Monday, January 26, 2015

Intro to Urbanism, Part Seven: Places for Community Life

Moving onward with my New Year’s “Intro to Urbanism”, today will be a discussion of public spaces.  (From those coming to the series late, the earlier parts are at one, two, three, four, five, and six.)

In effective urban settings, public places have subtly but crucially different roles than they do in drivable suburban places.  Parks and plazas aren’t only for visiting on Sunday morning with a newspaper and a fresh coffee; they’re also the places one traverses on the way to a transit stop or to daily shopping.  Sidewalks aren’t only for getting from one place to another; they’re also places for chatting with friends or for grabbing lunch at sidewalk cafés.

But the transformation of public spaces into urban roles isn’t always easy, and the design failures have been frequent.  The failures occur because we put public places in the wrong part of the design process.  In the words of Jan Gehl, Danish architect and urban designer, “First life, then spaces, then buildings.  The other way around never works.”

Of course, the other way around is often how development occurs.  The function of the building dictates the building footprint, with the leftover land becoming a plaza.  The subdivision is configured to maximize the lot count, with the awkward leftover chunk becoming a park, even if it falls in a location inconvenient to the new residents.  Gehl, and urbanists everywhere, correctly argue for a different approach.

William H. Whyte, Jr., renowned for his detailed observations of public plazas in Manhattan, noted the frequent failures of public space planning, consistent with Gehl’s expectation, when he wrote, “It’s hard to design a space that will not attract people.   What is remarkable is how often it has been accomplished”.

Within an introduction to public spaces of only a few hundred words, it’s not possible to share the breadth of insightful thinking about public spaces and examples of successful spaces, although resources to help fill that gap will be provided in the post-“Intro” syllabus.

However, as a way of illustrating the careful considerations that go into public space design, I can offer the lessons that I’ve found most pertinent in my work with public spaces.

First, it’s not possible to design effective spaces by listening exclusively to either the general public or consultants.  The public will offer thoughts based on their idealized vision of how they use public spaces, not how they actually use them.  And consultants will have their own idealized visions, or perhaps the need to create pretty pictures for a website, that may not adequately consider the community.

The only effective design approach is to synthesize the thoughts of both, combined if possible with the actual and surreptitious observation of the community using current places.  Watching actual people using actual parks can be remarkably insightful, as Whyte proved with his work in Manhattan.

Second, to the extent possible, people should be allowed to make the space their own.  This is an observation made originally by Whyte, but I’ve regularly noted proof of his conclusion.  Whyte tells the story of a plaza user taking an untethered chair and moving it back and forth several times to find the perfect spot from which to listen to a free concert.  After the last move, the chair was in almost the exact spot where it began but, in her perception, she has shaped the plaza to meet her needs in a way that a fixed bench couldn’t have accomplished.

Obviously, loose chairs aren’t possible in most parks unless the park owner has an unlimited budget to replace missing furniture and a desire to furnish the backyards of homes around the park.  But a collection of different seating options will allow the public to find ways to use the seating in ways that will surprise and hopefully delight the designers.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that different demographic segments will use parks in different ways.  The more affluent, with extra rooms and spacious backyards at home, may use parks only for active recreation that requires more space, such as tossing a football.  But the less affluent, with less inside and backyard space, may look to parks for group gatherings, for quiet time away from the bustle of an overly-full home, or for time with friends away from parental oversight.  All the uses are valid.  Careful design is required to accommodate each of them.

This is a thin and unsatisfying introduction to a rich and important subject, but it’s a start.  The syllabus will provide further resources.

(Note: The photo is of Manhattan’s Times Square in July 2010.  Less than nine months later, the City of New York, having found success with an experimental diversion of traffic, made the change permanent, turning over the square completely to pedestrians.

Predictions of traffic nightmares were unfounded.  Consistent with the theory of induced traffic, commuters quickly found other routes or left their cars home, taking bicycles or transit instead.

It’d be nice to say that the success of Times Square led to similar exclusions of vehicle from public places elsewhere in the country, but it hasn’t happened that way.  Although more conversions will certainly come, it’s likely that each will be battled by drivers just as at Times Square.)

Next time, I’ll write about the roles of streets in urban places.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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