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public spaces

New Queens Public Plaza Full of People and Life

The area previously had no public seating whatsoever, which is astonishing considering the dozens of restaurants nearby. Now it is a magnet for people, especially kids, who give the place a vibe that feels different than most other pedestrian plazas. To watch parents sit calmly while their kids play would have been unheard of before the street was reclaimed from traffic and parking.

Also, Human Transit on Portland’s 1982 bus system reforms, which created an intuitive, efficient grid routing system out of a radial mess.

Small Streets Make A Big Difference

Two plazas, but a world apart. Hanover Street is in red.

Could you find Hanover Street on a map of downtown Baltimore? I didn’t think so. This small street is just as obscure on the ground as it is on maps, but it has a secret importance. Hanover Street is a direct link between two downtown public spaces; Hopkins Plaza and Center Plaza. With renovations completed on Center Plaza, and the pedestrian bridge about to come down on the north side of Hopkins Plaza, Hanover Street is an opportunity to finally link these places, encourage a critical mass of visitors and support new downtown retail and residential projects.

I often use Pittsburgh as a case study for good planning and urban design projects, and I’m about to do it again. It’s a smaller city than Baltimore, but it gets urbanism and seems to be open to new design ideas. It’s also cool as hell and I suggest you visit at least once in your life.  Market Square, which PPS recently redesigned, is a national model for urban plazas and would make Jan Gehl and William Whyte proud. A block away there’s another public space which doubles as an ice skating rink in the winter, with Market Street serving as the direct connection between the two. The synergistic effect of these two public spaces, and the intuitive connection between them has helped revitalize the retail and restaurant market in this section of downtown Pittsburgh and added a lot of foot traffic in an area which used to be dead after 5pm.

Pittsburgh's Market Square. Yes, it really is that cool.

While Market Street is a pedestrian-only corridor, Hanover Street is open to traffic and a drop off area for the Radisson hotel. This makes the connection between our parks a bit more complicated, but not impossible. A few things need to be addressed:

 

  • The Sharaton Hotel’s blank wall on the west side of the street is the 800 lbs gorilla in the room. This thing looks like it was built to withstand nuclear war (designed in the 60s, it probably was).  Because it’s actually part of an underground garage, it’s not likely to be rebuilt anytime soon. Luckily, there’s potential patio space on top of the structure. If the concrete parapet wall were to be replaced with something more transparent, and if a few cafe tables were added, this could at least give the sense of more activity on the street, even if it’s not ground-level. With the pedestrian bridge gone, there would also be a direct visual connection between the patio and Hopkins Plaza.  The blank wall at ground level could also be refinished and host a mural, fun house mirrors, or a sarcastic comment in large print about the O’s actually winning a few games this year.
  • Traffic. Unsignaled mid-block crosswalks on Fayette and Baltimore Street should be the first thing addressed. If pedestrians have to run between cars to get between the two plazas, all the programming in the world won’t create a critical mass of visitors. Signals are needed at both intersections.
  • The underground parking egress ramp on Fayette Street. Ok, there are actually two 800lbs gorillas in the room. It obstructs the line of sight to Center Plaza from Hanover Street, and creates another conflict point for pedestrians walking between the two plazas. Either close the ramp, or deck it over at the intersection and relocate it. Whose idea was it to put this thing here?
  • Center Plaza was redesigned a few years ago, but it still gives off a “hurry up and move along” vibe when there are no events going on. The problem is the seating; it’s around the perimeter, with a vacuum in the center of the space. The grass is green I guess, but with a few cafe tables, chairs, and some trees in the center, it would be a much more active place. Think of a miniature version of Farragut Square in DC.

What’s amazing is how these two plazas can exist so close together, yet seem so far apart. It’s not enough to just build open spaces and hope people show up. Attention to details like sight lines, pedestrian comfort, traffic issues, and seating arrangements are what differentiate deserted spaces from active ones.  The two major hotels on Hanover Street and the Metro station are also huge opportunities to get more use out of both plazas.

Baltimore could learn from the master plans of L’Enfant, Oglethorpe, and Haussmann. Well thought out paths, links, nodes, and corridors were the foundations that built unique and beautiful cities around the world. Making Hanover Street a better link would be a small step in this direction.

Baltimore needs a Bryant Park. Or at least a Union Square.

Union Square in NYC. I saw a man walking an eagle here.

It’s been awhile since my last post. I haven’t died. I just returned from visiting friends and family in NYC and Boston. I’ll spare you the comparisons of their transit systems to Baltimore’s, or other gushing remarks, like, “Oh the architecture bla bla bla”. Baltimore will never be NYC or Boston, but we can have one thing that makes walking around these cities interesting; great public spaces.

Both cities have active public spaces where people can relax, get creative, get weird, or just watch other people. I saw a man try to walk what looked like a bald eagle on a leash in Union Square.  There are formal and informal spaces within the park for almost every conceivable type of activity. In Boston, there were these really bad break dancers in a plaza near the Irish Potato Famine monument.  But they drew a huge crowd and it became sort of an event.  The famine monument itself is an outdoor living room where people were mingling and having lunch.

Even the smallest parks in NYC and Boston have a sense of playfulness and spontaneity. This encourages people to explore another block, turn a corner, or stop into a local coffee shop on their walk around town. There is a little bit of this at the Inner Harbor, but its mostly people walking from one tourist spot to the other.  The Katyn Memorial in Harbor East seems to exist solely as a solemn reminder of a tragedy and nothing more. Preston Gardens, in its current form, acts as more of a highway divider than an urban park, though if the number of traffic lanes on St. Paul Street were reduced, widening the park could improve its visibility and function.

Boston Common

Central Plaza on Fayette Street has potential if it just loosened up. It’s a really serious place with signs saying “Keep off the lawn!” and people in business suits eating their serious lunches very seriously.  If more benches were added and trees planted near the internal walkways – and not just around the perimeter (sort of like Farragut Square in DC but on a smaller scale), it would encourage more use and make the park seem more active. Like William Whyte said, people attract people. Central Plaza is a bit handicapped since it exists mid-block and not at an intersection, but this could also work to its advantage. There was an outdoor performance by a folk singer at Central Plaza a few weeks ago and the acoustics were great – filling the small space which is surrounded by buildings on 3 sides.

Project for Public Spaces and Downtown Partnership held several design charettes for the Downtown Open Space Plan last month. While the economy sputters along and big ticket projects get cut back, improving the design and programming of our public spaces could be a low-cost way of making Baltimore a more vibrant, fun city.  Places like Boston Common or Union Square were carved out hundreds of years ago, so we’ll have to make do with the parks we have, though we might be able to expand a few of them.

William Whyte, the famed park designer and people watcher, said in the book “City: Rediscovering the Center“:

Cities should take a closer look at what they already have. Most of them are sitting on a huge reservoir of space yet untapped by imagination. They do not need to spend millions creating space. In their inefficiently used rights-of-way, and their vast acreage of parking lots, there is more than enough space for broad walkways, small parks and pedestrian places.

Update: The Infrastructurist has a piece on Dallas’s new Main Street Garden. I was in Dallas this past May visiting a friend and was pretty impressed by their public spaces. Even some of their corporate plazas are unique and really active. Also check out Urbanite’s Baltimore Parks Lag Behind” piece.