The liveliest public spaces share a few core ingredients.
In his book, The Great Good Place, the urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote about the importance of third places--the informal “public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact.” Unlike home (the “first” place) and work (the “second”), third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them. These are the places of “regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”
Consider the qualities of a third place. Is it something that we can design? Can a place be constructed to create a Cheers-like arrival of regulars? We may not aspire to be barstool-warmer Norm Peterson, who always got a warm reception from the the crowd when he walked in, but a sense of recognition and belonging is a powerful motivator for citizens to engage one another. Other times, we appreciate the ability to lay back and observe, perhaps be the greeter instead of the greet-ee. This begs the question: Can we design spaces that allow both interaction and anonymity? If so, what are the elements of space that encourage diversity, to include families, the young and older, extroverts and introverts?
As the world continues to urbanize, the importance of design and the idea of “place” will become more and more important to the livability of cities. Real estate development has already become less defined by building and more about the interstitial spaces the buildings create. In the future, value will be defined not by cost and capacity but by civic character and sustainable amenities.
Here are three ingredients that have produced some of the best civic spaces in the country.
1. Create a physical space that encourages social activity.
A place where we see and make friends, recognize and greet neighbors, and interact comfortably with strangers is a sociable place--resulting from a hundred decisions about form, choreography, and community interest. Vital third places contain the physical elements--seating, landscape, a connection to surrounding retail and other public activities--that make people feel welcome and comfortable. Spaces that are visible and easy to get to, stay in, or move through are ideal third-place territory, especially when located near public transit and other civic destinations.
Cleanliness and safety are also necessary components, as are comfortable areas to stroll and sit. These conditions attract a balance of men and women, young and old--diversity that is critical to a secure and attractive image for “place” in any community. Ultimately, the success of great spaces is their inherent ability, through constant management, to accommodate a wide variety of day and night activities.
2. Mix Public and Private
Does a third place have to be in an accessible, privately controlled space, or must it be in an area open to the public? The answer, of course, is yes--it must be clean and secure, well managed, and open to all of good will. Great civic space can be publicly or privately owned, but the best places are often a combination of both.
For example, Paley Park in New York City, often cited as one of the best urban spaces in the country, is a privately owned public space. This charming urban refuge defines the quaint idea of a pocket park. All the senses are engaged, via tree-filtered sunlight and the mist of a falling water fountain; a café provides light meals and snacks; and lightweight furniture invites friends to gather, while also allowing moments of solitude.
Like many successful civic places, this place is paradoxical. People love Paley Park because they can be alone in a busy city. While it’s perceived as a place of respite and quiet, it is, in fact, heavily populated and full of noise (albeit, the soothing sound of a waterfall).
Another example is the 3rd Street Promenade, in Santa Monica, California, which has been carefully curated over the years to achieve the right mix of tenants, entertainment, civic uses, and amenities by a public-private management company. The Promenade’s long-term success is the result of careful shaping by the agency that, according to its statement of operational objectives, oversees the creation of “a strong feeling of place.” The attention to detail has paid off: the area attracts tens of thousands of local office workers, tourists, families, and teens each week--all encouraged by the environment to dine, interact, and people watch. But the most important evolution of the promenade began many years ago with the ability to modulate the flow of pedestrian and car traffic.
Until the 1960s, 3rd Street was a normal commercial road with auto traffic. When it was converted into a shopping mall, it became a pedestrian-only zone. Eventually, after a period of commercial success, the mall floundered and eventually became blighted. In the 1980s, the street was redesigned and reconstructed to its current form and opened to automobile traffic as well as an enhanced pedestrian promenade. As its popularity returned, especially on weekend nights, the promenade closed to cars but reopened to traffic on the following morning. Today, the bollards that block autos are always in place but, if needed, could be reopened to establish the optimal balance of car and pedestrian access.
The pedestrian-car balance is one of the most important keys to creating a livable urban place. The Promenade demonstrates that flexibility is an important third-place characteristic, and one of the most challenging to achieve.
[3rd Street Promenade]
Rockefeller Plaza is another private place that has invited public use, making it one of the central gathering places in New York. Interesting stores and markets, outdoor seating and dining, and of course, the central skating rink, all encourage the gathering of diverse groups of tourists and locals that is typical of great third places.
The evolution of the plaza from private corporate space to national icon began with a change of attitude. Benches--a more gracious choice than the spiked fencing originally considered--were added to screen and protect the landscape. The public came, stayed, and appreciated the gardens, the shops, the people watching, and the interaction. Dozens of other attractive additions, including art, seasonal displays, and lighting, have increased the sense of place that seems to belong not just to New York but the entire country.
These best-in-class civic spaces are more than just convenient amenities. They attract a varied and even global constituency as the “living rooms” of our cities. They add value to property and livability on local and regional scales. In the near future, it will be unimaginable to consider, from an economic, civic, or community viewpoint, a significant urban development that does not aspire to be a third place.
3. Mix Uses
Our most challenging but rewarding projects result from all the live, work, and play environments coming together in urban mixed-use developments. If the leaded elements are skillfully blended, the results can be golden. What we gain is the opportunity to be involved in the civic realm--to be active as citizens of our communities. What we lose is the daily commute, stress, and pollution. Alchemy doesn’t get any better than that! ***
The architect and former congressman Richard N. Swett, FAIA, wrote that “it is the unique responsibility of the architect to use space and design as a unifying force, to physically realize the insistent perception of community wherever it struggles to exist on its own.” Without the physical encouragement to engage socially, our built environment will, as it does in many places in America, lack the vitality of a free democratic society. These third places, which encourage diverse populations to come together and interact, may be the key to civility and the sustainability of our cities.
Carl F. Meyer, FAIA, is a principal at Perkins+Will and an Adjunct Associate Professor at USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development. As a Principal and leader of the corporate + commercial + civic practice of Perkins+Will in Los Angeles, Carl brings a strong background in major urban mixed-use projects; commercial, community, corporate and institutional facilities; and university projects.