drives the design.  But mall owners and managers know that providing an overall enjoyable experience makes the shoppers more likely to return. 

New furniture at the mall includes the more sociable moveable tables and chairs.

New furniture at the mall includes the more sociable moveable tables and chairs.