What makes a good space?
Good spaces are people places.
“I end then in praise of small spaces. The multiplier effect is tremendous. It is not just the number of people using them, but the larger number who pass by and enjoy them vicariously, or even the larger number who feel better about the city center for knowledge of them. For a city, such places are priceless, whatever the cost. They are built of a set of basics and they are right in front of our noses. If we will look.”
William Whyte, inspirer of Project
for Public Places
William H. Whyte’s research tells us that the design and planning of public spaces needs to be given better thought, better resources, and better inspiration. He opened the door on how to make spaces better. When I am in a great outdoor space, I feel like I am better connected to the city, the region, and the locals. The first time I was able to set foot on New York’s Central Park in 1976, I felt awed and humbled by Frederick Olmstead’s 100+ year old creation. But when I had a later tour of the redesigned Bryant Park, also in NYC, it completely bowled me over!
It was a forest of people outside having fun, talking, relaxing, catching some rays, and being away from their office/apartment/anything inside. This was a much more dynamic place than the more spacious, calm lawns and walkways of Central Park. But it was the dynamic people-centric feel of the space that impressed me. I was re-energized to take a little of that jazz back to Austin with me.
Well, influences from outside have always affected me. My love of travel has taken me from tours of Europe in the 1980’s with my wife, Margaret, to seeing some of the greatest hits of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and even good old Cleveland, Ohio. I learned through experience that the ideas you see and feel while on tour globally can lead to re-interpreting your framework locally. That happened to me and to our office. Austin and San Antonio had lots of great outdoor spaces, many of them classics – The Riverwalk, Town Lake Park and the university campuses in each city - but was lacking in any over the top outdoor shopping spaces. That became a personal challenge for my colleagues and at JRA. We were asked to create good spaces at The Shops at La Cantera and The Domain in San Antonio and Austin, respectively in the 2000’s.
From those two major projects came these 'lessons learned' and basics to placemaking in Central Texas:
- Shade, shade, shade.
- Allow for activity everywhere, and encourage people-watching.
- Create multiple pedestrian connections to the main areas of interest
- Cars should be allowed, but not allowed to dominate.
- Push for green plants, native plants, and foliage with texture, color, and pattern. As for trees, the bigger the better.
- Water in locally inspired patterns.
- Bring in art, or artful patterns to fully animate and include local culture in the design.
- Allow for air and breezes.
- Strive for creative collaboration of all the folks involved in the team; especially the client.
- Include walking surfaces that make you stop and look at the patterns/materials.
- Provide enough to look at to make people dwell, but keep their interest on what’s just ‘round the corner.
Yes, there are always ways to improve your own work. You never take things for granted and are often rethinking just about each project you ever designed. But now, The Shops and The Domain have become local placemaking institutions which have all the characteristics of “what the urban fabric is all about”. We hope that when you see the next park, the next office plaza, or the next streetscape near you, you will say “there are the 7 or 8 characteristics of a good place”.
We look forward to your comments, input, lively discussion, and positive outlooks on our world.
Send us your thoughts! If I didn’t see the need for good ideas being created, I would hang it up. We need our cities to demand good character, good streets, good design, and the inspiration to make outdoor spaces that keep us engaged and enriched city dwellers.