Dec 9, 2006

Private Musings on Public Spaces

"Design jurors tend to be aesthetes looking for elitist eye candy, not populists who admire places that ordinary people love and flock to."

So says Bill Thompson, FASLA, editor of Landscape Architecture magazine, in a recent article that questions whether functional public spaces are any less valued by our industry that pretty ones.

Thompson compares Columbus Park in Manhattan's Lower East Side, which he found to be "virtually wall-to-wall people intensely socializing… chockablock with people enjoying every square foot of it," with Martha Schwartz’s award-winning swirling-bench design for Jacob Javits Federal Plaza, which Thompson found inhabited by "just a few users who, to my eye, looked a bit lost in the hundreds of linear feet of green bench. And this was during lunchtime on a pleasant day."

The importance of public parks and plazas has been scrutinized for decades, most famously in William Whyte's treatise The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Whyte documented a number of features that bring such places to life: benches, fountains, points of "triangulation" that encourage communal gatherings, and so on. It's not for me, or Thompson, to say whether pretty, cutting-edge designs such as Schwartz's are good. But I fully agree with Thompson that no public space can be evaluated without first and foremost considering its effectiveness—obviously measurable in its popularity.

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