12. “Will They Come?”

The Battery Park waterfront has many elements who are contributing to its success, but the fundamental one is the great density of nearby residents and workers, plus visitors attracted to the place.

“Given a fine location, it is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” William H. Whyte.

Whyte (chapter) was the last word on what makes parks successful and what makes them failures and he would be the first to point out that among the frequent and sometimes fatal flaws is the matter of that “fine location”. The lessons he learned from years of structured observation are as relevant today as when he published them in the 1970s and 80s. This chapter builds on his work and that of Jane Jacobs (chapter) and it references this author’s published material that appears later in this book. While some of the urban public spaces created since his time have reflected Whyte’s lessons, others have not. Many public spaces are little more than space fillers, vacuous, tax exempt places for which the public cost of security and maintenance far exceeds the public benefits. Some municipalities continue to award height and density bonuses in return for sites that only appear to be “public”. Some recently planned  parks would better serve the public if they became, in whole or part, the sites of taxpaying development.

Planning or replanning parks is too important to be left to professional designers. They tend to be imitative, prescriptive and overly concerned with plant materials and the latest forms of benches, trash receptacles, light fixtures and pavement forms. An exception is the work of an architect who begins a dialogue early in his work with the neighborhood group which will have to live with the resulting building long after he and the builder have left. He begins the discussion by asking what these non financial stakeholders would prefer as the outcome. At a stroke, he has begun to transform potential opponents into supporters.

We need a generation of informed public space critics. This chapter is a step toward stimulating such a constituency.
The rating system applied here is simply for illustration; difference places are likely to apply different values. Rate the tentative plan against the outcomes desired, not the professional’s renderings expressing his or her view of what your city, town, neighborhood or commercial center should have.

A well-referenced rating system can have two useful purposes.  First, public space designers and their clients may benefit from a checklist to help shape the project while it is still moldable. Second, structured analyses of existing public spaces may lead to plans for redesigning them. After deciding that “this place isn’t working”, as a step toward further investments it is essential to consider, based on tested experience, why it isn’t working. Getting agreement of the client and the affected constituencies in advance can save time and later aggravation.

Drawing on the benefits of Holly Whyte’s simple bar graphs to illustrate the gradual refinement of his research (exhibit here), a rating system can help illustrate that, while several factors may contribute to success, some are more useful than others and deserve greater emphasis in planning or replanning.

The ultimate measure of success is the number of people attracted to the place. Urban parks in commercial centers are typically most used by the people working nearby. But Downtowns are changing and for the better. No longer are they seen as empty canyons when the office workers go home. More entertainment and dining and the presence of more residents and visitors extend the hours of use and diversify the market demands. For example, with greater after dark use,  the existing lighting may deserve reevaluation. Jane Jacobs notes the importance of this diversity of users in her analysis of Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square and its environs (chapter).

Ten Tests

A simple rating system is applied to two public space examples. One example is heavily used. The second is barely used.
The rated elements are:

1.      Sunlight—An abundance of sunlight in most portions.

2.      Cleanliness—Free of litter and graffiti.

3.      Seating—Lots of comfortable seats.

4.      Landscaping—Well maintained trees, shrubs, flowers.

5.      Things to do and see (experience opportunities)—Interesting things to look at including buildings, river edges. Activities including games, music

6.      Food—Things to eat and drink. Chairs and tables.

7.      People watching—Plenty of walkers, runners, Frisbee throwers, dog walkers, etc.

8.      Location—Within a ten-minute walk of an abundance of potential users.

9.      Reputation—The place is not commonly thought to be dangerous and benefits from good word of mouth.

The Outcome—The people count. Is it lively or sparsely used? This is the ultimate test.

In this example, the highest rating is ten and the lowest, one. The ratings imply inspections in favorable weather and apply
only to outdoor facilities. The scores are approximations; experience will vary depending on such variables as vacations and holidays and differences among raters.

Two Urban Public Spaces Rated

Both examples are riveredge public spaces with attractive views. One is the principal park for a high-density mixed use area, the other is a sparsely developed area.

Example One: Successful Urban Public Space at Battery Park City, Manhattan Waterfront

1.            Sunlight (8)
2.            Cleanliness (9)
3.            Seating (10)
4.            Landscaping (9)
5.            Things to do and see (9)
6.            Food (8)
7.            People watching (9)
8.            Location (10)
9.            Reputation (9)

The Outcome—The people count (10)

Example Two: Unsuccessful Urban Public Space at Camden, NJ Waterfront (Cooper’s Ferry)

1.            Sunlight (10)
2.            Cleanliness (10)
3.            Seating (2)
4.            Landscaping (9)
5.            Things to do and see (5)
6.            Food (2)
7.            People watching (1)
8.            Location (3)
9.            Reputation (3)

The Outcome—The People count (1)

The Camden park benefits from two of the features often favored by park planners—it is constantly cleaned (where there are few litterbugs) and the landscaping is ideal—yet it remains unused. The location—low density of potential park users — is very weak. There are office buildings, one residential building, a  branch of the state university and several visitor facilities, including the New Jersey Aquarium, a minor league baseball stadium, a concert facility.  These  are scattered and the visitor facilities are intermittently used, save the State Aquarium. Visitor cars are stored in a multi-level garage and few visitors walk anywhere except between this and Aquarium across the street. The views are among the best in the region and the earlier fear of violent crime has diminished somewhat. Yet there are no strollers, runners, bikers, dog walkers, or brown baggers. The only  restaurant is  barely visible from the park.

If the planned, adjacent redevelopment ever produces substantial residential density to replace the vast, empty parking lots, the park will probably attract some additional users. Planned Rutgers dorms could help, depending on their location. Regular events could produce some users even now; a disco dance party drew hundreds one evening some years ago when the city’s reputation for crime was far worse than today. A seasonal dining facility could draw crowds to a water edge location near enough to feed some of those going to or leaving the stadium or the Aquarium. Organized bike events offer some promise of appealing to the University students and  regional bicycle organizations. This park isn’t dead but neither is it alive.

Still, this clean, landscaped space will probably always suffer from insufficient density.

Makeovers

The latest urban parks created in New York City suggest that the lessons  from the analyses and criticism reaching back to the 1960s has influenced many of today’s park planners, at least in that city. Today’s challenges are principally in replanning those places Jacobs referred to as “bleak vacuums between buildings,” dispirited places “little used and little loved.” She cautioned, “People do not use public space just because it is there and because city planners wish they would.”

Some public spaces are simply too large for the number of people they can attract. Whyte counted people per square foot. The ratio that works in Manhattan would need to be modified for less dense locations, but something like that is a good test of success or failure. Some parks would work better at half the area planned. The best thing for the park and the city may be to permit tax paying redevelopment that would add more potential users. Better a small success than a highly visible failure.

Rather than overinvest in a questionable location, a better decision would be the strategy adopted by the Atlantic City, NJ BID in which empty lots are spiffed up and constitute a land bank for future development. Unlikely because of their locations to attract users, they are simply visual assets awaiting a more favorable real estate market.

The redo of Manhattan’s Bryant Park—good seating, no places where bad guys can hide, events, food—cost a bundle, but it illustrates that it is possible to make a roaring international success out of scandalous failure of design and neglect. The park at the Camden waterfront could be improved with food, planned activities, a marketing budget and links to the visitor destinations, although it will probably always lack sufficient nearby density to justify the substantial capital investments and maintenance costs.

Do city parks need uniformed guards to attract users? In most cases, this proves to be a waste of money. Successful urban spaces, as Whyte put it, are self policing. Empty urban spaces generate fear, not the crowds attracted to successful parks.

In planning and replanning public spaces, too much attention is given to the superficialities of litter removal and shrubbery. The proof of success is not in these inputs, but in the people. Few government investments offer such reliable and bountiful returns in civic morale. Further, popular urban spaces are the display windows of cities, showing the world that these places are used and loved by residents and employees.

Sources:

  • Jacobs, Jane. Death and Life of Great American Cties. Vintage, 1961
  • Whyte, William H. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.The Conservation Foundation, 1980
  • Houstoun, Lawrence. “Ingredients of Successful Public Spaces”. Urban Land, 2006

A happy urban public space user is often a well fed one. New York's kiosks have been imitated in Pittsburgh.

The Camden waterfront park lacks enough density to attract users

Between 10 and ll am on a sunny June Saturday morning, one bicyclist was spotted on the Camden waterfront park.

The landscaping, the views and the cleaning are superior on the Camden waterfront, but the possible users are more than ten minutes from the park.

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