Posts Tagged ‘greenspace’

The United Bank Plaza, Charleston, WV.

One of the better public spaces in downtown Charleston is actually a private space.  The United Bank Plaza is a welcome oasis from the scorching sun and the glaring concrete on a much too hot summer afternoon.

It would be easy to say that if you plant a few trees and add a little water, you’ll have a successful space, but we can all probably think of plaza that, despite an abundance of trees and a water feature, just doesn’t seem to be very inviting.  There are subtleties in the design of the United Bank Plaza that we should take note of.

First, let’s look at it as a greenspace.  Yes, there are mature trees that make a strong visual impact, but there is something else at work that contributes to the effect.  The trees are in planters and the ground below is planted in grass.  What is different is that the grassy areas are slightly mounded.  It’s not something you consciously notice, but the mounding makes the grass much more perceptible and enhances the green effect, even if you’re just driving by.

Trees are planted in grassy berms which greatly enhance the effect of the greenspace.

Another nice touch is the use of curves in the design.  Downtowns usually consist of relentless straight lines and right angles.  The circular sculpture fountain at the corner of the property is the focal point of the plaza and dictates that the walkways around it reflect its shape.  The result is a welcome relief from the rigidity of the downtown streets and an inviting entrance for pedestrians.   Further inside the plaza, more circular shapes help create a relaxing atmosphere.

As we’ve established before, ample seating is a requisite for a successful public space and there is definitely no shortage in the United Bank Plaza.  Want to have lunch with a coworker?  No problem.  Want to find a bench to yourself?  No problem.  Want to stretch out on the grass?  I suppose you could.  Or sit on the wall around the fountain or on one of the brick planter walls.   Plenty of places to sit.  Plenty of variety.

Seating opportunities abound at the United Bank Plaza.

Part of the attraction of urban areas is the architecture.  From just about anywhere in the plaza there are opportunities to appreciate various styles of architecture, from the historic structures nearby to the modern design of the United Bank building.   Inside the plaza are interesting details such as the brickwork where the plaza, planters and light poles meet.  Throw in the downtown sport of people-watching and you should have no excuse for escaping boredom.

You can enjoy Charleston's architecture from the plaza...

...or the details at your feet.

I’m now going to break my rule about saying only good things about public spaces.  While I really admire the United Bank Plaza, I would feel less than honest if I didn’t mention the big electronic stock ticker in the middle of the plaza.  It’s huge and distracting.  How can I not mention it?  I wish I could say it really adds to the plaza, but the truth is, I can’t imagine occupying one of the benches in front of it and watching the stocks on my lunch hour.  In this day of smart phones and instant access to information, do we really need a giant scoreboard?

Having said that, I very much appreciate the United Bank Plaza.  There are many attributes that other institutions would do well to emulate.


With the Clay Center in the background, a crowd gathered on Sunday for the dedication of the Mary Price Ratrie Greenspace.

May 16, 2010, Charleston, WV

Sunday was a big day for the City of Charleston.  An important new greenspace was dedicated and officially opened to the public.  Bands were playing, dignitaries of all sort enjoyed the afternoon sun, and kids climbed boulders and splashed in the water.  It was a picture-perfect day. 

The Mary Price Ratrie Greenspace is located a few blocks from the core of downtown Charleston and it fits in well with the high design of its neighbor across the street, the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences.  The space was designed by the nationally-known firm, Andropogon Associates, of Philadelphia.  Andropogon is a leader in sustainable design and was designing “green” long before it was hip to be green.  As I would have expected, their design is heavy on the use of indigenous materials and bears the unmistakable mark of West Virginia.  Terraces suggest the mountains of our state and if there were any doubt, the project comes complete with boulders, springs, a pond, and even a stream.  

Everything a kid could want: boulders, rocks and water.

Attention to detail is a credit to the designer and contractor.

The requisite hardscape elements are also there – concrete pavement with brick accents complement similar pavements used at the Clay Center.  Stone retaining walls provide virtually unlimited seating and interesting views.  And there is plenty of elbow room.  No reason that the park couldn’t be used by lots of people without sacrificing personal space. 

Even a greenspace needs some hardscape.

One of the goals of the project was to bring some green to a section of town that was a sea of asphalt and concrete.  This place will definitely provide that and will serve as a beautiful gateway just off one of the busy interstate exit ramps into the city.  

How does it function as a public space?  If everyday could be like Sunday, it would be a tremendous success.  I can easily imagine symphony crowds mingling in the space before and after a concert.  And without at doubt there is an educational component that will attract school kids.  But I suspect that this greenspace is less about being a public gathering place and more about being a visual oasis and a symbol of Charleston’s commitment to developing good public spaces.