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What exactly makes a public space great? You know a great public space when you experience it. Vibrant public spaces are active places filled with people from all walks of life. But what are the features most commonly found in the best public spaces?

I will attempt to answer that question in this blog post. I could be wrong about these 5 characteristics, but I do know one thing: it has little to do with pretty landscaping, fountains, or park benches. You can tell me what you think in the comment section. Here goes…

Feature #1 of Great Public Spaces: They are small

Market Square: Pittsburgh, PA (Photo Credit: Project for Public Spaces)

This is perhaps the biggest mistake that municipal park designers and urban planners make, probably because it’s so counter-intuitive. If you’re an urban planner, chances are you don’t wake up in the morning and say, “We have too much green space. The parks in my community are too big. We need to shrink them!”.

Yet, that’s exactly what is needed to re-activate many of the parks in our urban areas, especially the parks and plazas located in or near downtowns. In fact, some our nation’s most treasured public spaces are quite small, and owe much of their success to their limited proportions. Here are a few examples:

  • San Antonio’s Riverwalk is quite narrow. The river itself is only 25-40 feet wide, more narrow than a typical city street, and the walkways themselves are much more narrow.
  • New York’s Rockefeller Plaza, the public space that holds the famous ice skating rink in winter months, occupies only a small fraction of one city block.
  • New York’s Paley Park in Midtown Manhattan is a tiny public space at only 4,200 square feet, much smaller than the typical lot size for a single suburban house, yet it is renowned for being a wonderful urban place.
  • Pittsburgh’s Market Square is one of the city’s smallest public spaces, but is one of the most vibrant.
  • Savannah, GA’s famous downtown squares are all fairly small. Try to imagine downtown Savannah with one giant park instead of its 22 small squares that fit nicely into the street grid. Wouldn’t be the same place, would it?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for the redevelopment of New York’s Central Park, or Austin’s Zilker Park, or San Diego’s Balboa Park. Every major city needs a handful of large, recreational parks that serve as destinations in and of themselves. But it is often the small, intimate public spaces that create the best urban experiences.

Feature #2 of Great Public Spaces: They are surrounded by diversity

Washington Square Park: New York, NY (Photo Credit: City of New York)

Jane Jacobs made this point in her 1961 book The Life And Death Of Great American Cities. I’m paraphrasing here, but Jacobs said that it’s not the park itself that creates a vibrant urban place, it is the park’s surroundings. A great example is Washington Square Park in New York’s West Village neighborhood.

Washington Square Park has a fountain in the center of the park, a sculpture/monument at one end, a dog run, and a bunch of park benches and walkways. Oh yeah, and it has a bunch of trees, and it’s fairly well-maintained and landscaped. And I almost forgot the built-in outdoor chess tables where you can play chess against some of the best homeless chess players in the world.

So, aside from the fairly unique chess tables, Washington Square Park sounds like a decent, run-of-the-mill park, right? How many other parks are there in New York City that have a fountain, a sculpture, a dog run, and a bunch of benches, trees, and walkways? There are dozens of parks in New York with similar features. And how many parks in the U.S. sound just like this? Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands?

Now, let me ask you this: Are there thousands of public spaces in the U.S. that are more vibrant than Washington Square Park? Definitely not. If you’ve ever visited Washington Square Park, you’ll agree it’s a great public space. So, if it’s not about what’s in the park itself, what makes Washington Square so great? Are thousands of people traveling from across NYC just to play chess? No, Washington Square Park is great because of its surroundings.

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The park is surrounded on all sides by New York University and the Greenwich Village/West Village neighborhood. There are literally thousands of housing units and hundreds of commercial establishments within a 5-minute walk. I won’t go into any more detail because I’ve written more here about the urban vitality of the West Village neighborhood. I’ll just say that it’s the neighborhood that makes Washington Square Park a wonderful urban place, not the park itself.

Other examples of vibrant public spaces that are surrounded by diversity include: Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, San Francisco’s Union Square, and Jamison Square in Portland, OR.

Feature #3 of Great Public Spaces: They mix public and private together

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Riverwalk: San Antonio, TX (Photo Credit: David Kozlowski)

A great public space is not really just a public space. It brings together public and private in a way that enhances the urban environment in a way wouldn’t be possible without both civic and commercial functions. When you first read the term public space in the title of this blog post, you probably were thinking about parks and plazas. But urban boulevards, shopping districts along commercial avenues, and pedestrian malls lined with shops are also public spaces. In fact, many of the most vibrant public spaces in the U.S. are really a combination of public and private space.

A few examples of vibrant urban places that mix public and private uses well include: the Venice Beach boardwalk in Los Angeles, the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall in Miami Beach, Pike Place Market in Seattle, San Antonio’s Riverwalk, Kalakaua Avenue in Honolulu (Waikiki’s main shopping street), and Boston’s Newbury Street.

Feature #4 of Great Public Spaces: They occupy important locations

Bryant Park: New York, NY (Photo Credit: Project for Public Spaces)

An important, but often overlooked, feature of successful public spaces is their location within the city and metro area. Far too often, park planners believe that if they build a nice park, people will flock to it…regardless of the location. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t work that way in the real world.

If a city decides to invest in a new park at the edge of town with the goal creating a vibrant public space, the results will be disappointing. The surroundings of the park matter more than the park itself if your goal is to enhance your community’s urban vitality (like we covered in Feature #2). For this reason, many of the truly great public spaces in the U.S. are located on prime real estate, often in the center of a large metro area.

Some good examples of vibrant public spaces that occupy important locations include: New York’s Central Park, Bryant Park, and Grand Central Terminal, Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, and Chicago’s Millenium Park. And when a park, plaza, or other type of public space occupies an important location within a city, it is almost by definition easy to access, and filled with plenty of pass-through pedestrian traffic. This is because the most important locations within a city are usually in or near downtown, and are well-served by transit and surrounded by lots of density (office towers, apartment buildings, hotels, etc.).

A quick side note: I’ve often thought about how much Central Park is “worth”…you know, how much would the land sell for if the City of New York decided to sell it to be developed? Actually, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimated that a square foot of land in Midtown Manhattan was worth $2,100 back in 2006. So, using that logic, Central Park (at 1.317 square miles) would have been worth $77 billion, so maybe it’s “worth” $100 billion by now. But then, what would happen to the land values in the properties that surround Central Park if the park were redeveloped and filled with buildings? Surely all of the real estate that currently lines Central Park would lose value. And the properties within 1, 2, or maybe 3 blocks of the park would probably also lose value. Shoot, maybe all of Upper Manhattan would become a far less desirable place. Maybe Midtown would experience declines in property values also. Perhaps the entire island of Manhattan would be worth less without Central Park, even considering the addition of billions of dollars invested in new buildings. Of course, this isn’t going to happen…but still it’s still an interesting concept to think about. If nothing else, it can help us begin to appreciate the true value of great public spaces, when they’re done right.

Feature #5 of Great Public Spaces: They are designed to draw people in

Campus Martius Park: Detroit, MI (Photo Credit: Project for Public Spaces)

Vibrant public spaces act like magnets, literally attracting people. While this is dependent on the surroundings (Feature #2 again), public spaces must also be designed in a way that brings people in. And by design, we aren’t talking about art/landscaping/aesthetics. We’re talking about how the public space interacts with its immediate surroundings. An example of a great public space that embodies this feature is the Brooklyn Heights promenade.

On paper, the promenade doesn’t sound appealing at all. It hardly has any trees or greenery. It sits immediately above a two-level Interstate Highway with round-the-clock car and truck traffic that emits noise and air pollution. And it doesn’t have any active recreational functions. It’s basically just a walkway with some park benches.

So, what makes the Brooklyn Heights promenade a great public space? There are two answers, one obvious and another that requires a bit more explaining. The obvious answer is the view. It’s hard to beat a view that contains the Lower Manhattan skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Hudson Harbor.

But the less obvious (and equally important) answer is that the promenade is designed in a way that draws people in from the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood to enjoy the view. Thousands of people come each day to the promenade to jog, walk, or simply sit on a bench and enjoy the view.

The promenade has several entrances that seem to invite people in. The streets in Brooklyn Heights that lead to the promenade (Clark Street, Pierrepont Street, Montague Street, and others) give pedestrians a glimpse of the Lower Manhattan skyscrapers, piquing their curiosity and inviting them to walk another block or two to gaze at the full view of the skyline. And the entrances to the promenade itself fit seamlessly into the fabric of the neighborhood, connecting to the wide sidewalks and streetscapes.

Iis 10 fastcgi. Another great example of a vibrant public space that draws people is Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. And you can probably add several of D.C.’s circles to this list because of the way they draw several major avenues together into a single focal point. Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit also does a great job of drawing people in from downtown and surrounding areas, largely due to its design and how it takes advantage of the several major avenues and streets that converge upon it.

A final note:

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve noticed that I often use examples from Austin and New York. This is partially because both cities are vibrant places and are doing lots of things well, so there are lessons that can be learned and applied to other communities. But the other reason is that I’ve lived in these places, so I’m very familiar with them. And you’ll notice that in this blog post, while I mentioned a number of great public spaces in New York, Austin wasn’t mentioned once. That’s because, in my humble opinion, Austin does not have any truly great public spaces.

Austin is certainly a vibrant city, and it has plenty of good public spaces – Zilker Park, Second Street, The Drag (Guadalupe Street adjacent to the University of Texas), the Lady Bird Lake trail, the East 6th Street bar/live music district – but nothing that can be considered a world-class public space. 6th Street is definitely Austin’s most well-known public space, but it is so narrow in its function (it’s a great place if you want to get drunk and listen to loud music with a bunch of 20-somethings) that it’s hard to compare it to the other public spaces mentioned in this blog post.

Overall, Austin is a more vibrant city than its neighbor to the south, San Antonio. Yet San Antonio has one of the most successful public spaces in America – the Riverwalk – and Austin doesn’t have anything comparable. I’ll put this forward as a challenge to my hometown to create a great public space.

P.S.

Another thing you may have noticed if you’re a regular reader of the urbanSCALE blog is a fairly quiet period over the last month. That’s because I just started a new full-time position as a consultant with TIP Strategies, a leading Austin-based economic development strategy firm. I’m honored and excited to have joined such a progressive firm. TIP Strategies is well known for its thought leadership and innovative economic development consulting work on the behalf of communities across the U.S.

How will this affect urbanSCALE.com? I’m still working things out, but for now you can look for monthly (as opposed to weekly or bi-weekly) blog posts. Thanks again for sharing your interests in urban vitality…see you in the comment section!

John Karras believes that all communities have the potential to become more vibrant. John’s professional passions are aligned at the three-way intersection of urban planning, economic development and transportation policy. John founded urbanSCALE.com to empower urban planning and economic development professionals with the knowledge and tools needed to make their communities more vibrant. John is also the creator of the urbanSCALE Rating System, the first comprehensive measure of how urban a city is on a scale of 1 to 10.


The Spaces is a digital publication from VF Publishing exploring new ways to live and work. From residential buildings to public domains, co-working clubs to hotels and retail hot spots, we will look at the spaces that are pushing boundaries and meet the people who are changing how we live. Exploring the rich urban fabric of cities across the world, we want to inform and spark new conversations about design and property while inspiring people to look at their environments differently.

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