Monday, October 30, 2006

Public Squares: Some Thoughts

A recent discussion of a proposed park in downtown Minneapolis got me thinking about the origins of public spaces. I was going to add a rather lengthy comment to the discussion on Zack's site, but rather than clutter up his server I'm posting my thoughts as a stand-alone entry here.

The question, aptly put by one of the posters, is this: Why are there so few public squares / spaces in modern American cities? To answer this, let's look at the origins of the city square. To my knowledge, there are three primary lines of evolution:

(1) Shared pasture land in agricultural places. In this case, the town "commons" was an area in the center of town where you could stick your livestock. The sheep/cows/etc. could munch on grass all day, and you could safely secure *everyone's* animals in a central place. You see this a lot in New England, although those spaces are no longer used for this purpose (!).

(2) The Roman forum. Romans considered public speaking and debate a central aspect of a city's democracy. To that end, the ensured that forums--open spaces where people could address crowds--were central in the design of their cities.

(3) Open marketplaces: Malls, or rather assemblages of stores, used to be open-air affairs. Though, notably, there are some interesting renaissance-era gigantic indoor marketplaces. Anyway, there are some public spaces today that grew out of such a use.

So the problem for modern American cities is that neither the sharing of livestock nor the sharing of public opinion is considered a top priority. The third one--the marketplace--shows some potential. The latest trend in mall development is away from enclosed structures and towards open-air malls (a.k.a "lifestyle centers"). Aside from the obvious marketing misdirection inherent in the renaming, this shift in development tactics may encourage the growth of public spaces. Outdoor malls, unlike indoor ones, better promote visibility and heterogeneity of uses, two essential aspects of a public space (see earlier posts).

So I guess there's hope, eh? Keep your fingers crossed; I don't think Americans are about to buy a bunch of cows and form grazing co-ops.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Coventry Benches at Last!

The waiting is finally over! At long last, someone has installed benches along Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights!

A little background, in case you're not familiar with the area: Coventry Road, between Mayfield and Euclid Hts Blvd, is a walkable retail district in Cleveland Heights. It is home to a variety of restaurants (Tommy's, Pacific East, Jimmy Johns, Hunan on Coventry, Inn on Coventry), a bunch of bars (Paninis, etc.), a few clothing shops (notably American Apparel, which just moved in), Big Fun (one hell of a good toy/novelty store), as well as Coventry Elementary school and the Coventry branch of Cleveland Heights library (both at the top of the hill). Coventry is a rarity in the Cleveland area: a shopping district that gets pretty decent foot traffic and isn't completely dominated by national chains. Once upon a time (oh, say, 30 years ago) Coventry was a meeting-ground for counter-culture types. Check out Nights Owls on Coventry, if you want a decent fictional re-creation of that world.

Nevertheless, Coventry is certainly in a state of flux. Independent retailers aren't doing so hot these days; they're rapidly being replaced by national chain stores. While this is good news for property owners who lease their buildings to these operators, it sadly portends the every-progressing death of independent retail. The situation is especially grim on the north-east end of the stretch, where a number of storefronts sit empty:

But I'm getting off-track with all this talk of unoccupied prime rental space (!). One of Coventry's big problems (in my humble opinion) has been its lack of benches. You remember benches, right? They're long, rectangular objects that pedestrians sit on to rest, eat, enjoy the scenery, have conversations, and so on. You might think that Coventry, being a "walkable" district would have tons of benches. Alas, it does not (until now). I'm not quite sure why. I suspect it has something to do with discouraging homeless people from setting up shop in what is otherwise a middle-class shopping district. (For more information on concealing / erasing homelessness, see my earlier posts).

But now someone has finally installed benches! Yay! Now I have somewhere to sit and eat my sandwich, right?

Well, sort of right, sort of wrong.

See, the problem is that you can't just put in any kind of bench and have it work properly. Take a look at the new benches:

There are some serious designs flaws with these benches, including:

Placement: The benches are placed curbside facing towards the building facades. This means that bench occupants will only be able to watch the building directly in front of them. This limitation of visual range defeats one of the essential components of walkable districts: people watching. Traditionally, benches in a public area are placed so as to maximize the visual range afforded to occupants. In this case, the benches should be placed against the building facade facing out towards the street. That way, occupants could watch sidewalk traffic on both sides of the street, as well as the street traffic itself. Also, the presence of moving traffic behind the bench occupants will create a feeling of unease, as people generally are nervous when there is a lot of physical activity behind them.

Material: The benches are hard metal, rather than wood. Metal gets colder than wood in winter. Cleveland gets moderately harsh winters. Therefore, these benches will be unpleasant to sit on in cold weather.

High backs: The benches have high backs, which forces one's posture into an inconvenient position. Ouch!

Availability: The benches were placed mostly outside business that are unlikely to necessitate benches (empty storefronts, for instance). For comparison's sake, consider the picture below, in which two people used the wrought-iron railing as a make-shift bench since none was available:

What's going on in this picture? The two people in question are waiting outside a restaurant (Mint Cafe, yum!) to get a table. There is no bench there, so they improvise and use the railing. What does this pedestrian improvisation tell us? It tells us that in designing urban spaces we should examine how people spontaneously craft their own space. Citizens' unconscious remaking of the space around them shows us (as urban planners) the most efficient and usable techniques we should employ. The very fact that these new benches were completely unoccupied on an otherwise sunny Sunday afternoon tells me that they are fundamentally poorly designed. I'm certainly pleased that the merchants of Coventry decided to tackle the issue, but am disappointed that they should miss the mark by such a great degree.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Lessons from Baltimore: The Inner Harbor

Well folks, I'm visiting the city of Baltimore this weekend. In many ways, it bears great similarity to Cleveland. Baltimore is a former industrial city with large pockets of urban black poverty. Its economy is similarly dominated by health care interests (through Johns Hopkins University, the largest recipient of NIH grants in the nation). It also faces the same challenge of all Rust Belt cities: how to fight middle-class flight to the suburbs and grow its revenue base.

My analysis of Baltimore, I should point out, comes by way of the nature of my visit. My girlfriend, a sales rep for a consumer products manufacturer, is attending a conference at the Baltimore convention center. Since the conference extends through Saturday, I (being the compassionate boyfriend) arranged to fly out to Baltimore so that the two of us could spent Saturday night and part of Sunday in the city.

I'm staying at a hotel in Baltimore's "Inner Harbor", a relatively recent mammoth rebuilding effort in the center of the city. As far as I can tell, city planners constructed a tourist fantasyland in the middle of their otherwise depressed city. It's beautiful! A huge harbor with a gorgeous brick promenade, flanked by restaurants, bars, and cultural attractions (an Aquarium, Science Center, and lots of harbor tour boats). On a sunny Sunday (nice alliteration) the promenade is swamped with tourists: young couples, middle-aged couples, old couples, couples with kids in strollers, couples with teenagers, couples walking their dogs, single folks, tour groups (including at least 30 very chatty Italian ladies in town for Columbus Day), and so on. The cafes are full of folks happily munching down crab cakes and pizza. Kids are clamoring to get on the tour boats. I can't imagine how much money the city of Baltimore is making off of this massive public investment.

Quite a paradise, huh?

As I've noted in earlier posts, however, all is not as it seems in cities. Poverty is a pervasive problem in American cities, especially in the Rust Belt. Although the Inner Harbor itself is well-attended and safe, if you walk more than a block or so away from it you are confronted rather quickly with the stark reality of Baltimore's problems. Downtown's buildings are certainly beautiful, with elaborate brick facades that bespeak a time of wealth and success. In contrast to their physical beauty, the buildings are occupied by the standard run of low-rent tenants common in depressed areas: pawn shops, check cashing services, and of course empty storefronts. In the worst case, entire buildings are unoccupied: the view from my top-floor room in the Hampton Inn was the depressingly hollowed-out shell of a 12-story office building. The fading logo on the building's facade indicates it was built in 1896 as a headquarters for an insurance company; the door is now boarded up, every floor is completely empty, and someone (homeless squatters, perhaps?) has scrawled "Why God Me?" in the dust of an 8th floor window.

More dispatches soon...

Monday, October 02, 2006

Kucinich: A Politician Who Cares About Issues

(Caveat: This isn't really an urban planning entry, but I thought it worth mentioning).

As you may know, policitians are in the habit of sending follow-up letters to constituents who contact their offices. If you doubt me, go ahead and call up your Congressional rep with some concern X and wait about six months. Trust me, you'll get a letter thanking you for contacting them about X (whatever X may be).

A few months ago, I tried to arrange an interview with Dennis Kucinich, the rep for my district. Sadly, his staff was not able to arrange a time for us to meet. They (the staff) assured me, nonetheless, that Kucinich did indeed want to meet with me and was eager to talk about the interview subject (his 1977-1999 mayoralty of Cleveland). "Ah well," I figured, "at least he still cares about the subject, even if he's too busy for an interview."

I figured that was it. Apparently, however, Kucinich's staff stuck my name on a list for follow-up letters. Though I'm used to getting such letters, his is beyond the pale. Rather than make any (even oblique) mention of the subject of my original communication, his form letter conveniently omits any possible reference to actual subject material. It reads like something out of Kafka. I'll let the letter speak for itself:

I'm tempted to send a reply, but what would I say? How about:

Dear Congressional Representative:

Thank you for your communication. I am happy that issues and events are indeed important to you. I look forward to communicating with you in the future about events, and possibly discuss this in more depth. We could even address that, if you have the time.