How We Neglected Public Space in the US, and How to Make it Better

Isaac Kremer/ March 4, 2022/ architecture, civic engagement, Main Street, placemaking, program, tactical urbanism/ 0 comments

Blame Vitruvius. In his treatise De Architectura around 27 BCE, the three elements critical to architecture were utilitas (function), firmitas (stability), and venustas (beauty). While so easy to articulate, in practice this harmony in buildings and places was and is so hard to achieve. Fast forward to Colonial America. Many prototypes for buildings and plans for cities hearkened back to the Old World. Despite there being exemplars, buildings of this period took on a very stripped down and simplified feel. As was the treatment for buildings was also reflected in public spaces. In the northeast the “commons” held particular resonance. What often gets overlooked, however, is just blocks away from this tight assemblage of shops and buildings around a common space, the development pattern devolved and diminished.

What distinguishes American places from those in Europe and elsewhere is after the Colonial period and its immediate aftermath following establishment of an independent nation, there was not a particular need to defend cities. Additionally, while we had mountains there were open spaces not constrained by them. Here Vitruvius asserts himself again, with the reminder that the siting of buildings and for that matter entire cities was among the most important architectural considerations. Enter Cartesian planning with an abundance of right angles, and spaces set aside for plazas, parks and squares. Open spaces and relatively flat topography invited grids stretching out from coast to coast. Savannah and Philadelphia both provided for public space distributed throughout to serve as the lungs of the city. New York City certainly achieved this with Central Park. And other places to various extents provided for the needs of function, stability, and beauty in the heart of our cities.

Old Court House on Market Street and Second Street in Philadelphia, ca. 1825.

Around the mid- to late-19th century and following the Civil War, the tall building emerged and obliterated the human scale in many cities. No longer was it necessary to have dense walkable neighborhoods with buildings between three or five stories at most (without elevator service). Now it was possible to rise higher and higher up – and that’s what many American cities did. So much so that many city centers deprived the streets and street life of the light and air that is so important for the human environment. Picture the canyons of Wall Street in near perpetual shade, as opposed to the human scaled buildings of Greenwich Village as a counterpoint where light was still able to get in.

One cannot talk about the experience in the US without mentioning the love affair with the automobile. In a way for every shortcoming in our public spaces, the car was viewed as the great leveler that made it possible to get what Americans needed to where it was needed. No longer were we constrained as much by geography and mass transit routes as the time of travel by car. Clearly since widespread introduction of cars for the general population, these have wrought a heavy toll on our cities. The car invasion has resulted in loss of urban fabric, expensive facilities for moving and storing cars, and cut into public spaces. Street widening campaigns did great damage to main thoroughfares like Woodward Avenue in Detroit where fronts of churches were sheared off to add more lanes for traffic. Cities that once had wide ample sidewalks and boulevards gave these up for skinny sidewalks. Public squares and parks were omitted in favor of ubiquitous asphalt surface parking lots.

Such was not the case everywhere. Starting in 1962 Copenhagen increased car-free areas. The more space offered, the more life has returned to the cities.[1] As another example, Venice never let the cars in because the unique configuration of buildings and spaces was impossible to navigate by cars. In the US, Mackinac Island has a similar story of limiting vehicle access as not being practical for an island with a 10 mile perimeter and a dense concentration of buildings designed for walking. For most US cities, however, the closest Americans got to car free spaces was the pedestrian mall.

The Kalamazoo Mall designed by Victor Greun is an exemplar. Built at a cost of $60,000 in 1959, three blocks along Burdick Street were closed to vehicle traffic. Early on clothing stores and department stores thrived along the Kalamazoo Mall. Later these stores could not compete and were replaced by specialty stores. In 2000 the mall was reopened to limited automobile traffic.[2] This is not before launching a nationwide spread of pedestrian malls in over 120 cities, of which only a handful remain today. Interesting about the pedestrian mall is how it prioritized commercial uses above all others. The ideal was for shopping and department stores to remain in a downtown and to compete with shopping malls being built at that time. Additionally, the pedestrian mall as conceived was heavily dependent on provision of extensive parking nearby to the pedestrian area, unless there was a concentration of nearby housing or a transit station that increased the pedestrian shed for the area. Starting in the 1980s this dichotomy between auto streets and pedestrian streets was moderated by shared use streets.

In Europe the invitation to walk or bicycle has been reflected in creating and expanding common spaces for people in the city center. As a result many people have chosen to live and stay in the city. Conversely, in a US setting the invitation continues to be primarily for automobile use and access to the city. Jan Gehl again concludes “The conclusion from Copenhagen is unequivocal: if people rather than cars are invited into the city, pedestrian traffic and city life increase correspondingly.”

South Burdick Street, 1955

Kalamazoo Mall, 1959

How to Unseat the Dominance of the Car Invasion

With this understanding of the world as it is and the world as it should be, how might we change the dynamic in US cities favoring people over cars? First, we must resist the temptation for big fixes. The US Interstate Highway System after all was and is the largest public works project in the history of the world. Before closing streets and creating pedestrian zones, ala Copenhagen, Venice, and other places, we must work on an extra-small scale to enrich the buildings, streets, and public spaces that we already have.

Many cities have public space left over from planning in the form of traffic islands, alleys, and locations where buildings once stood and have been demolished. These are what William H. Whyte called “tremendous trifles.” Here is the potential to seed new activities that are supportive of people and a vibrant public life.

Two-day alley activation in Middlesboro, Kentucky, 2014.

A downtown organization in Appalachian Kentucky recognized one such opportunity. Over two days in May 2014 a vacant mid-block lot was transformed into a place for people. Planters were added that contributed to the local food system. Comfortable and low-cost seating built from shipping pallets were added, and other refinements were made to make the place more welcoming for people.

Before and after photos of the Levitt AMP Middlesboro Pop-up Park

A year later and on the other side of the street the location of a Woolworths Department store that had been demolished became the location for public gatherings and free music concerts. The Levitt AMP Middlesboro Pop-up Park was created by laying four thousand square feet of Kentucky bluegrass on a previous gravel parking lot. A stage was built from abandoned farmers market sheds. And ten free concerts held with support from the Levitt Foundation in Los Angeles. They provided a $25,000 grant in 2014 and for several more to follow This venue that had once been a hole in the street fabric became a much-loved space. After the first year a local company donated the steel canopy and stage. All of this was made possible with donated grass and the determination of a small group of people to make their place better.

Other examples like this abound. The first parklet in San Francisco happened almost by accident when a local design firm took over a street parking spot and placed turf, planters, and activities for people to engage in. Participants were asked to feed the meter. That day the designers received a call from City Hall. It ended up not being the bad news they expected. Instead the city wanted to know how to build more parklets citywide. Parklets in many ways are the antithesis of big fix infrastructure projects. For the cost of lumber and some design innovation and creativity, the pedestrian realm can be expanded where previously there was space for parking for only one or a few cars. Pedlets are similar to parklets, though allow pedestrians to use the former street parking space to walk on by way of an elevated platform. That then allows more of the sidewalk to be used for sidewalk cafes, restaurants, or other public uses.

From Tactical Urbanists Guide to Materials.

Some have even taken the steps to formalize all of the different tools to enhance public spaces, under the banner of “tactical urbanism.” Mike Lydon and his collaborators in the Tactical Urbanists Guide to Materials outline an iterative approach that allows for low-cost quick action as a precursor to a long-term capital improvement. Among the many benefits such an approach provides is to allow for testing the viability of an idea and building a constituency of supporters.

For a demonstration project, it may be unsanctioned. This is the primary difference with a pilot project. The Better Block project posted all the ordinances they were violating  and then invited city officials in Dallas, Texas to see the result. On first glance the city officials loved the vitality that was around them with places to sit, people gathering, lights hung overhead, and activated storefronts. Then when they realized that none of this conformed with city ordinances, that changed the nature of the experience for them with some officials wondering out loud if they should leave. For communities that demonstrate an interest in capital improvements, that often is a much longer-term and expensive process.

There are three scales of urban planning and design – large scale treatment of the whole city, middle scale for development of individual segments or quarters, and finally the small scale which is also the human scale and how the city is experienced by walking and staying. Focus on the smallest scale and you can immediately make places more welcoming and inviting for people. So, what lessons may be learnt from the experience of working on an extra-small scale to make better places for people?

  1. Start by connecting with other people. When you go out in your downtown and no one else is there – you have a public space problem. “The opportunity to see, hear, and meet others can also be shown to be one of the most important attractions in city centers and on pedestrian streets.”[3] If there are too few people downtown, start by finding collaborators and invent things to do together downtown to enhance public spaces and their enjoyment by other people.
  2. Employ an observational approach to learn more about your environment. Spaces between buildings are as importance as buildings themselves. Public space abounds not only in the streets, sidewalks, and parks. Also look at the leftovers of streets such as traffic islands, medians, vacant lots, and alleys. These weird spaces are what William H. Whyte called “tremendous trifles.” View them as assets to build upon.
  3. Engage the users of a space in the making of it. Tap into the wisdom, experience, and needs of people on the street. Enlist them as co-collaborators to help understand how businesses, pedestrians, and other users engage with the place that is seeking to be created.  “Believe in the fact that the people who use cities are often way ahead of the people who design them.”[4] Charrettes, pop-up feedback sessions on site, and intercept surveys are just a few ways to get the input of people who will be most impacted by public space improvements.
  4. Every project is a pilot project. Every big idea or big project today can and should be reduced to quick action projects undertaken at low cost by internal teams. This gives an opportunity to test concepts and build a coalition of support, before making sizable capital outlays and committing to infrastructure that might take a generation or more to change. The beauty of a pilot project is if you get something totally wrong that the low-cost nature makes it easy to rework or discard without major cost.
  5. Before closing an entire street, focus on the sidewalks and a single parking space or a few parking spaces at most. Increase the density of people-oriented enhancements from tables and chairs, parklets, pedlets, and other such activation elements that encourage people to utilize the space more. These, in turn, will build a constituency of supporters for more extensive changes should they be desired.
  6. Should nothing else work or no path seem clear, simply put out movable chairs. Then sit back and observe how people use them. They may sit down. They may move the chair slightly to catch the sun or shade. They may draw close to another chair and create a comfortable arrangement for a conversation. This creates a sense of psychological comfort and control that is a first step in reconnecting people with places.
  7. Think about who will manage the public spaces. In public space we find a tension between private control and control by the state. The space between these polar opposites are democratic alternatives to create different systems of stewardship.[5] Is there a group of merchants, for instance, who might help to manage a nearby sidewalk, alley activation, parklet, or pedlet? Likewise, would food carts and trucks be a welcome addition to an underutilized park, where the vendors take on responsibility for place management?

To close, this work is not without its challenges and will elicit opposition at every step. To respond we must reach back to Vitruvius and even further to the Greeks and their agora. The agora was an open space in the center of the city and often the market place. The roots of agora are agorázô which means “I shop,” and agoreúô which means “I speak in public.” Given the development of US cities for primarily commercial purposes, if we seek to adapt these places and make them more attractive for people requires new approaches, new tactics, and new forms of governance. Commercial interests must realize that their success will increase by creating a lively and vibrant urban realm not given over entirely to automobile uses. Citizens and residents must recognize their role in making and keeping spaces. And public officials should realize how public space and the ability for people to encounter one another and speak in public is crucial to the perpetuation of our democratic tradition itself. Only by operating at these three levels may we achieve what Vitruvius so presciently laid out over 2000 years ago – cities and places that are stable, functional, beautiful, and most importantly that create delight.

Editor’s Note: The author will be a panelist in the Lean Start-up Guide to Getting Stuff Done on Main Street workshop at the Main Street Now conference on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, from 1:45-4:30pm. Leaders at the intersection of public and private entrepreneurship will present on how to rapidly implement transformative projects downtown. In the second half of the session, attendees will be given an opportunity to pitch their budget and project ideas to a panel of entrepreneurs and public officials, who have an accumulated experience leveraging hundreds of millions of dollars in investment. The panel will provide input on how to implement the ideas presented and will give insight into undertaking innovative work in Main Street communities nationally.  The conference will be held in Richmond, Virginia from May 16-18, 2022 and registration is now open.

Suggested Reading

Arieff, Allison, etal. The Future of Public Space. 2001.

Duany, Andres, etal. The New Civic Art. 2003.

Frieden, Bernard J. Downtown, Inc.: How America Rebuilds Cities. 1989.

Gehl, Jan. Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space. 2011.

Glaeser, Nathan. Triumph of the City. 2012.

Means, Mary. Main Street’s Comeback. 2020.

Mehaffy, Michael. A New Pattern Language for Growing Regions. 2020.

Rein, Richard. American Urbanist. 2022.

Rifkind, Carole. Main Street: The Face of Urban America. 1977.

Whyte, William H. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. 1980.

Zukin, Sharon. Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. 2010.


[1] Gehl, 12

[2] Kalamazoo Mall (migenweb.org)

[3] Gehl, 2011, 28.

[4] Goldberger in Rein, 258.

[5] Zukin, 158

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About Isaac Kremer

Isaac Kremer is a transformational leader with a track record of success revitalizing downtowns in the United States. He has written and spoken extensively. He's always on the lookout for new and innovative ideas to unlock the potential of downtown areas.

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