A NEW GUIDE TO BALANCING MOBILITY AND HUMANITY ON MAIN STREET

The Debate Over Design

Feb 29, 2004
Dec 14, 2017

How can design professionals contribute to better places? That was the question on everyone's lips in 2003, as PPS promoted a dialogue among design professions about the current state of public spaces. Our message of community-driven design was picked up by major trade publications and advanced through our partnerships with federal agencies, while our project work demonstrated the real-world utility of our approach.

Sparking the Debate

With the introduction of our City Commentaries, we took a look at the way global cities treat public spaces. By looking holistically at both positive and negative developments in these cities, we tried to highlight best practices for fellow placemakers, as well as uncover poor practices to avoid. Our examinations sparked a debate over the supposed benefits of high-profile developments such as Canary Wharf in London and Parc Diagonal del Mar in Barcelona, and encouraged decision makers to take advantage of untapped opportunities such as the Thames riverfront.

The past year saw the transportation profession seize the opportunity to emphasize community places over project-driven designs.

Meanwhile, visitors to our website continued to flock to Great Public Spaces and the Hall of Shame, where they passionately discussed why they love some places and loathe others--and nominated over 100 new places for us and our web visitors to consider.

In December, we saw the debate of "place vs. design" picked up in Land Matters, where editor Bill Thompson reviewed the Great Public Spaces website and posed a question to his fellow landscape architects:

"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?"

In the next issue, PPS President Fred Kent weighed in, challenging landscape architects to rise to the historical moment by serving the communities where they work and creating "functional places that support local values."

Working with Influential Partners

The past year saw the transportation profession seize the opportunity to emphasize community places over project-driven designs. We are very proud of our collaboration with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which is guiding transportation agencies to adopt Context-Sensitive Solutions (CSS) and plan streets and roads with community needs in mind. The website we are creating with FHWA will help CSS become standard practice in all 50 states, meaning our streets and roads can again knit communities together rather than split them apart.

Our work in San Mateo resulted in a primer on how to turn transit stations into important community focal points.

Our place-based message was amplified thanks to the support of another federal agency, the General Services Administration (GSA), which manages all the federal buildings in the nation. PPS workshops developed ideas to improve Phillip Burton Plaza and UN Plaza in San Francisco, and in Salt Lake City, Buffalo, and Richland, WA we elicited fresh ideas from local stakeholders for federal buildings that are in the planning stages. The government is committed to realizing community visions for its properties and the public spaces around them, and with guidance from PPS, they are doing it the right way.

Putting Ideas into Action

On the ground, we used our community-based approach to tackle a diverse set of projects. We worked with the Denver Children's Hospital and the Seattle Art Museum to examine how buildings can function as more than institutions and become great places that serve the surrounding communities. In Portland, OR, we worked with community leaders on an ongoing project to make Pioneer Courthouse Square active year-round, especially during the winter. And in Newark, we partnered with the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), the City of Newark, and the engineering firm Edwards and Kelcey to develop a plan for the public spaces of the downtown waterfront by connecting it to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

In rural New Hampshire, we used traffic calming as a vehicle to create places and improve communities.
PPS proposed creating lively gathering places around transit stations in San Mateo County, like this proposal for the San Bruno station

Our work in California's San Mateo peninsula resulted in a primer on how to turn transit stations into important community focal points. We worked in partnership with local transit agencies in seven towns on ways to create vital places around transit stations. Located along a rail corridor to San Francisco, the towns face a housing shortage and heightened traffic congestion. PPS and our local partners developed plans to solve both problems by adding housing and mixed-use development to the downtown areas around the transit stations. Communities along the peninsula would be knitted together by transforming the historic El Camino Real--the region's main traffic artery--from a six-lane highway to a pedestrian-friendly boulevard.

On the other side of the country, in rural New Hampshire, we used traffic calming as a vehicle to create places and improve communities. The project highlighted the potential of Context Sensitive Solutions to dramatically enliven small towns. Working in the town of Littleton, PPS and the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) invited representatives of other towns to attend community workshops and learn how to conduct traffic calming experiments. Several low-cost experiments--often as simple as a few well-placed traffic cones--were implemented in Littleton and showed residents how slower traffic and improved pedestrian conditions could begin to have a positive impact. Several nearby towns conducted their own workshops and experiments after learning from the Littleton model.

A trained facilitator conducts the place game at Omaha's Gifford Park

We saw the biggest ripple effect of 2003 take shape in Omaha, Nebraska, where PPS led a How to Turn a Place Around workshop for 123 people in collaboration with our local partner, Lively Omaha. The workshop was the first step of an ambitious strategy to make better places throughout Omaha and spread the placemaking process to every neighborhood in the city. Following the training workshop, Lively Omaha "deputized" 22 volunteers to help groups of local residents conduct PPS's Place Performance Evaluation Game (Place Game for short) in specific places around the city. So far the volunteers have led 23 of these placemaking initiatives, working with community and civic groups to show how the selected places can be improved. In stark contrast to the typical top-down mega-project, this bold initiative has involved Omahans from the ground up, and their enthusiastic participation confirms that when you start with community and place--not design for design's sake--everything else follows.

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A NEW GUIDE TO BALANCING MOBILITY AND HUMANITY ON MAIN STREET