Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Enclosed vs. Open-Air: Controlling Public Spaces

Having recently visited The Mill Street Grille (great lamb shanks, by the way!) in New Castle's (PA) new Riverwalk complex, I got to thinking about how cities try to create, manipulate, and control public spaces. New Castle presents urban planners with a significant challenge: how to take a city decimated by decline in the steel industry and revitalize its depressed urban areas. Like most Rust Belt cities, New Castle's downtown is largely a ghost town when the business day ends. Also, like most Rust Belt cities, New Castle's downtown is blessed with a prime central location, excellent pre-war architecture, a (potentially) scenic river, wide sidewalks, and decent greenspace. The businesses that still operate downtown include local government (no surprise there), scattered down market services (pawn shops, check cashing services), some middle-range offices (AT&T among them), and of course a lot of vacant space.

Of course, New Castle's downtown also suffers from the regular problems of all Rust Belt downtowns: little to no residential population, high (or perceived high) rates of property crime and drug crime, ailing business, inadequate infrastructure, overwhelming retail competition from outer-ring malls (Wal-Mart, anyone?). New Castle's downtown--designed for a thriving pre-war urban economy--is, shall we say, out of step with current economic trends. It is, like all places designed for high-density urban living patterns, dependent on people for its survival: people in businesses, people on the sidewalks, people driving, people visiting, people leaving. But, as we all know, employment and demographic shifts in the past fifty years have made these downtowns anachronistic.

All of which gets us back to Riverwalk and how one can craft and control a public space. Urban planners, when trying to revitalize urban spaces, generally try to find ways to encourage people to take up urban living patterns in the spaces in question. That is, they look at the living patterns (high density downtown housing, independent retail, etc.) for which urban spaces were designed and try to convince people to adopt some of those patterns. In some cases, it is sufficient to encourage new downtown residential construction, float bonds for infrastructure improvement, and create a BID to police the neighborhood. In New Castle, however, the perceived threat to safety is so great that drastic measures are necessary to get people to come downtown.

What drastic measure do I have in mind? (Drum roll please) Enclosing space altogether!

Riverwalk is a single two story building fronting the river. It has been rehabbed to create a small indoor mall. Security guards are posted at the main entrances. Since the space is entirely controlled--via gated entry--security can be ensured. Consequently, people are happy and eager to visit Riverwalk. On a recent Saturday night, the restaurant was packed with diners. This is a truly remarkable feat, given how hard it is to operate a business in downtown New Castle.

Is this the urban planning answer for depressed downtowns? I don't know. In the long run, I'm not sure if focusing on improving enclosed spaces actually helps the "outdoor" portion of the city. Maybe it just creates microcosms of safe spaces in a still-declining economy. It does, at the very least, help urban planners and policy-makers better understand the psychological underpinnings of the urban experience. Perhaps we can use it as a gateway measure, a way to draw the non-urban community back into the urban fold in a safe, approachable way.

On the other hand, I find that enclosed spaces are simply not as great as open-air spaces. Ventilation is always problematic, as is ambient noise (indoor spaces develop overwhelming echo-effects). The recent shift away from enclosed suburban malls and instead towards open-air "lifestyle centers" proves my point. But, then again, lifestyle centers are generally built in suburban locations and have significant safety patrols.

Maybe we should just put a roof over the whole planet and it'll all be good...


Blogger Ryan said...

A surprising amount of planning went into "pre-war" architecture and city design. The planners and developers then were working with different tools then, of course. Asphalt Nation, by Jane Holtz Kay contains an excellent chapter on this. Model T, Model City(Chapter 7) explains that much of our remaining urban infrastructure was designed to accommodate pedestrians and rail traffic before World War I. The local and inter-urban rail lines were quite extensive back then.

Much newer Residential Architecture maintained these forms for a few more decades, but the design and placement of streets and roads moved away from this gradually after WWI.

She also contains a lot of info about how much Free Parking really costs, and how subsidized motorists are by the government.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Stephen Gross said...

Thanks for the info on Kay's writings--I'll check it out soon. Does Kay talk at all about this specific issue (open-air vs. enclosed space)?

Thanks for reading!

11:42 PM  

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