Architectural Record, April 2000

Seven years ago, the New York Times described Fred Kent as someone “who would like to see most architects hit the road.” A disciple of William H. (“Holly”) Whyte, the influential urbanist who studied the city by observing how people used streets and plazas, Kent is president of the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a nonprofit group that puts Whyte’s principles to work in retrofitting problematic parks, plazas, shopping strips, and streets across America. Kent sat for an interview with RECORD to talk about recent developments in our urban landscape.

Record: During the postwar decades, as American cities declined, public spaces followed suit — and so, it seemed, did old patterns of community cohesion. Now that cities are making a comeback, has interest in public spaces revived?

Kent: I think the era when there was a fear of cities and the diversity they represented is coming to an end, but this important shift has not gotten much press or television coverage. At PPS, we are getting more and more calls from mayors, nonprofit organizations — everyone but designers — asking us to help them bring back their public spaces, their town squares.

Record: Your mentor, Holly Whyte, said, “It’s hard to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” What are architects doing wrong?

Kent: They’re making visual designs rather than civic places. A good place has less to do with how a space looks than how people use it: the activities that go on there, how comfortable it is, how easy it is to get to and walk through, the public image it projects. As we begin to realize how important the civic realm is and how we have lost it in recent years, we realize that we’ve relegated its design to a profession that seems interested mainly in making visual statements.

Take Centennial Park in Atlanta. In 1996 the city developed a plan for a major park in conjunction with the Olympics. The park was to be a metaphor for a quilt and was therefore laid out using a grid system. The problem is that many of the activities that go on in a park — walking jogging skating — don’t fit into a grid. When people start talking about metaphors you know they’re getting away from anything to do with human beings.

Bryant Park, though successful, also shows a lack of understanding of public spaces. In the back of the park near the library there is a restaurant [Bryant Park Grill], which is a good idea; food is a great draw. The problem is you can’t see into the restaurant, and the people inside can’t see out. The building is impenetrable; it’s apart from the park.

Record: Does [New York City's] Battery Park City work?

Kent: It’s not bad; it’s just not great. The main problem is that the base of the buildings were not designed to take advantage of their proximity to the public walkway and the water. [Not counting] one central location, there are few restaurants and cafes overlooking the water. And many of the spaces don’t have the flexibility that is critical for allowing incremental growth. In great public spaces, such as Central Park, activities just seem to fit along their pathways. That’s because Olmsted would try something, see how it worked, and change it if necessary. At Battery Park City everything was fixed; it’s hard to evolve it.

Record: What are some of you favorite public spaces?

Kent: A key word is “triangulation.” The best type of public spaces are ones where various activities are combined or triangulated. My favorite hypothetical example is a square that has a library and a coffee shop. The library has a children’s reading room that’s next to a playground, at the edge of which is a coffee shop for parents. In front of the library you’d have a square, for weekly markets, seasonal events, art shows, performances. Ideally, also around the square would be a post office, a community center or meeting place, a fire station, and some stores. You put all those together and you have triangulation.

Record: What about actual public spaces that are successfull?

Kent: Some of the best were not planned by designers. Take good streets. Bleecker Street in New York City has more diverse stores than any shopping mall. Each block has its own character. In one neighborhood people shop for cheese, bread, fish, meat, etc. Another has antiques and gift shops and still another has the clubs Bleecker Street is known for. All of the buildings are small, which makes it a good place for people to walk. The entertainment, restaurants, food stores, playgrounds, and little squares fulfill a complex set of needs for people in an urban setting. They support the local economy by stimulating local entrepreneurship.

Record: Your emphasis on locale and community fits in with the New Urbanist view. Have they made successful public spaces?

Kent: They’re not about place-making yet. It’s very hard for people trained in this era to realize place is more important than design. As a nonarchitect, I think you need 10 different kinds of designers working within a framework. You get more chaos than some people would like, but you get a lot more people enjoying it. The best public spaces have grown over the years.

Record: How would you rate [the New Urbanist town of] Celebration’s public spaces?

Kent: They are based on a visual aesthetic of an idealized place. There is a square in Celebration called Market Square, and I assumed there would at times be a market there. No chance. This is a little park with trees and seating. It’s all visual. Around it is a city hall, which has so many columns that you can’t see the building behind them, and a post office that is pushed off into a corner.

At first glance Main Street looks very nice. There are nicely designed arcades, but they are too narrow for outdoor activity, to put places to sit, things to sell. And the buildings are attractive but not very functional. In the early 1900′s, which is the decade that many of the buildings in Celebration try to replicate, designers understood that you design a window for a dress store differently than for a shoe store or a jewelry store. In Celebration, the windows are all alike.

A city I like is Roebling, N.J. It’s a company town, built between 1904 and 1906 by one of the sons of John A. Roebling, designer of the Brooklyn Bridge. If you were to rate all the New Urbanist communities on a scale of one to 10, you might get a five. Roebling would be a nine. It has connected housing, separate, single-story family homes, narrow streets, commercial areas, a fire station that contains both the community center and a library. The firemen also function as volunteers who maintain the community center. It seems so perfect you can’t believe it’s real, but it is.

Another example is Rockefeller Center, one of the great squares. The building’s commercial spaces have evolved over time and improved. There used to be banks at street level and now there are retail uses. The Today Show went into an old bank office; the auction house Christie’s went into a garage. In the new part of Rockefeller Center, which was designed in the ?60s, the architecture is so overscale that it is nearly impossible to change.

But some cities are changing and some architects have begun to realize the positive impact their buildings can have if they are designed as places, not just for aesthetics. I used to say the newest building in any city would be the worst. In some cities that’s no longer true.