PUBLIC SPACE IS ESSENTIAL WHEREVER PEOPLE LIVE
Public space – pedestrian streets and squares in bustling locations – radiates immeasurable and constant peace and joy to all who come near it. Indeed, without public space, many of society’s most serious problems cannot be solved. Public space helps protect us all from unhappiness, mental problems, sickness, and financial instability. People around the world are so desperate for such places that they’ll spend their savings to fly around the world to find them. Public space is one of the built environment’s greatest gifts.
Growing up on the British island of Guernsey, with its pedestrianized High Street, I could barely walk more than 10 feet before meeting a familiar face. From thousands of casual interactions on the High Street I developed a sense of belonging and a common bond with my fellow citizens.
I’ve missed that place ever since moving to the US where cities like San Francisco and Austin offer all the distractions imaginable but few public spaces where people feel at the center of things, places to linger and to meet people. Without this bond-building opportunity that public space provides life is harder for us all.
Cities that understand the need for more public space must figure out where it should go and what form it should take. In a previous article, we highlighted the five essential qualities of a great public space:
- It’s located where the action is
- Its borders are destinations
- It’s modestly sized
- There’s plenty to do there
- It’s attractive and well-maintained
(A note about parks: Parks can be relaxing places but aren’t usually the best public spaces for social contact. Parks tend to be out of the way of people’s daily routines, away from the commercial spaces where people go. So creating public space requires looking at places with compact development and businesses. Usually, this will be a commercial street in the neighborhood center or downtown.)
Let’s say a city identifies a particular downtown street block as a possible pedestrianization candidate. How can this block become a successful public space? While every location has its own unique situation we can use the above qualities as guidelines to start identifying that location’s strengths and weaknesses and how we might build on those strengths and make up for the weaknesses.
To do this we’ll use as an example a block of Austin’s Congress Avenue, the city’s main street, between 7th and 8th Streets, one of the city’s best candidates for pedestrianization:
|QUALITIES OF A GREAT PUBLIC SPACE….||CONGRESS AVENUE REVIEW|
|Located where the action is….||Is right in the downtown core. Fair foot traffic on weekdays, quieter on weekends.|
|Borders are destinations….||A modest number of destinations but also some large single-destination buildings.|
|Modest size….||Is wide and long. Would take perhaps a hundred people or more to enliven it.|
|Plenty to do….||Right now nothing to do outside of buildings, apart from some benches to sit on.|
|Attractive and well-maintained….||Some pleasant oak trees and fine-grained historic buildings.|
Evidently, Congress has strengths (its location, attractiveness, and number of bordering destinations) and weaknesses (several larger single-store buildings, a modest level of foot traffic). Could a pedestrianized evolution of this block address its shortcomings and create a great public space?
Yes it could. Worldwide, there are many examples of pedestrianized public spaces from which to draw inspiration. In the US, we’ve previously explored Petaluma, California; San Francisco, California; Boulder, Colorado; Ithaca, New York; and Burlington, Vermont. Most of these public spaces used to be a regular vehicular-oriented street.
But what if we wanted to cheaply test pedestrianization on Congress Avenue to see if it would work before committing to it long term? None of the above examples, which are all permanent installations, can help us much. So now we’ll look at a much more fitting example, a superb case of how a place has been upgraded inexpensively to a pedestrian public space with many destinations, drawing huge crowds. That case is Bryant Park’s Winter Village, a seasonal pop-up pedestrian “village” in Midtown Manhattan.
For most of the year, Bryant Park is a traditional city park with benches, trees, and a lawn. It gets a good amount of use, there’s lots of places to sit, and its location is golden, but there’s not many things to do.
But from October to March, Bryant Park is transformed into Winter Village, a very different kind of public space and a much more successful one. People show up in droves to experience it.
Let’s walk around Winter Village and see what it does so well…
NARROW STREETS AND SHORT BLOCKS
The above top-down images show how Winter Village turns an undifferentiated large space into a fine-grained network of narrow streets and small blocks, providing plenty of places to visit and lots of choices for where to walk.
Let’s look at these streets and blocks from the ground level…
Most of these pedestrian-only streets are about 10-15 feet wide, that classic width seen in traditional pedestrian-oriented places around the world. This is a human-scaled width, wide enough to allow a decent flow of foot traffic, narrow enough to create intimacy.
MANY SMALL SHOPS
Winter Village is mostly comprised of small commercial kiosks. The kiosk frontages are narrow, allowing people to walk by a large number of different shops in a short distance. Shallow depth and transparent facades make the kiosks’ entire contents visible. The kiosks’ modest dimensions make this a pleasant, harmonious environment with no jarringly large or out of scale buildings. Awnings help connect the kiosks with, and provide a little more definition to, the street.
Notice how busy these shops are. This is a first-rate commercial environment that relies almost 100% on foot traffic, demonstrating that, contrary to what many merchants believe, prioritizing pedestrians over cars is good for business.
SOMETHING AT THE CENTER
Winter Village lacks a large square to sit and people-watch but its closest equivalent is the ice rink at the center which provides the Village’s focal point, just like a traditional plaza (this webcam shows what’s happening right now at the ice rink). Good public spaces, even those with a heavy commercial presence, offer a good time without people having to spend money; true to this, the ice rink is free to use.
APPLYING THE WINTER VILLAGE APPROACH TO AUSTIN
Explore the above block of Congress again and imagine overlaying it with something like New York’s Winter Village, creating a pedestrianized public space with the following qualities:
- Small commercial kiosks, maximizing the number of destinations in a small area (using temporary kiosks similar to those in Winter Village, a pedestrianized Congress could be tested at a lower cost before being upgraded with more permanent materials if the project worked out)
- Between the kiosks, narrow and inviting 10-15 foot-wide “streets” with short “blocks”
- A non-commercial plaza at the center
To augment the Winter Village-esque layout, which is overwhelmingly commercially-oriented and designed for New York’s colder climate, we might add:
- Trees with large foliage for protection from the hot summer sun
- Longer awnings on the kiosks for additional sun protection
- Benches to let people hang around
- Outdoor cafe seating
- A modestly-sized performance space, such as a gazebo or bandshell
- Regular event programming
These measures would handsomely overcome Congress’s weaknesses – its several overly wide commercial frontages, limited number of destinations, and width – replacing them with intimate spaces and many and varied destinations.
This example has explored pedestrianizing just one block of Congress but is one block enough? How large should a pedestrianized public space be? That would be a future discussion. Bear in mind, though, that modern public spaces are often too large, requiring a sizable number of people to feel lively. So it might be prudent to start with a modest size and only increase it if it looks likely the crowds would fill the space. This incremental approach was used to great success when pedestrianizing parts of central Copenhagen over several decades in the 20th century.
IT’S TIME TO CREATE GREAT PUBLIC SPACES
Many modern cities lack public spaces that draw crowds, places that give people somewhere to go, to feel part of society and to belong, without the incessant roar and danger of automobiles. Using the relatively inexpensive Winter Village approach as a trial, cities could test which streets would make the best public spaces. This would take political willpower and bravery rarely exhibited by today’s leaders but with an active citizenry that’s aware of how badly we need more public spaces we could be successful.
For many decades, cities pursued mobility at all other costs. Now we must place humanity’s social needs front and center, rebuilding the social fabric that keeps societies healthy and happy and creating a new generation of excellent public spaces.