By KEVIN COLLISON
This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Star on August 17, 2004.
In the rush to rebuild a dozen-block swath of downtown Kansas City with mega-projects, Fred Kent has some humble suggestions to make it a destination people would enjoy.
“We go to places where we can do things,” Kent told an audience at the new downtown library last week. “So we ought to start designing places where we can do things.”
The president of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces then took the group through a slide show of cities around the world. It didn’t focus on dramatic skylines or great buildings, but on the streets, plazas and parks where people gather to shop, play and observe one another.
What architects and planners need to remember when designing their grand projects, he said, are the ordinary people who will — or otherwise won’t — use them each day. That means giving them benches to sit, opportunities to explore new activities and an eclectic environment where serendipity can flourish.
“We’re kind of repressed,” Kent said. “We’re afraid to allow unpredictable spaces. We have designed out human activities from a lot of our buildings and public spaces.”
Kent was in town as the guest of the Kansas City Design Center, a civic organization established with the help of Jonathan Kemper, the president and chief executive of Commerce Bank. The center’s mission is to “raise expectations for the quality, character and vitality of Kansas City’s public realm.”
The gathering was in the fifth-floor auditorium of the library at 10th Street and Baltimore Avenue, a project that Kemper helped champion. The meeting room was a few steps from a rooftop terrace that provided views of downtown’s office towers, and the newly renovated apartment and condominium buildings across from the library.
That urban scene was appropriate for Kent’s message: “Building a Great Kansas City Through Place Making.”
So what makes a place great?
Kent’s checklist highlighted uses and activities, access, comfort and image, and sociability. One of his favorite examples of a place that worked well for people was the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, a gracious park where visitors can sail toy boats, go for pony rides, or just relax and watch one another.
A failure as a public gathering place, Kent said, is the new Guggenheim Museum, a masterpiece of architecture designed by Frank Gehry for Bilbao, Spain. Although the art museum has become an icon for Bilbao, the plaza around the structure is sterile and unwelcoming, Kent said.
“If you would start thinking about architecture as place, you would get a lot of work,” he said.
Kent both praised and lamented the Country Club Plaza, arguably Kansas City’s most recognized place. In terms of ambitious urban design, he put it in the same category as Rockefeller Center in New York. Both projects represented the high points of an era that vanished when automobiles and suburbanization began dominating American cities.
The Plaza’s charm, however, has eroded in recent years, Kent said.
“It’s lost its allure, because everything is a chain store,” he said. “How does it get back to the uniqueness of Kansas City?”
Kent has a mantra called the “Power of 10” that he said was a surefire formula for success. First, a metropolitan region needs 10 or more major places or destinations. Then, the city itself needs 10 or more destinations. Finally, each place needs 10 or more things for people to do to create synergy.
“It’s amazing how it grabs hold of people,” he said. “Kansas City could transform itself very quickly if it grabs hold of its 10 things.”