A renewed interest in urban spaces in cities is reflecting a renewed interest in living in denser, more diverse places downtown and in nearby neighborhoods. As cities and towns enjoy an unprecedented boom in residential demand, newcomers and residents alike are examining the availability, quality, and utility of existing and needed open space as essential to the quality of life. The more activities – the more there is to see and do – the more popular the public space. Yet, underused public spaces are in abundance. What makes them a success or failure?
What are the tests of such places? At the very least, they need to perform well to justify allocation of land that is worth much more per square foot when developed.
Although busy in the mornings, European piazzas become most active in late afternoons. In the mornings, many European urban dwellers ritualistically walk to the most popular, nearby outdoor places for fresh air, exercise, and/or to meet friends. Part of this daily routine often involves bringing children, allowing them opportunities to work off extra energy. Late afternoon is the time for a predinner coffee or drinks – and watching visitors to the plaza – from the vantage point of a plaza-edge seat, preferably with table service. Later in the evening, given good weather, hundreds of diners will be attracted to as many as a half dozen restaurants at the plaza’s edge. These piazzas continue to bustle after dark – unlike many of their counterparts in the United States.
Perhaps the most farsighted park planner of the American colonial period was the renowned land developer, William Penn. he decreed that there would exist in the original portion of Philadelphia, now called Center City, four public spaces, each constituting about two acres (0.8 ha), and one in each of the four quadrants of the city, at that time, about one mile (1.61 km) wide and two miles (3.22 km) long. In addition, Penn reserved a fifth square in the approximate middle of his planned “Greene Country Town.” In the early days, a large fountain was the centerpiece of the fifth square, which later became the site of what is still the nation’s largest city hall. Penn’s plan produced a very walkable urban place, one in which residents could travel on foot to their nearest park – Logan, Franklin, Washington, or Rittenhouse – within ten minutes.
Logan Square was converted to a 20th-century traffic circle. With the advent of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, the residential and commercial development surrounding Franklin Square was demolished, leaving this park, probably the most used in the city’s early history, all but abandoned. (Currently, children’s attractions are being created there to test their popularity among tourist families). Washington Square, nearest Independence Hall and Society Hill, is surrounded by fine old buildings. Until recently, however, it was lightly used. Since the latter 19th-century, Rittenhouse Square has become the most popular of the four.
In her landmark 1961 book, Death and Life of Great American Cities, community activist Jane Jacobs criticized Washington Square as a “pervert park” whose poorly maintained landscaping at that time encouraged indecent behavior, limiting its use by strollers, book readers, brown baggers, dog walkers, and passersby. In her review of Rittenhouse Square, Jacobs insightfully noted that the facilities within the park are less important to its success than its surroundings. Making the case for urban diversity, she pointed out that people use this park from first light until well after dark. They walk to work through the park in the early hours, tend their children there throughout the day, bring bag lunches from offices to eat in the park, read newspapers and books there, and walk home from work through the park in the evening. Additional round-the-clock users are generated by nearby restaurants, hotels, and cultural facilities. Public spaces in urban areas with only residents or only employees typically are deserted most of the time.
Jacobs wrote that “functional monotony” in the surrounding blocks dooms a park, underscoring the need for diverse occupiers. “Like all neighborhood parks, Washington Square is the creature of its surroundings. Observers, as well as active users, are ingredients of successful parks.”
Urban design consultant Jan Gehl, who has studied public spaces for more than 30 years, classifies users as follows:
- Everyday users. People who live and work in the area.
- Visitors and customers. People who visit the area from beyond.
- Passersby. People passing through the area, going or coming from other places.
- Recreational visitors. Those who visit the park because of its beauty or to use the space for recreation.
- Visitors to events. People who come for special programs
William H. Whyte, who studies human behavior in urban settings, castigated the plazas that resulted from New York City’s zoning, especially on Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue where additional building height was allowed to developers that created public spaces mostly below grade. Whyte’s close observations showed the extent to which these places were not used, often because people reported they felt threatened there. Located eight or ten feet (2.43 or 3.04m) below sidewalk level, these public spaces were not convenient to use, to pass through, or to watch the sidewalk crowds from. Park users were eliminated by design—ledges, for example, were made intentionally uncomfortable because project developers apparently did not trust people. Building owners places uniformed security personnel in their public spaces to get rid of drug dealers and other undesirables. Such actions were not reassuring to law-abiding users of the space.
One failing of American public spaces may be traces to those who designed them, usually landscape architects. much of the emphasis over the past 50 years has been on the beauty of parks in terms of their plantings. But parks are about people and what they do—not about plants. There are no trees or shrubs in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, for example, yet it is among the world’s most successful public spaces. In America, trees, shrubs, and flowers seem to be intended to distract from widespread disuse of a public space.
One of Manhattan’s most successful public places, Paley Park, operates without supplementary security mainly because people are attracted to places where there are lots of other people. Paley Park, with its wall-hung waterfall and movable chairs and tables, reflects an important observation by the festival market developer James Rouse, who noted that “water is magic” in public spaces. Another successful place is Rockefeller Plaza, the heart of Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, with its mix of ice skating, dining, fountain watching, and extensive people watching.
How is success measured in terms of urban space? By the number of brown baggers eating there at lunchtime? The number of parents with strollers? The number of Frisbee tossers? The number of people sitting reading books? What makes a place popular while another seems lifeless? The success of an urban space is contingent on its popularity, which is measured by the number of users, nights as well as days.
Four qualities can be identified that produce popular urban spaces: convenience, attractiveness, friendliness, attractiveness, friendliness, and activity.
Convenience. Perhaps most important, the park should be within a short walk – typically not more than five to ten minutes away. This distance is known as the outer limits of the time most office workers will spend traveling from desks to destinations. Many parents with strollers find this an acceptable distance to parks, and the same can be said of those who use parks as pleasant spaces in which to read to work on school assignments, or to play. Convenience also often involves being located near food sources—ideally, there is at least one place where park users can purchase food on site.
Whyte determined that the effective “market are” from which park users will travel three New York City-size blocks; about 80 percent of users will originate from within this area. Seating, he pointed out, is an essential convenience of a popular plaza. While he considered chairs useful, he also believed that ledges of a proper height are equally important. Steps also work well—Sienna’s Campo is essentially a vast seashell-shaped set of shallow stairs, a place where people lie down as well as sit to take in views, read, or eat. A people-attracting waterfall in a small Philadelphia park at Jefferson University’s edge offers well-designed ledges and steps created for readers and outdoor diners. A comfortable, low wall in front allows the sound of cascading water to obliterate nearby traffic noise. Above the waterfall, other ledges provide additional places to sit.
Attractiveness. Natural beauty appeals to users in an urban setting. Water is, indeed, a magnet. Flower blossoms are a plus. Trees that shade and plazas that have open green space for sunbathing are all popular ingredients. In contrast, the stony, bleak, submerged plazas on New York’s Sixth Avenue are attractive to very few.
Is beauty the essential quality that makes a space popular? Not by itself. For example, Crystal City in Virginia, near Washington, DC, has three physically attractive public spaces, one with a waterfall, and all three with handsome flowers and shrubs. Yet, despite expensive land
Popular public spaces often can be found in America’s surviving pedestrianized streets, such as those in Burlington, Vermont; Savannah, Georgia; and Miami’s Lincoln Road. The most successful of these are filled with outdoor dining sites, an amenity lost to many cities that believed space for cars was more important than space for people, and therefore had opened up most of these places to traffic.
Urban open spaces require activities that consume relatively little land. Chess is popular in plazas because it requires only enough space for two players and half a dozen onlookers. The game of boccie, the Italian version of lawn bowling, fits some small parks. Popular parks require activities management beyond whatever is needed to keep the physical elements in top shape. New York’s Bryant Park, managed by a BID, is a good model.
Other examples of successful urban parks in America include Pershing Park in downtown Washington, DC, and the commercial center of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The great sloping park along Princess Street in Edinburgh, Scotland, draws crowds whenever the weather is even somewhat welcoming.
Urban parks and plazas can generate economic activity—as does Manhattan’s Bryant Park—or simply consume potentially valuable land, adding little economic or recreational benefit. Small, popular urban spaces such as Paley Park can offer a modest 2,500 square feet (232.5 sq m) of usable public space—not counting the waterfall—that can accommodate about 150 people at a comfortable ratio of, say, 16 square feet (1.5 sq m) per person. Some people will stand, but most can sit on a low wall or in chairs. But assume that three quarters of these people have brought lunches that they purchased at an average of $10 per lunch. Research tells us that downtown office workers spend an average of 54 minutes for lunch and devote no more than 18 of those minutes en route from desks to destinations and back. Let us assume that two shifts of 300 men and women eat at the park on a pleasant day. That would add up to 600 lunches per day, totaling $6,000 per park per day for dining. And let us assume that 150 days of good weather a year generate the urge to eat outdoors in an attractive setting. That would total $900,000 annually in lunch purchases. Other nibblers include off-peak shoppers, parents with strollers, end-of-the-workday meetings, and the like. Total annual consumption of food and drink in one small space could average $1 million a year—an impressive enterprise, boosting land values in the environs.
Because they occupy valuable urban real estate, plazas should justify their existence by the extent to which they are used. Unpopular parks have their price. On a bright spring day, the best of the three parks at Crystal City, Virginia, about 1.25 acres (0.5 ha) in size, was visited by only 30 people at lunchtime. This number sometimes dropped to half a dozen. In other words, each person’s share of the park constituted about 1,800 square feet (167.4 ha) of expensive real estate, equal to about half of the land required for a city townhouse or to park several cars. At a local land cost of $100 a square foot ($1,075 a sq m), the cost to accommodate one visitor at the park’s peak hour was $180,000.
A good public space is not an afterthought. Nor is it simply a place where the shrubbery is pretty. Good public spaces require activities, and an abundance of things to do and see. The construction and management of small urban parks can be financed and enabled by laws such as Pennsylvania’s Neighborhood Improvement District. Planning and managing such places require an instinct for understanding and meeting people’s needs and desires when they are away from home or work.
Lawrence O. Houstoun, Jr., taught parks and recreation planning at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and is a principal of the Atlantic Group, urban development consultants in Cranbury, New Jersey.