Public Spaces or Public Places?
Recently I gave a presentation with that title to the White Flint Partnership. I was hoping to create some dialogue about how we think about public space.
- Who owns the space?
- What is the best public space?
- Do public spaces have to be green?
- Are sidewalks the best public space?
- Do we have enough of the grand green open spaces?
- Do public budgets dictate future public space will be private but publicly accessible?
Check out this video of the Parc des Buttes de Chaumont in Paris, thick with people on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
It works because of density. Urban dwellers have less personal open space and seek spaces like small parks, out-of-the way courtyards or, more commonly, sidewalks and plazas lined with stores.
Large suburban lots with plenty of yard space usually means people do not seek out common space in plazas.
This is a challenge we face as we urbanize in places like White Flint. If we applied the current open space requirements to White Flint, 80 acres of the 161 acres of surface parking would have to be open space. But if we had a big grassy space, we would never create the vibrant streets we need to transform the place.
Big open spaces are expensive, lack activity and are a challenge to maintain. Consider that a gas mower gets less gas mileage than a Hummer. With shrinking budgets, we must move to public spaces that we can afford and that fit with the community. In a setting like White Flint, we need to think urban space.
Last Friday evening, my wife and I strolled Ellsworth Avenue in downtown Silver Spring. We drank iced coffee and observed. There was a lot to see. In this video, try and spot all the things that are going on. It works because it is unprogrammed, and people make their own choices about how to spend their time.
Do some people-watching and see if I missed anything.
- families sitting on chairs, simply enjoying the evening out
- kids running through the fountain – an easy one
- chess players
- older couple reading next to the stairs and the chess players – who would have thought?
- Skateboarders – they are everywhere
- curb sitters – the kids I must have looked like 40 years ago and scared parents
- coffee talkers – not the Mike Myers type
- bookstore junkies
- shoe store junkies
Ellsworth works like the kitchen or front stoop when you have a party. People gather in these spaces, but avoid the living room where not much is happening. That living room is akin to oversized open spaces where there is no defining edge of activity providing interaction and the security of overlook.
Scale is important. Smaller spaces lined with activity generate more use than large spaces where overlook is nonexistent, or the edges are not defined.
The new vision of the Silver Spring civic space soon to open offers a striking building I hope will raise the bar of design in the County. However, is the plaza with the permanent structure and concrete features over designed? Will it limit the sort of spontaneous activity that emerges in a simple space?
- On another Friday, I hope to get to downtown Rockville at 9 p.m. to take another video so we can contrast the two spaces to see what is different and why. My guess is that the diversity of the people using the space will be the determining factor in the level of activity, the numbers of people, what is happening, and the age spread.