Posts Tagged ‘project for public spaces’

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.

The Project for Public Spaces, in addition to recognizing Great Public Spaces, also has a Hall of Shame.  Public spaces from all over the world that, in their opinion, fail to meet the basic requirements for good spaces for people.  It’s subjective of course, and when PPS inducts a place into the Hall, they typically receive many comments from people who disagree.  Then again, if you peruse their selections, it’s hard to argue against many of their picks.

Below are some random comments about different public spaces in the Hall of Shame.

“People have told us that a lot of people use this square as an open space on certain days. But sporadic use does not make a great square.”

“Hard to find, hard to see into, and unfriendly to navigate, this is not a park that was designed to encourage pedestrian access.”

“There are often lots of activities that draw people into the park, but it seems to do little good. Once the activity or event is over, people scatter, fearing they may be left alone.”

“Fences and walls meant to provide safety instead make the place feel like a cage – it’s forbidding to walk into. Benches have metal dividers; trees were seen as obstacles to visibility and so are limited and not optimally sited.”

Some of the spaces in the Hall of Shame look like good design on the surface.  Some obviously took a lot of money to build.  And yet they don’t work.

How do the spaces in your town work?  Do any of the comments above apply?  It’s a hard truth that many of our public spaces fail in their primary function.