Posts Tagged ‘pullman square’

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take Spaces for People live and gave a presentation at the West Virginia Construction and Design Exposition in Charleston (WV), known more commonly as Expo.  In the audience was Kit Anderson, the Assistant Public Works Director for the City of Huntington.  He had wanted to talk a little bit about public spaces but time ran short at Expo and instead, we later met outside Starbuck’s at Pullman Square in Huntington.

It was my typical Pullman Square experience, a nice day, even if it was a bit cool and breezy.  As usual, there was a good mix of people just hanging out.  Moms and kids, business folk, college students and slacker teens.  Everyone just enjoying the day.

As Kit and I talked, a thought that had been nagging me finally bubbled to the surface.  I wondered aloud whether Pullman Square would be such a lively place were it not for the shops and restaurants surrounding it.  Kit took my thought a bit further, pointing out the diversity of people, the diversity of their activities, and most importantly, the diversity of the times of day people engage in the various activities.  Pullman Square doesn’t just cater to a lunchtime crowd of office workers.  People stop at Starbucks all hours of the day and night.  The restaurants likewise attract people for lunch, dinner and a quick bite after a movie.  Did I mention the theater?

There is an economic and social diversity that makes the good design of Pullman Square successful.  Without that diversity, the green park of Pullman Square would be just another lunch crowd hangout, essentially lifeless after dark.

Kit went on to suggest that I read Jane Jacobs’ “Death and Life of Great American Cities.”  Jacobs was on my radar but at Kit’s urging, I moved the book to the front of my reading list.  Here’s one thing she had to say about parks.

Only a genuine content of economic and social diversity, resulting in people with different schedules, has meaning to the park and power to confer the boon of life upon it.

If you’re like me, you may need to go back and read that again before it starts to sink in.  What she is saying is that the best designed park in the world will not have the “boon of life” unless it is fed by that economic and social diversity.

Please indulge an absurd example to illustrate the point.  Take Bryant Park in New York or Millennium Park in Chicago or any other well-designed and popular park and transplant it on the moon.  Will anyone visit?  Of course not.  What if we put the park just outside an industrial complex?  Better chance, but still no.  The suburban office park?  You’ll get the lunch crowd, but that’s about it.  The closer you get to that diversity of people and schedules the more successful the park will be.

This blog began as a study of the good design of public spaces, as if that is what determined their success.  Design is important, but there’s much more to it than that.

Build it and they will come?  Not necessarily.

Are you a rational, logical thinker or do you operate on gut instinct?

Consider your first visit to an unfamiliar urban plaza.  You need to know if it’s safe.  The rational, logical thinker might contact the local police and ask about the plaza.  Maybe take a look at statistics, discerning which times of the day are safer than others.  He might inquire of the local shop owners, get the streetwise perspective.  After gathering all the information, he can then make a rational, logical decision regarding the safety of the plaza.

Anybody ever do that?

Of course not.  We might not even consciously consider safety when visiting that unfamiliar public space.  Upon arrival, however, our subconscious will kick in and we will scope out the space, look for scary people, hidden corners, and escape routes.  We will analyze the park’s image, determine if it’s well-maintained, and look for amenities or something interesting to do.  Then we will weigh all the positives and potential benefits against the perceived risks.  Then we will make a decision.  And all of this happens in the blink of an eye.  (It’s a concept Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his entertaining and very interesting book, Blink, which I highly recommend.)

Consider the garden gate.  If you were on a private estate, touring the gardens, the discovery of such a passageway might be intriguing.  There’s a mystery about what’s on the other side.  In the right setting, the narrow gate is an excellent entrance to another space.

In an urban or public setting, our blink evaluation would likely inhibit us from entering.  The question of what’s on the other side — or if we would even be welcome — would probably be enough to keep us out.  Of course you would not really expect to find a garden gate as an entrance to an urban public space.

So if the narrow entrance can be inhibiting, can we assume that the broad, easy access is better in the public setting?


First, it enables us to perform our blink evaluation much more easily.  This alone is going to give us a good feeling.

Then there’s the idea that there is no gate at all, either physically or psychologically.  With everything open, the space will feel more inviting.

The broad entrance can be made even more inviting if we can provide a transition zone, where we can stop and consider our options without actually committing to entering the space.  Maybe just a wide area next to the sidewalk where we can stop, look in, and think about it.  Being able to do that is another little bit of psychology in gradually drawing the visitor into the space.  Low, easy steps can also be a transition, causing people to linger, one foot on, one foot off.

Access to Pullman Square in Huntington is broad, easy, and inviting.

Now of course, the broad, easy access is only part of the equation.  If the other elements aren’t there, we’re not likely to cross the threshold.  But if we don’t have the easy access, the odds are against attracting many visitors.  There’s a lot of psychology in play.  The more we understand that, the more successful our public spaces can be.

Make sure you have your coffee before you start reading this.  It’s a long post and no pretty pictures.

For the past several months we’ve been on tour, taking in various public spaces around West Virginia, talking about what works and ignoring whatever shortcomings the places might have.  One of my self-imposed rules in writing this blog is to be positive.  It’s just too easy to criticize what someone else has done, and it’s not fair when you don’t know the constraints they had to work with.

A couple of weeks ago I told you about driving around Charleston with my wife on a Friday evening, looking for an outdoor place to go where we could hang out, maybe have a cup of coffee and watch the world go by.  Fortunately, we stumbled onto the Live at the Levee event and had a nice evening.  Had it been a Thursday, we would have likely gone home less than satisfied.

I think we were subconsciously looking for the Charleston equivalent of Huntington’s Pullman Square.  I keep coming back to Pullman Square because it works.  It’s a place designed for people to enjoy every single day, not just at special events.  On any given day you’ll see a variety of people from skate boarders to college professors to wealthy professionals.  Why aren’t there more Pullman Squares?

Pullman Square is a private development.  Maybe a private developer will someday provide the same kind of space in Charleston.  But what about my hometown of St. Albans?  Or its sister city, Nitro?  Or Buckhannon?  Or Martinsburg?  Or any number of small towns across West Virginia?  What are the odds that a developer will build a Pullman Square in those cities?

I recently mentioned a post by my liberal correspondent, Joseph Higginbotham, in which he talked about what he missed about living in Lexington, Kentucky.  Joseph enjoyed meeting people and exchanging ideas and wishes Charlestonians had both the inclination and opportunity for such chance meetings.  Maybe the inclination and the proper venue go hand in hand.  In Lexington, his meeting place of choice was a Starbucks.

I’ve seen the same kind of thing happen at the Pullman Square Starbucks.  In Williamsburg, Virginia there’s a coffee shop called Aroma’s.  Yeah, it’s a tourist draw but it’s also a place where William & Mary professors and students meet to talk about…well, anything and everything.  I’ve seen and experienced similar interactions at the local Panera’s and Tim Horton’s.

Coffee shops (sometimes with food, sometimes not) are where people go to hang out.  Sometimes to meet people (while pretending to work on their computers).  Sometimes to meet a friend.  Sometimes to be by themselves and figure things out.  Sometimes to watch everybody else.  I imagine some people go to drink coffee.  But more often than not, coffee is the excuse.  Let’s face it: nobody would go to Starbucks and just sit at an empty table.  Coffee may be the excuse but coffee is also the juice of social interaction.

I am convinced that if Pullman Square didn’t have a Starbucks, it wouldn’t be nearly as popular.  I probably wouldn’t have made my first visit if I hadn’t been able to buy a cup of coffee.

So if coffee shops are so important, why doesn’t every city open a downtown coffee shop?

Having been involved in downtown development organizations, I’ve heard many times statements that go something like this:

“What we need is a _______.”

Fill in the blank with your own answer.  I’ve heard everything from bookstores to art galleries to ambitious dreams like a Spaghetti Warehouse.  A common answer is a coffee shop.  But its one thing to see the need and something else entirely to make it happen.  Ideally, demand, demographics, and opportunity collide and an entrepreneur with the wherewithal to make it happen will step in and fill the need.

In the perfect business model, the coffee shop will have opportunities for outdoor seating, which leads to spillover into other public places.  As more coffee drinkers make their way to the shop, another entrepreneur sees the opportunity and opens an ice cream shop.  Another opens a bookstore.  Then an art gallery.  A frame shop.  A furniture store.

But many of our small downtowns are economically challenged.  A streetscape project is a good first step, but it’s not an instant solution.  You’ve got to figure out a way to bring people downtown.  It can begin with coffee.

So if coffee is the juice of social interaction and the coffee shop is the new social venue, does every small town have to wait for Starbucks to show up?   Not necessarily.

Periodically a city will outgrow its town hall and look to build a new one or remodel an old building.   If the leaders care about their city, they’ll locate their new town hall downtown.  The outskirts of town might be where the action is, but government shouldn’t be taking valuable real estate that the private sector would be glad to take care of.  Downtown needs city hall.  And the city needs a healthy downtown.

Next, serve up the coffee.  In the new town hall, set aside a few hundred square feet for a coffee shop.  Set it up specifically to be a coffee shop.  Lots of windows, access from the outside, good seating both inside and out.  Take bids and offer a lease to the highest bidder.  Or offer a lease that’s too good to pass up and request RFQ’s and take the best plan.

People coming to the town hall for business might have a cup of coffee afterward.  The shop might become an informal gathering place before city council meetings.  The morning coffee group that meets at the local fast food eatery might just find a new place to meet occasionally.

Take the idea a step further.  In planning for the new town hall, include a town square.  It doesn’t have to be huge, but it needs to be carefully planned as a place where people can get together and meet, talk, watch people…you know, everything we’ve been talking about for the past several months.

The point is, we don’t necessarily have to wait for the private sector to save our downtowns.  All we have to do is plan to provide better opportunities for people to get together.  We can have more Pullman Squares.  We can have more Lexington-style hot spots.  It just takes a little vision and leadership.

Time for a second cup.

You have to admit, that even if you’ve never been to Pullman Square in Huntington, West Virginia, the glowing-lights photo makes the place look really inviting.  A great snapshot doesn’t necessarily mean the space really works for people, but in this case, the evidence is in the photo itself.  First of all, you’ll notice people are occupying the space.  And in this particular photo, there isn’t a big event taking place; there’s no special reason for people to be there other than they want to be.  All very well and good, but so what?  All that space could have been used for retail or parking, right?

What’s interesting to note is that Pullman Square is a private development.  I’m sure there is a “green space” requirement that the developers had to meet, but they could have met that in a more perfunctory way.  The fact that they created a space that actually attracts people says something about the value of the space. The developers know it’s not wasted space, but helps create a more pleasurable shopping experience.  (There is a lot more to say about the value of good public space but I’ll save that for another time.)

Why does the space work?  For one, the designers understand human behavior and they understand how to give people the opportunity to do what they want.  They’re also smart enough not to screw it up with good ideas.   How can good ideas be bad?  Allow me a short digression.

Let’s say your community has been given the opportunity to develop a piece of property for some type of public use.  A committee is formed to come up with a plan for the property that benefits the rest of the community.  Good ideas spring forth.  An interactive fountain, a skating rink, a farmer’s market, a stage, art displays, memorials, flagpoles, and so on.  They’re all good ideas so you start to figure out how to cram all of the good ideas into the limited space.  And if you’re not careful, you’ll get a space that doesn’t allow people to do what they really want to do. 

What people really want to do is to sit back, relax, talk, and watch other people.  (Yes, I know there are exceptions.  They fall under my “seat belt” maxim.  People are usually safer wearing seat belts, but you occasionally hear stories about people surviving a car crash because they weren’t wearing a seat belt.  So wear your seat belt and don’t nit-pick about exceptions.)

This is what Pullman Square does really well.   Take a look at the illustration below.

First, let’s look at the big room, the large space formed by the two “walls” of planters to the left and right, the “wall” at the rear formed by the pavilion, and the “wall” in front formed by an actual wall and benches.  While these walls do form a small physical barrier, they function much more effectively as a psychological barrier.  They define the overall space and make it clear that the space inside the walls is special.  It draws you in.

What’s inside the big room at Pullman Square is really what makes it such a great space.  There are smaller rooms.  Rooms for solitary contemplation, rooms for couples to share ice cream, and rooms for teens to hang out and do nothing.  A quick study of the photo and you’ll see what makes a room a room.  First, a place to sit in relative privacy.  Usually, a “wall” to your back.  The best rooms also have a “ceiling”, which in this case, is a tree canopy.  Perhaps most importantly, each room has a view.

Of course the focal point is the fountain (primary views illustrated by the blue arrows).   It’s just your normal, traditional fountain, nothing too fancy.  But its visual and auditory qualities give you something at which to gaze.  Turn your head to the left or to the right or across the street to the stores and the scene changes (illustrated by the green arrows).  Check out the skater dude and his tats.  Or the students pretending to study.  There’s your doctor and her husband going to a movie.  You can observe all manner of humanity without leaving the comfort of your little private room.

As a landscape architect, I could talk about all kinds of design principles that have been nicely executed at Pullman Square.  Things like scale, proportion, repetition, rhythm, variety and so on.  But it all starts with an understanding of the needs of people and not trying to do too much.  Observe, study, accommodate.  It’s not really that hard.  Feel free to try it at home.

Would you rather be here?

Outside my window, it’s 25 degrees.  Snow is on the ground.  My space heater is cranking.  I wish it were spring. 

Remember spring?  Remember sitting outside, maybe on a bench, maybe on the ledge of a fountain, splashing water in the background?  Go ahead, take a few moments and take a trip back in time to your favorite outdoor place.

What do you like about it?

Is it peaceful?  Are there other people to watch?  Do you feel safe and secure?  Are you enjoying the sun or sitting in the shade?  Maybe you’re sipping on your beverage of choice.

Nice, huh?  Maybe you’re in a completely natural environment.  Maybe in the woods or in a park.  Or maybe you’re outside your favorite café downtown or in public plaza. 

Where ever your favorite place may be, there are reasons that you enjoy it so much.  There are certain things about a nice place that make us feel comfortable.  Sometimes they occur naturally; other times they are the result of a skilled designer. 

With this blog, I hope to start a dialogue among people interested in improving the public spaces within their community.  We will explore the elements and design principles that help create great spaces.  We’ll talk about the importance – socially and economically – of creating and maintaining public spaces.  We’ll go from the big picture to the smallest detail.

There is one caveat.  I will present only good examples.  Yes, you can learn from mistakes, but I’m going to let you find those places on your own.  Here, we’ll learn from what works.

To do all of this, we’ll take a tour.  And because I live in West Virginia, most of the places we examine we will be in West Virginia.  Want an example of a good public place?

Pullman Square, Huntington, WV

How about Pullman Square in Huntington?  First of all, there’s a reason to go there.  You can go to a movie, shop, or just grab a cup of coffee.  And once you’re there, its hard not to relax in the public space.  We’ll look at the details of the space in a later post, but, as you can see from the picture, it’s not a huge or extravagant space.  Actually, it’s kind of simple.  But it works amazingly well.  Why?

Here’s a clue:  It’s not just one big space; there are spaces you can call your own.

I can’t wait until it warms up.  Time travel is just not the same. 

Catch you next time and we’ll take a closer look at Pullman Square.

Photographs courtesy of DRB Group, LLC.