I really should move onto another urbanist subject, but there is such great information available about public spaces that I can’t yet tear myself away. I ask your forbearance while I tiptoe through another few links.
Fred Kent writes in Urban Land magazine about the success of public places that are a part of retail developments. He includes a story from near Seattle where the neighbors became so connected to a public place that they formed a nonprofit to help manage it.
He also suggests that “successful public spaces are the new anchor tenant." His enthusiasm is likely premature in drivable suburbia, but there are certainly walkable urban places where a successful plaza is filling the role of an anchor store.
Kent next reports a sentiment that public places are more successful when the nearby retail stores are locally-owned, not chains. As one developer says “brands do not add to the energy; they suck the uniqueness out of an area.”
On the gustatory side, I concur completely with the quote. I’ll go out of my way to eat at a locally-owned restaurant and have convinced others to follow me. Last summer, a hotel clerk in Greenville, South Carolina recommended a local rib place to a group with whom I was traveling. Weeks later, one of my friends emailed me in disgust when he found that the place was actually part of a regional chain. The ribs were only fair.
And then Kent touches on what may be the most important value of a good public place, the ability of the place to make connections between people. As Kent writes, “Even the smallest gestures to connect toward strangers can bring about a sense of community." The Project for Public Spaces, in their eleven steps for the creation of good places, talks about “triangulation” strategies to create reasons for strangers to begin talking.
Atlantic Cities adds to the subject of strangers connecting by describing the psychological benefits that one receives when a stranger makes eye contact.
Then, as if fate was trying to ensure that I got the point, an email unrelated to urbanism arrived. It closed with a quote from French writer, Andre Maurois. “Smile, for everyone lacks self-confidence and more than any other one thing a smile reassures them."
And there you have it. Good public places introduce strangers and build good communities. That’s a lot of accomplishment for a little plaza or park.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He also was the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and four dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.