How Public Spaces Fail

About 15 or so years ago, a massive community effort was launched in our city to close a section of a street running by the historic County Courthouse. The goal? A traditional public square. The idea was to have a gathering place in the downtown area, one that could be used for festivals, concerts and other community events.

Walking through the square on a mild September afternoon, I could see that the reality wasn’t quite matching the dream. The two fountains were non-operational, the sidewalk was cracking along the decorative pavers and worst of all, it was completely empty.

It’s about 5:30 on a weekday and this public space is empty.

The sidewalk is cracking and the fountain itself is not operational.
A second fountain is inoperative as well and filled with leaves and moss.
There are many reasons why a public space fails–here’s just a few:
  1. Relying on programming to add activity to a space. The worst thing a city can do is rely on a city employee or non-profit group to create a never-ending stream of events designed to draw people to the area. We’ve got streets in our downtown that are always full of activity–but naturally occurring activities like shopping, people-watching and just generally hanging out.
  2. Failing to create a maintenance fund. Fountains are notoriously touchy and often need maintenance. And in climates known for weather involving frosts, thaws and refreezing, pavers and other decorative sidewalk elements don’t always make it. (To their credit, they’ve got someone out there fixing the cracks in the sidewalk.)
  3. Ignoring the micro climate of the space. This is an open space designed for activities but the design makes it problematic in another way. There are trees off to the side but the bulk of the space is open concrete that’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It needs to be a perfect day for someone to truly enjoy sitting out on one of those benches. 
  4. Closing off the street to cars. One of the great downtown debates involves pedestrian malls. They work in some areas but in my home state of California, turning downtowns into pedestrian-only malls only served to kill some great downtowns. Cars add activity and driving past a business helps remind people it’s there. Turning a street into a pedestrian mall has to work with the community; you can’t force one on a community.
  5. Forgetting that people need something to do. It’s your lunch break, is this the place you choose to go? Of course not. Nothing is happening here. No sidewalk vendors, no pedestrians, and nothing to look at.

The good news here? There’s still some active programming so the space isn’t lost–festival and concerts still occur here. And this just in–the long fountain running the length of the walkway may be turned into a community garden. What a great, out-of-the-box idea and a good way to make over a downtown space that’s currently underutilized. I can’t wait for tomato season.