Catalytic Places: Public Squares

What great squares have to offer their communities is limitless. Above all, it's the social life that works in these squares: What are perhaps the most magical parts about these places are the simple, crucial chance encounters that allow us to have with others.

Catalytic Places: Public Squares
Bryant Park, New York City

Part 1:  New & revitalized squares that fundamentally changed the perception of each city.

There's a reason that one of our Transformative Agendas centers on public squares. They are crucial points for connection between members of a community, and provide a focal point for all sorts of activities, from civic actions and protests to simple everyday conversations. And they are not all of one kind: they take many forms and exist in different settings, from parks to markets.

We have always treasured our work on squares. Our early work on Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park, and then Detroit's Campus Martius, Pittsburgh's Market Square, Harvard University, Perth Cultural Centre, Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square and Discovery Green in Houston reinforced the importance of this type of space — which made their success all the more rewarding. We will continue to add other projects we had a role in making happen of making it better. We worked on over 40 major square projects and consulted on many more in our time leading Project for Public Spaces.

These were all game-changing projects for their surrounding communities, creating placemaking momentum that spread beyond the squares themselves. What it took was a building-up of consensus and gathering of a vision for each space.

Some of the squares discussed in this article were created literally from nothing (parking lots or street intersections), while the rest involved major overhauls of existing, under-performing spaces. What these squares do share, however, is their vital, even "catalytic" role in the social life of a community, along with strong programming. In fact, we have always said that the best spaces are 95% program led — meaning that the activity in a place is the most important part.

Each example in this article is led by extraordinary people who understand the nuances of how people enjoy and thrive in public spaces. The examples also demonstrate that while design is critical, it is important to factor in the unique function and excitement that make a place work — the informal and sometimes intangible parts of a space. In other words, these examples transcend design because they are iterative, flexible, and "improvisational."

But it's the larger spinoff impacts created by these spaces that are capturing the attention of researchers. A recently published Brookings Institution report documents the extensive economic, social, and civic impacts of Albuquerque's Civic Plaza, Buffalo's Canalside, and the Flint (Michigan) Farmers Market – projects we also led – and suggests ways that they could become even more impactful. Research like this is critical to making policymakers understand why public space investments can be so crucial to a city's future.

Detroit's Campus Martius

There's a reason we love telling the story of Campus Martius: It is simply remarkable, the change we have seen it undergo. In its journey from a traffic-surrounded monument to a genuinely enjoyable space, Campus Martius is living proof of the importance of prioritizing people and social life as the foundation for a "new" Detroit.

Today, Campus Martius is the heart of a "New Detroit."

The construction of the square was undertaken by civic leaders to commemorate the 300th Anniversary of the city in 2001. Mayor Dennis Archer charged leaders to create the “best park in the world.” We were fortunate to work with Robert Gregory of the Detroit Downtown Partnership--the true genius behind the conception and operation of the square to this day--creating a program and management plan that shaped its ultimate design.   When Campus Martius opened in 2004, people found that the square had an ever-growing list of reasons to visit: among them, a restaurant, holiday and seasonal activities like ice skating, and programmed activities like movie nights, music events, and outdoor yoga and more. Today, Campus Martius is the heart of a "New Detroit."

It was in no small part because of the success of the square that  Quicken Loans (now Rocket Mortgage),  under the leadership of Dan Gilbert, relocated from the suburbs of Detroit to downtown in the early 2010’s.  Recognizing the role that placemaking had already played in downtown Detroit,  he supported the Detroit Downtown Partnership to develop a new set of “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” improvements for Campus Martius,. The revival of  downtown Detroit  accelerated from there, and the city hasn't looked back since.

Over the course of its 2013 transformation, one surprise for everyone was a sandy beach space in Campus Martius. Sponsored by Southwest Airlines, the innovative and unexpected addition solidified a new era for Detroit. In addition, the investment is paying off in measurable ways: More than $4 billion in new investments in downtown Detroit in the past decade can trace their origins to the impact of the new Campus Martius.

Detroit claimed its return as one of the best cities in the US and as one of the biggest turn-arounds for any city since World War II.  It seems only right that the city's "Point of Origin" monument, the basis from which Detroit's coordinate system is derived, is a part of Campus Martius. It truly is a center point for a city that seems to transform itself, day by day.

Bryant Park, New York City, USA

New York City's Bryant Park is a classic transformation story. In the 1980s, we led what some called a Master Plan. We thought of it more as an activation plan or even a Placemaking Vision, aimed at reprogramming the entire space. Among the first goals was to turn it around from becoming a place that had serious safety issues and served as a center for drugs. Our strategy was to replace the drug activity with new and welcoming reasons to visit the space. Over the course of the project, our work was made possible through the leadership of Dan Biederman and his very able team, who deserve full credit.

Because of its historic significance, major design changes to Bryant Park weren't permitted, but many of the small changes we proposed were accepted. Though most could not tell the difference in the historic design, the difference has been substantial. Now, locals and visitors alike are drawn to the park, in large part thanks to its various food vendors, moveable chairs, and a wide lawn used for programming or simply lying down to read a book from the adjacent New York Public Library branch.

On any given day, a visit to Bryant Park means coming across lively social activities such as piano performances, game hours and art supply carts, ping pong tournaments, tai chi, and story times for kids. All this offers ongoing excitement in combination with the goings-on in and around other mainstays like food carts, a carousel, and the Fever Tree Porch, which is equipped with swings and lounge furniture, a full bar and restaurant, and fire pits.

Rockefeller Center

When folks from all over the world imagine New York City, one of the first places their imaginations are likely to conjure up is Rockefeller Center; now nearly a century old. But it's not only the famed Rockefeller Center Christmas tree that makes this place special: As one of our so-called "Greatest Hits," our work there in the 1970s showed us first-hand the urgent importance of extensive programming and a comfortable place to sit.

When we got involved, our first task was to use benches along the existing planters to keep people from sitting on the plants. But from there, things grew: That initial change led to expanding the existing annual Christmas lighting with a tree and an exhibit along the Channel Gardens. Over time, that expanded into 11 exhibits annually which evolved into what it remains today: a seasonal transformation of the entire plaza.

The plaza is brimming with activity: The NBC Today Show occupies the the southern Rockefeller Center and in the same building, a parking lot was removed to house the International Auction House. The plaza also hosts public art exhibits, performances, and a farmers market. Other events, like the Queens Night Market, celebrate all that NYC has to offer with an open-air night market featuring nine independent vendors who sell a range of international bites.

Harvard University: Two Squares

Several years back, we had the chance to work with Harvard University as part of its Common Spaces Program to make public spaces on campus friendlier to student life and local activity. In the process of working on such a historic space (built in 1720), it was perhaps surprising how simple we found the catalyst for change to be: A series of movable chairs dramatically shifted the way people used the green space.  

Harvard Yard

Changes to our public squares don't have to be drawn-out or costly. The first of the two squares we want to highlight at Harvard University is Harvard Yard. In fact, Harvard Yard, built in 1720, changed fundamentally in a single day when colorful, movable chairs were introduced as part of a University-wide push to upgrade public spaces for students, staff, and Cambridge residents.

Even previously under-activated spaces next to Harvard Yard were completely transformed in the process, evolving into the main campus gathering space for the Harvard community and local residents. This began a renaissance for other transformations. This collection of activated places in the heart of Harvard soon stood in contrast to other nearby spaces, and the changes spread further across the larger Harvard Square: Now this transformation stands as a model of successful activation that can be applied in nearly any community.

Harvard Plaza

Harvard Plaza is another space well known for campus activity, and since our work in the University's wider placemaking campaign, it offers plenty of programming and seasonal activities. This is especially important in New England, where summers can be sweltering and winters frigid!

Everything from food trucks to games and campus-organized activities now makes it one of the best places to hang out on campus. The Plaza hosts a mix of University activities including the Arts First Festival, a farmers market, and weekly lunchtime concerts, to name a few. The Plaza invites friends and colleagues to come together all hours of the day and into the evening with outdoor seating and great food options from local food trucks.

Pittsburgh, Market Square

Pittsburgh Market Square got its name from the public market that originally occupied the site.  It went through a number of design iterations after the market was destroyed by a fire, but it's the most recent square that's really proved to be a turning point for the downtown and cultural district. It now hosts Pittsburgh's largest farmers market (below).

In one article praising the newly finished Square, "Market Square Regains its Historic Luster," the Pittsburgh Tribune interviewed Nick Nicholas, the third generation to run the Nicholas Coffee Co. at Pittsburgh's Market square, who says he has seen a number of changes to Market Square over the years. "I think they finally got it right this time. They closed the traffic to the buses. It's more people-friendly now, having one big plaza instead of four quadrants."

Perth Cultural Centre

Today's community hubs are changing: Now, college campuses, entertainment zones, cultural districts, hospital complexes, neighborhood commercial centers, and large-scale developments such as innovation districts can become important hubs of social interaction.

The Cultural Centre in Perth, Australia was once widely derided as boring by local residents. But after a dramatic activation powered by a short-term placemaking plan, opinions quickly changed and people began to flock to the area.

Perth is an example of using placemaking to enhance a cultural hub. Perhaps most important to remember is that these types of places should complement, rather than compete with traditional city centers.

Takeaways

All of the squares presented here have been significant catalysts for their city, for multiple reasons.  In all of these squares where we played a significant role, we have been very intentional about the community engagement and using a LQC (Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper) implementation process that was in many instances experimental, which allowed us to the keep the focus on the outcomes we were trying to achieve.

Far and away, the biggest reason for their success was that they were all program led. In these types of developments, public uses and daily activities shape the design (not the other way around). Further, the success of the final product  depends on leadership from the community: Stakeholders are involved in everything from the building or redesigning phase to continued maintenance and improvements.

Managing these squares takes many skills, but thrives on iteration and improvisation. Just designing a public space and walking away from it does little to advance community social life and achieve real impact. Rather, the key is to continue to pay attention to what goes on in a place, and make room for people to make it their own.

When it comes to design, these squares are built with set of basic management features about which we learned by studying historic spaces. These will be featured in the next article in this series, and are characterized by their support for flexibility and adaptability over static design.

Lastly, these squares are intentionally planned to be centers of local economic activity that draw significant numbers of users and incubate new businesses at the same time. This gives the spaces unique energy and power.

What great squares have to offer their communities is limitless. All of these squares show how they can provide opportunities for entrepreneurs, access to green space, strengthened local foodways, and new economic activity in their surrounding community. But, above all, it's the social life that works in these squares: What are perhaps the most magical parts about these places are the simple, crucial chance encounters that they allow us to have with others.


In case you'd like to dig deeper on the topic of squares, many of the projects featured in this article are included in the recently released updated edition of How to Turn a Place Around.

Stay tuned! Part 2 in this series will highlight many historic squares that tell important stories. These squares have thrived for centuries and have features that we still consider to be models today.

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Please share with others, comment, and add to the discussion. This post will continue to evolve. We would also be glad to share our larger strategy if  you are interested.  Contact Fred Kent at: hello@placemakingfund.org

The mission of Social Life Project is to incite a renaissance of community connection around the globe. It is an initiative of of The Placemaking Fund, along with PlacemakingX — a global network of activists and community champions propelling the movement forward.