How Public Spaces Succeed

Last week, I talked about the ways a public space can fail. The obvious question, then, is, “what can bring this space back to life?”

Here are a couple of suggestions, many of which are already being acted upon in regards to the public square here in my home town:

  1. Keep up with maintenance and repairs. A touch of urban decay shows that an area is actually being used but obvious neglect can create a downward spiral. I once lived in a neighborhood with a crumbling, inoperative fountain at its entrance and regardless of how well the houses were maintained, it sent a certain message to passersby. If no one is taking care of the space, why should individual members of the public work to do so? In the case of this square, crews are working on repairs the pavement and that should help the overall look of the area. At the very least, it should demonstrate that people still take pride in this space.
  2. Repurpose the space. Our community is justifiably proud of our private adaptive reuse projects. An old roofing company becomes art studios. An abandoned railway station is now a restaurant. Buildings gain new life with new uses. Reworking one of the fountains in this square to create a series of community gardens is a clever way to change the use and the feel of the area, but what else can be done? Can the amphitheater be used for outdoor movies? Can the open space be turned into an outdoor patio with tables and chairs? What about adapting the landscape into a botanical garden?
  3. Encourage informal gatherings. As I mentioned before, relying on programming to bring life to a space is not enough–a great public space needs activity even when nothing official is happening. All these adaptive reuse ideas are ways to bring people into the space on their own. For instance, both our city hall and our library have coffee bars in their lobby. Combine this with cafe tables, potted flowers, and a kiosk for public announcements and you have an instant, people-friendly space. These simple moves mean that more people are hanging out there–and in this case, “hanging out” is just what’s needed. 
  4. Listen to the people. I’ve often found that consultants become so enamored with the the structure of a space, they forget about the public. I’ve been to numerous meetings where a consultant says, “this is the perfect space for a festival or a farmer’s market” while neglecting the fact that these activities may already be established elsewhere. Spaces should be designed to be successful right out of the box. We need to ask–what makes other spaces in our city successful? What do people in our city like to do? How can we make that activity more pleasant for them? After all, isn’t that the ultimate goal of all public spaces?