posted by Christopher Swope
What makes a great public square? The people at the Project for Public Spaces, who Rob Gurwitt profiled in Governing in April, spend a lot of time thinking about such questions. Nobody knows more about how a mix of little things, such as seating, vending and programming, can make a city park's sense of place--and how a lack of those things can destroy it.
PPS recently released its lists of best and worst public squares in the U.S. There aren't many surprises on the best list, which includes Portland's Pioneer Square, New Orleans' Jackson Square and four spots in Manhattan alone. (NYC's Bryant Park is pictured here).
The worst list is more instructive.
That's because every U.S. city has examples of the sorts of cold, barren squares that PPS doesn't like.
If there's one surprise here, it's the square (or rather, circle), only a few blocks away from us here on the 13th floor. PPS pans D.C.'s DuPont Circle, despite the fact that the circle is stuffed on summer days with sunbathers, chess players, rollerbladers, drummers, and increasingly, yuppies pushing strollers.
Their main complaint is the heavy auto traffic engulfing the circle. They also would like to see more "destinations" for people to visit. "We think it is performing at 30% of its potential," PPS says.
Having just visited L.A. a couple of weeks ago, I'd agree with PPS's poor assessment of Pershing Square. I give L.A. credit for trying: the day I walked through, a skating rink had just opened. Yes, ice skating. Outdoors. In Los Angeles. Beneath palm trees. Nobody knew how to skate well, but they seemed to be having fun falling on their bums.
The square, however, is dominated by these odd, artsy purple and yellow walls (pictured here). They must've looked great to the landscape architect. But they create some foreboding nooks, populated by homeless folks, that don't feel very safe.
Are the design pros themselves to blame? Dan Biederman, the mastermind behind Bryant Park's renaissance in New York, thinks so. I spoke with Biederman last year for a piece (last item) I did on those Parisian movable chairs that have a way of turning busy parks into living rooms. He used the opportunity to unload on the landscape architecture profession.
"Most landscape architects are paid to have a brilliant genius vision, which usually involves bricks and mortar," Biederman said. "But they do not know how to draw crowds the way something simple like chairs do. After all, why do you need to pay a landscape architect to do that? You can figure it out after a five minute conversation with me."