Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sitting Outdoors and planning for small public spaces

Sitting Outdoors by M.V. Jantzen
Sitting Outdoors, a photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

People sitting in the CentralSpace to CentralPlace plaza, created by the Rosslyn Business Improvement District in Arlington, Virginia. Flickr photo by M.V. Jantzen.

One of the things we don't seem to do very well is plan for small public spaces as part of our commercial districts and urban neighborhoods.

It's not that there aren't small pocket parks and such, there are, but often at least in DC they are the result of how diagonal avenues meet the more typical street grid of blocks and streets.

David Barth of AECOM's presentation on "Parks and Open Space System Master Plans: Tools for Sustainable Communities" provides a framework for a complete typology of parks and open spaces that a community should work to plan for.

AECOM is also doing a parks and open space plan for the Buckhead District in Atlanta, which provides a more targeted list of the right kinds of spaces needed in denser, urban places.
Buckhead Collection Parks planning initiative, nomenclature

In retrospect (although before today of course), I realize that we have inadequately planned for such places in NoMA, H Street, and Brookland, among other places, as part of the city's land use planning and transportation planning initiatives. Mostly, we didn't think about how to insert pocket parks and plazas as part of these processes, and now it becomes even harder to find the space, or buy it, as municipal budgets are increasingly stressed, stretched, and under pressure.

(Another dimension of this is incorporation of school playgrounds and greenspaces into the community parks network.)

The Sitting Outdoors photo shows us that the spaces don't have to be complicated or overly designed to be useful and appreciated.

Although one part of the city where they have done a better job with this is in Columbia Heights, in the Columbia Heights Public Realm Framework Plan," which includes a cool public plaza at the convergence of a number of streets at 14th Street, about a block from the subway station and the big DC/USA retail center.
Fountain, Columbia Heights Plaza, 14th Street and Park Road NW, Washington, DC

Still, this becomes an important issue in another dimension in terms of how do we plan for public places and spaces in what are technically privately owned developments, but where the developments are specifically designed to connect to and extend the public realm, and to be for all intents and purposes, "public spaces," albeit privately owned.

One of the problems from a cultural studies or urban sociological standpoint is do all these spaces become privatized and commodified?

How do we maintain the ability for citizens to come together in public, as citizens, not as consumers, to congregate, to aggregate, to communicate, etc.

Or do we have to purchase goods and services to be able to use the space?
Ebenezer's Coffee Shop, 2nd & F Streets NE, DC
The patio is jumping at Ebenezer's Coffee Shop, at 2nd and F Streets NE, Washington, DC.

Will private property owners and managers only contribute to the quality of the public realm to the extent that the marginal returns from the investment in other revenues is positive?

And are methods for tracking marginal revenue contributions narrowly or broadly construed, which depending on the definition, from the standpoint of private sector expenditures, makes activities profitable or not in the context of the public realm and the public space..

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