If you’ve ever taken a sociology class you probably read about Max Weber and Georg Simmel; two of the first urban sociologists to study urban social life and how factors such as race, class, gender and economics change the ways people interact with the urban environment and public spaces.
Think of a public space you know. What do people do there? Do they eat lunch? Read? Talk on the phone? What kinds of people use the space and for how long? Do people sit in chairs or on ledges? Do you feel comfortable there or like you’re being watched?
Well if it was 1980, William Whyte may have been watching you. He wrote one of the most important books on this topic called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces about the goings on in New York’s plazas. Whyte also produced a film illustrating his findings that is usually shown in urban sociology classes around the globe. In the film, Whyte narrates the activity of people in the plaza as if it were a nature special. Some say its dry, but those of us with nerdier dispositions or people watchers may find it quite humorous. Whyte found that successful public spaces fostered more positive social interactions, and in order to increase positive sociability careful design of our parks and plazas was needed.
What makes a good public space? The Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit devoted to creating and sustaining healthy public spaces, heavily influenced by Whyte, says there are 4 elements that make a successful public space:
1. The space is easily accessible. Walking, biking and public transportation should be readily available in close proximity. The space should function equally for people with special needs.
2. People can engage in activities there. This could be anything from watching a band play music to participating in a chess game. People of all ages should be involved in activities, as well as people in groups and people who are alone.
3. The space is comfortable, clean and friendly. Are there enough places to sit? Is the space used equally throughout the day?
4. The space is sociable - a place you meet people for lunch or somewhere you want to show to your out of town guests. Do people know each other there? Are they smiling? Do people take care of the space by picking up litter?
I’m sure you can think of spaces you’ve been to that have many of these qualities or have none at all. One such plaza recently caught in a battle between the City of Minneapolis and Historic Preservationists is Peavey Plaza. Built by modernist designer M. Paul Friedberg in 1973, Peavey Plaza was meant to be an “urban oasis” where people could escape the noise of the city and relax next to the sound of the plaza’s waterfalls and fountains. Friedberg’s aspirations were high; a skating rink in the winter and a calm gathering place in the summer, but for years the fountains have been out of commission due to pipe problems and multiple soapings. The concrete has crumbled and the general atmosphere of the plaza has dwindled.
In spring of 2012 the City of Minneapolis sent out a redevelopment plan of the plaza and the debate began. Preservationists did not want the plaza demolished, but restored to its original design - waterfalls and all as a well-preserved example of the designer’s work. But the City of Minneapolis felt the plaza had devolved into a crumbling eye sore that was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
City of Minneapolis Redesign Rendering (above)
This debate went on until a few days ago when the City Council voted to demolish the plaza; even skipping over M. Paul Friedberg’s own plan (shown above) for revision in favor of their own.
I’ve been asked frequently about my stance in this debate and though I often drift to the side of historic preservation I just don’t this time. While it is pretty accessible by bus, bike, car and by foot, there is not much to speak of as far as a range of activities go and I personally don’t feel especially comfortable there with all the concrete and exposed rebar. I also don’t feel very sociable there since not many people are around and the majority of the plaza is recessed far below street level, hidden to passers by. But is it unique? Yes. Did it at one point in time live up to it’s aspirations? I think it did.
Obviously, designing a successful public space is difficult. It may work for a while, but people’s needs could change with time. Just like art, fashion and food, architecture like that of Peavey Plaza looks different to us all. Will the new Peavey be accessible and busy with activity? Will it be comfortable and sociable? Hopefully, Minneapolis has made the right choice in deciding to update the plaza, but I guess we won’t know until it’s done.