Posts Tagged ‘Slack Plaza’

Concept plan for Slack Plaza developed by Origin4Design.

In the past, I’ve used Charleston’s Slack Plaza to illustrate some of the challenges facing public spaces.  If the concepts developed recently by the Pittsburgh design firm, Origin4Design (O4D), are ever implemented, I won’t have Slack Plaza to kick around anymore.

As part of the EPA’s Greening America’s Capitals initiatives, O4D was charged with developing a plan to revitalize Slack Plaza and adjacent areas using sustainable design principles.  One of my concerns with the program was that it might focus too much on green building techniques and not enough on creating spaces that people might actually use.  Origin4Design did as well as anybody could have done in addressing both issues.

One of the challenges with plazas is that they are great when there are lots of people, but lose their sense of scale and intimacy when the crowds dwindle.  In the O4D design, while there is plenty of room to accommodate larger crowds, there are also smaller pocket spaces, along with abundant seating opportunities, both of which are essential for a place to become social.

O4D also addressed one of the more critical issues of Slack Plaza, that of people just passing through.  As a link from traditional downtown Charleston to the Charleston Town Center, Slack Plaza is an important pedestrian link.  The current plaza forces pedestrians to walk a gauntlet that can sometimes be scary, as they are funneled through a narrow passageway between planter walls and the old fountain.   Violations of personal and public space rules make the walk very uncomfortable.  The O4D plan provides ample public space for those just passing through, which by itself is a critical improvement.

The basic functional changes are spun in a tapestry of creative thought.  Edges have the same freehand flow that was born on charrette tracing paper.  Pavement designs are spirited and fanciful.  Lighting is not restricted to poles with box fixtures, but reflect an atmosphere of fun that is apparent throughout the O4D design.

The final design of Slack Plaza is as organic and free-flowing as the concept sketches.

Because the EPA only funded the concept development, there is currently no money to actually implement the design.  Hopefully, we’ll see some movement on the project before the dust accumulates on the bound copies.  At any rate, the Origin4Design is a good start.  Good job, guys.

Images provided by Orgin4Desgin.  You can see the entire Slack Plaza report at the EPA website.


In case you missed the headlines a few weeks ago, the city of Charleston (WV) has been selected as one of six state capitals to receive assistance from the EPA to design a “green” public space project.  Charleston’s project is Slack Plaza. 

What a great opportunity for the city.

Slack Plaza has struggled as a public space.  Many ideas have been kicked around and soon the city will have the benefit of professional designers and planners, as well as the EPA team, to help determine the optimum solution for Slack Plaza.

The EPA’s goal is to “help state capitals develop an implementable vision of distinctive, environmentally friendly neighborhoods that incorporate innovative green building and green infrastructure strategies.”   Sustainable design, in other words. (Learn more about the EPA program here.)

What a tremendous challenge for the city.

Some aspects – the innovative green building and green infrastructure strategies, for example – will be easier to achieve than others.  The technical stuff such as recycling rainwater, dealing with surface pollution, and so on, while not necessarily easy, will essentially be an engineering challenge.  Energy efficiency will be important and don’t be surprised if solar-powered lights are part of the plan.  Local products will be used, as well as recycled materials.  Trees and other vegetation will be selected for their low-maintenance characteristics.   There will no doubt be opportunities to develop public education programs so that we can all understand the importance of preserving our limited resources.

And it’s all good.

Another of the EPA’s stated goals is to “create and enhance interesting, distinctive neighborhoods that have multiple social, economic, and environmental benefits,” which is why this program is perfect for Slack Plaza.  It is known for its multiple social, economic and environmental characteristics.  While the potential exists to develop these characteristics into benefits, it will be no easy task.

It’s hard because it requires working with and understanding people.  Diverse people with diverse needs and desires.   Diverse people who demand different things from their public spaces.   Diverse people who may be challenged to share their world with others.

The key to developing a successful public space is recognizing the needs of people.  The key to developing a sustainable public space goes far beyond the technical green solutions.  By definition, a public space requires people.  There will be plenty of people at the ribbon cutting ceremony.  Will they be there a month later?  A year later?

After ten years, I hope the rain gardens and solar-powered lights are not the most talked about aspect of Slack Plaza.  I hope Slack Plaza becomes one of the great public spaces in the country.  If people go to Slack Plaza to eat a sandwich at noon, or take in a weekend art show, or meet friends for coffee on a warm summer evening, Charleston will have developed a public space that is truly sustainable.

What a great opportunity for the city.

Snow at Panera

Yeah, it’s still snowing.

“It has been said that Americans are not a ‘plaza people’ as are the Italians or the French – the implication is that plazas do not fit our lifestyle and therefore we should not build them.  This is demonstrably not true.  The problem has arisen only when plazas did not relate to any activity, when they were simply vast or sterile places designed only as foregrounds for buildings or with no functional reason for their being.  We do not accumulate any longer vast throngs of people to pray or to hear presidential announcements.  The radio and television have taken care of that.  What we do need are small-scaled plazas as outdoor living rooms, places to see and be seen.  Our plazas need to be lived in.”  – – Lawrence Halprin, as quoted in Landscape Architecture Magazine and New York New York. 

Lawrence Halprin, one of America’s most revered landscape architects, passed away last year.  His concepts and designs changed the way we think about our outdoor spaces.

The quote is from 1968.  You can add the internet and smart phones to his comment about radio and television.  The more cyber-connected we become, the less physically connected we are.  (Yesterday in Panera’s I observed a family of four at a table, three of the four heads were bowed, as if in prayer.  As I walked by I saw that they were all thumb typing on their phones.)

What do you think?  Are we a plaza people?  Can you give me an example of a good plaza and why you like it?  Because this is a regional blog, you get bonus points if you can give me an example in or around West Virginia.