Monday, February 4, 2008

Public Squares: Past, Present, Future

The Walrus Magazine recently published an overview of six international public squares. Read the full article for information, but the graphics alone are fabulous. Here's a couple of examples of the significant spaces - Kiev's Independence Square (top) and Salt Lake City's Temple Square (bottom):

:: images via The Walrus

Locally, this reminds me of Portland's 'Living Room', Pioneer Courthouse Square. This is the case of a design being 'good' without specifically being wonderfully elaborated. In a word, the design is okay - the result is amazing. One of the darlings of Project for Public Spaces (PPS), it is on the list of Best Public Squares in the US and Canada, probably just because of the Starbucks... (oh i digress, sorry Fred Kent). From the PPS website, here's why it works:

"Its modern design includes public art, amenities, flowers, trees, walls and stairs designed for sitting on. It is the scene of frequent events, and includes a coffee shop, food vendors, and the information center for Tri-Met (regional Portland's transit agency), which was the key agent of the square's successful redevelopment... Pioneer Courthouse Square is one of the first in a new generation of public squares. No longer just passive green spaces, these squares are designed to be programmed and used by the public. In fact, the infrastructure for such uses is built-in, and the spaces have management entities in charge of them to assure their ongoing effective use."

:: image via Pioneer Courthouse Square

Fair enough. Maybe it is the central location, or the fact that it does have many significant public events like concerts, beer festivals, and the annual Festival of Flowers (as well as my favorite, the annual piking and lighting of a large dead tree for christmas). This square works and it is very Portland. It is also very indicative of the PPS mantra - which is good, but not the one-size-fits-all solution to public space.

On the flip-side (literally, as it is two blocks away) and a good test of this theory, will be the latest addition: Olin Partnership's design for Park Block 5, one of the 3 Downtown Parks projects that are being redeveloped throughout the city. The park blocks are one of the oldest fixtures in Portland, donated in 1852 by Daniel H. Lownsdal, and set the stage for much of our current, amazingly successful park system, particularly in downtown. The North and South Park blocks are a green linear corridor that provides a wonderful break in the urban grid, as well as places to sit and relax.

:: South Park Blocks - image via Portland Parks & Recreation

I definitely like the design and details of the new Park Block 5 and as a piece of landscape architecture it's going to be well executed. What's missing I fear is the appropriate context. This entails both the surrounding urban use areas, program for the plaza, as well as the historical/traditional design intent of the Park Blocks themselves, which seemed to be tossed out in favor of 'designerly' strategies. I understand that you can't condemn a project, and this could be all chalked up to designer envy (as we don't like critique or discussion any longer) before it's built, so here's my critique of the unbuilt design:

(1) It is a hardscape plaza, with significant paving, a water feature, kiosks, and covered areas adjacent to light rail - which is exactly duplicating the function of Pioneer Courthouse Square, a mere stone's throw away.

(2) It makes little reference to the historic form and greenspace that was intended for the Park Blocks. For a 'park' block, it contains precious little park. It is on a parking structure, but the budget allowed for rooftop planting, if desired.

(3) It offers little of Portland's strategies for stormwater, sustainability, green design. It seems of another place - perhaps one with a history of better space design, but less good planning. Somewhere where plazas are looked at but not used.

:: Park Block 5 - image via Portland Parks and Recreation

Alas, this is the plan that will go in, and it will inevitably get the praise and coverage it deserves in the media. But will it work? That's a whole other question.

Another new plan in the works is Walker Macy's design for Ankeny Square. This tough project site offer new urban public space in an area that needs it most - this time along the Waterfront Park, and providing a new home for the Saturday Market. A difficult task in the least, it required providing covered space for vendors, pedestrian crossing of the barren Naito Parkway, and interface with the Willamette as well as fitting into an existing park and a historic district. No small feat, and I think it's a really good plan. Simple and appropriate, and highly-usable. Getting the Saturday Market out into the park will be a boon too - as it is currently jammed under the Burnside Bridge and adjacent to Mercy Corps' new building and will make way for new development. For more on the Ankeny design, check out the PDC site.

:: images via Portland Development Commission

While armchair quarterbacking both of these project designs, I know it kind of misses some of the essence. There's some good and bad (which is pretty common) - and i'd dare say the public processes that led to them would have resulted in similar forms of the same idea, only with different signatures had they been done by a different group. The question, or thread to weave throughout, is what makes a great public square and are either of these destined for that distinction?

One option is to look to PPS, and infuse the space with programmatic and social possibilities. This works at many places (like Pioneer Courthouse Square), but is not the secret formula to good design. Context and history is important - looking at the spaces historically successful, such as those featured above, or the piazzas of Rome to name a few.

Looking purely at Pioneer Courthouse Square as a design - it leaves a lot to be desired (arguably), both in design and detailing - as well as longevity. As the living room and an activated, social, vital urban place - it's wildly successful. The other designs have (arguably as well) higher design arcs - but this does not guarantee they will be successful. My vote is that of the two, Ankeny Plaza is most likely to be a success, purely due to it having a specific and unique focus in it's location. As well, this will hopefully help to energize Old Town/Burnside area redevelopment and make the district and plaza more successful, and perhaps for longer than two days a week. Block 5, well, we shall wait and see.

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