Reprinted from the December 2003 edition of Land Matters

Is there a Great Public Space in your town? If so, what lessons might it teach landscape architects?

Identifying Great Public Spaces is an idea put forth by the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS), which features a gallery of such places on its web site, www.pps.org. Anyone can nominate a place for the gallery. Currently, the gallery includes everything from high-profile places like New York City’s Bryant Park to humble neighborhood parks and farmers markets.

Also on the PPS web site is a Hall of Shame: failed parks and plazas where few people go – or if they do, they don’t stay long. Included in the Hall of Shame are built landscapes by some well-known designers.

Through the years I’ve been to places from both lists. While at the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture meeting last fall, I visited a nominee for the “great” category: Marion Square in Charleston, South Carolina. Formerly a nineteenth-century military parade ground, Marion Square is a 10-acre town green framed by streets and buildings near the heart of downtown Charleston. Its concept is extremely simple: a lawn crisscrossed by two soft-surfaced paths and framed by shade trees with plenty of seating. A statue of the revolutionary war hero Francis Marion overlooks it.

I happened to live in Charleston in the late 1970s, when Marion Square had started to look seedy. Recently, a renovation led by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates has tidied up the park, but aside from a new fountain at one corner of the square, it’s hard for me to tell exactly what the landscape architects did – and in this case, that’s good. Why reinvent a plan that has basically worked for a very long time?

Marion Square appears to be very well used by a diverse population. Most visibly, coeds from the nearby College of Charleston regularly use the green for sunbathing. How many parks in the middle of cities attract girls in bikinis? Yet according to PPS, making women feel safe and comfortable is an important criterion of a successful public place. Marion Square also hosts outdoor attractions such as the annual Piccolo Spoleto Festival, the city’s Christmas tree, and the popular weekly farmers market. Marion Square is flexible enough to host large events without feeling crowded, and it can accommodate casual use without feeling deserted.

What makes for a Great Public Space? The PPS web site lists complex factors such as access from surrounding neighborhoods, user comfort, and programmed activities. Notably missing from the list, however, are any references to “cutting-edge design,” “high style,” “minimalism,” or “the avant-garde.” And yet I often sense that these visual criteria are the elements that landscape architects focus on most – or, at least, they are the elements that cause design juries, time after time, to give out awards for built work.

Does this profession, then, value iconic designs over people places? It would be nice, I know, if the two always went hand in hand; in reality, too often they are at cross-purposes. Martha Schwartz’s Federal Courthouse plaza in Minneapolis is a case in point. It won an award from a jury of Schwartz’s peers (see Landscape Architecture, November 1999), but I doubt if anyone would call it even modestly successful as a place for people, much less a Great Public Space. An article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (reprinted as this month’s Critic at Large) refers to the plaza as “Dumb and Dumber” — a sentiment that, I suspect, is shared by many residents of the Twin Cities. Was Schwartz’s focus on creating a piece of art antithetical to creating a welcoming public plaza?

And is it a problem for this profession, reader, that low-key but successful places are often passed over for kudos while high-image, people-unfriendly projects garner all the professional laurels?

J. William Thompson
Editor

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