The Future of Public Space: Evolution and Revolution



The Washington, D.C. National Mall competition is heating up, with finalist teams selected for each site. In a session organized for the finalists by the National Endownment for the Arts (NEA), City Parks Alliance, National Capital Planning Commission, and Trust for the National Mall at the National Archives, Jason Shupbach, NEA Director of Design, said there are many new exciting models that can guide the future of public space, including “evolutionary parks,” which are older spaces that have creatively adapted to new uses, and “revolutionary parks” like parklets, which dramatically diverge from what’s been created before.

What Is the Future of Public Space?

For Tupper Thomas, former administrator of Prospect Park, the future of public space is programs. “Parks are not just a piece of open space where you recreate. Programs create appreciation and help parks become a part of a community.” In the case of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which is considered by many to be Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterpiece, it was about using programs to “get people to go in. Before, people were afraid.” Now, happily, the issue may the opposite: so many people visit each year that the park can’t hold up under the strain and more maintenance funds are needed.

New forms of public space can also come from reusing old buildings and even reconceiving the concept of a monument. Theaster Gates, an artist and cultural planner, has taken a two-story abandoned building in Chicago and turned it into a new form of cultural center in a place where there is a total absence of any community public space. Gates added that the history of monuments is usually linked to a specific history, a special story from a certain time. The new idea of a monument is “not born with purposefullness, they can be a carrier, a monument of the moment, and can accumulate stories.” These old buildings can be monuments, too.

Temporary spaces present a relatively new model. John Bela, ASLA, a landscape architect who started the now global Park(ing) Day movement and founded design firm Rebar, argued that the “idea of temporary has evolved very quickly.” His Park(ing) Day movement, which involves transforming parking spaces into small parks, led to the concept of more designed parklets (see earlier post), and now he’s working on expanding out the parklet model to the street scale with a new “Living Street” project in San Francisco, which will take derelict street and turn into a “living market space.” Bela thinks these types of temporary street park projects are extremely valuable given that 25 percent of San Francisco’s land is streets, far more than the percentage that make up parkland. In addition, temporary spaces like parklets and revamped street parks are examples of “iterative placemaking” that enable city planners and designers to “respond more quickly to the social dynamism of cities.” Instead of going through a lengthy planning process that may not even work, a physical demonstration project can quickly be put up to “test which programs are going to work.” Gates added that the short-term uses of old buildings and sites can co-exist with long-term planning for these locations.

How Can Public Spaces Fullfill the Needs of Their Audience?

Thomas believes the quality of design has a huge impact. Prospect Park may have been designed 150 years ago, but “Olmsted was ahead of his time. He had it right.” Olmsted designed the spaces to be flexible so now areas of the park are used for cricket while other host art exhibitions. It’s also about letting different communities access the park in different ways. A drummer’s grove, for example, reaches a certain audience. Education is very important. One of her goals as head of Prospect Park was to work with schools and libraries to get children to the park, where they can then “go home and tell their parents about the park” while creating connections to the spaces. 

While the Southside of Chicago may seem like a dangerous place from the outside, inside, there are just a “bunch of cool people who think this is home,” said Gates. Some people there need the city’s services, but many others need public spaces. Gates said his goal was to make his new community center forged out of abandoned buldings “seductive.” Once the building was cleaned out, he made sure he brought in the best jazz in the city. A backyard lot became a spot for the “best movies in the city.” Given the “expectations are so low,” the movie nights were a huge hit, even bringing in visitors from outside Southside.

The young generation, a key audience for parks, spends lots of time online, so leveraging social media tools is increasingly important. Bela said the Web and social media tools were central to the success of Park(ing) Day, which was designed to be open source, with free image use. An Ikea-like guide, a “Park(ing) Day how-to manual,” was also created so people could see models but also create their own. “The project then went viral and spread around the globe. The extent of the creativity was amazing. There were lots of diverse approaches.” Some better than others. Bela said you can see good from bad design based on how accessible the spaces felt, how inviting.

Do Public Spaces Need to Accomodate Protest?

“Every public space needs to accomodate protest. Every protest in the U.S. took place in parks,” said Thomas. While parks can be designed to provide spaces for protest, there’s also the issue of “the management of public spaces.” The Occupy Wall Street movement largely took root in privately-owned parks (POPs) because New York City regulations mean protesters can’t stay out or sleep in a park overnight.

Gates went further, arguing that “people around the world are losing their right to convene.” In the Southside of Chicago, where there are few conventional public spaces, “people stroll or convene on the corner.” They are then arrested for loitering and “locked up” as a result. Parks are increasingly off limits, either by design or through regulations. In effect, the fight for “spatial movement and political rights” are intertwined, meaning “our rights are infringed upon when a space isn’t available for protest.” The good news: “There’s not enough design we can do to stop people so that’s great.”

For Bela, “public spaces are a practice place.” The public defines how a public space is used and what it means. “The biggest protests we’ve had in years happened in POPs. It’s amazing that they didn’t happen in public spaces.” Furthermore, Bela thinks communities that create “niches for resistance – ‘Protest Here'” are missing what it means to protest. He pointed to landscape architecture students at the University of California Berkeley, who, once told the Occupation Wall Street movement could no longer have their tents on the campus, decided to fill tents with balloons, exploring the concept: Where is protest even possible?

“We need to be sensitive to the whole emotional range of people,” said Gates. While some city officials and park managers may seem some types of emotions as OK and not others, they need to be open to communities expressing anger, frustration, and other negative emotions, but also respecting the public space. Thomas said parks can be set up for electricity and water so there’s inherent flexibility.

What Public Should Landscape Architects Design For? 

Landscape architects “fall into a trap by designing for the public. There’s no one public. It doesn’t exist,” argued Bela. Instead, landscape architects should “design for how people actually use a space, not how they would like them to use it.” Following this idea, it’s not possible to replicate a huge success like the High Line park around the country because that park was driven by “vocal, committed community activists” from Chelsea. The process of creating public spaces then needs to be inclusive, diverse, robust so those other unique High Line opportunities, whatever they may be, can bubble up from their own communities.

Bela thinks this approach is increasingly important given the public planning process is largely broken. “I see more consultants in these meetings than members of the public, or there will be a few professional protesters who represent their own interests while saying they speak for the community.” Bela thinks landscape architects and planners can “get around bad planning meetings by testing new things physically,” projects like Gates’ movies in backyard lots.

The High Line means every community now wants to be recognized, argued Gates. “Cities tend to react to what other cities are doing. Models are important.” Mayor, who always want to one-up each other, are “great for us.” And in this day, it’s no longer the product of starchitects that city officials are most interested in, it’s places, added Bela. “Places like Millennium Park now enable cities to compete for talent.” Thomas agreed, adding that Mayor Daley most likely thought, “we can out-do you, we have Millennium Park.” While that park is “not a New York City park,” it works for Chicago. However, Thomas thought many of these big park initiatives are often driven by economic development concerns, not community development.

How Can Public Spaces Become More Sustainable?

In San Francisco’s open space planning process, Bela has been pushing the concept of productive landscapes. “While edible landscapes aren’t a new idea,” so many landscapes in the city are now “deadzones.” Bela hopes to tie the idea of productivity to ecology and create functional landscapes that provide many services. He added that “current landscape management programs are part of the problem.” If local residents were more involved in the stewardship of urban landscapes, you’d see maintenance costs go down.

For Thomas, Prospect Park is already a sustainable landscape. “Olmsted was way ahead and totally off the grid” when he was coming up with these ideas. Cisterns under the park move stormwater in the park through to a man-made lake. She said larger old parks like hers can even handle runoff from the communities around them. There has been some exploration of expanding Prospect Park’s cisterns to accomodate the community’s stormwater. She said with these programs it’s important to educate communities what parks can actually do in terms of environmental benefits.

“Sustainability seems like a low-hanging fruit,” said Gates, but some communities are still not taking advantage of the opportunities. “Detroit could be turning abandoned spaces into urban farms and sell soybeans to China.” However, he did add that “only certain types are interested in urban farming and often they aren’t locals.” With any big idea, it’s important to examine the social components of sustainability. “We need to reconsider the people who live next to re-activated spaces” and have been watching the changes over time. How do they feel?  

How Can Public Spaces Be Better Maintained?

“The National Mall has been loved to death,” said Thomas. Big parks like the Mall and Prospect Park may need to move from capital borrowing or bonding towards making maintenance an annual expense. Also, designers need to be aware in the beginning what the maintenance issues will be and the cost of those. “Park managers need the design understanding of maintenance.”

Bela said temporary spaces can never replace long-term investments in public spaces. Still, around the world, there are different levels of long-term investment available. In Paris, the bike lanes have granite bollards topped with brass. In NYC, in contrast, there are strips of paint. Working with the private sector and foundations may also be a way to finance public space operations and maintenance.  

For Gates, there needs to be a shift away from the “Friends of..” approach. In Chicago, “we have the friends of everything. We are a very friendly city.” Instead, there needs to be a “deep understanding of the fiscal implications of what we do.” Public spaces should be endowed like university chairs.

Is a Strong Sense of Design Important?

Gates thinks the new National Mall projects should have a “strong artistic vision” that “creates tension with users. We need big ideas for these spaces.” A design process like this can’t be about “micro-processes.” To huge laughs, Gates argued that “there are lots of big egos in this room, designers who don’t want their designs thwarted by ignorant community members who don’t know shit about design.” Thomas, laughing, agreed, adding that major public spaces “need a strong design sentiment.” Designers need to “design what we didn’t know we wanted.” However, she added in the case of the National Mall it will be important to “get buy-in from lots of different communities” who interact with the site: the institutions, locals, and tourists.

To sum up, Gates said “ambitious” National Mall designs need not create harmony and “monuments don’t have to be a thing.” Thomas said that any new National Mall designs need to leverage what already works so well. “The National Mall is already a great place that people love. Continue the tradition of the Mall.” Bela told designers to “embrace uncertainty and mystery and tap into inspiration” to locate that powerful, perhaps revolutionary design.

Image credits: (1) Prospect Park / Agaveweb, (2) Parklet / The Bay Citizen

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