Monday, February 05, 2007

Is Crocker Park a Public Space?

In my earlier post on my impending relocation, I talked a little bit about Cleveland's lack of public spaces. In particular, I cited Crocker Park as an example of a quasi-public space. This assertion has, unsurprisingly, led to a lot of debate: is Crocker Park really a public space? If it is, then what does that tell us about public spaces?

First of all, I should mention that if you really want to do some research on public spaces, you should visit the The Project for Public Space. It's one heck of an organization, and a great research tool.

Anyhow, let's get back to Crocker Park itself. In case you're not familiar with the area, here's a quick summary: Crocker Park is a recently-constructed "lifestyle center". Lifestyle center is really just a handy term developers use to refer to open-air malls with non-traditional retail mixes. Crocker Park is oriented along one main road. The retail mix consists mostly of clothing boutiques, with a few big boxers thrown in for good measure (Dick's Sporting, Barnes & Noble, you know the tune!). At one end there is a Trader Joes, and at the other a cineplex and bookstore.

The first thing we need to note is that Crocker Park is a huge success. There are people there all the time. It is really unbelievable. Even in cold weather! People flock to this lifestyle center (whatever that term really means). Crocker Park's popularity cannot be ignored; urban planners must confront why people like it so much and what it can teach us about building (and encouraging) public spaces.

Crocker Park enters into the debate over public spaces because it is undeniably a popular gathering place for a huge variety of people. Teenagers, young couples, couples with kids, single folks, and middle-aged couples all flock there. (One major group that does not show up in large numbers is the elderly--a very important and often overlooked demographic). On a given Friday or Saturday night, the plaza in front of the theatre is filled with teenagers milling about. In between movies, the bookstore's cafe is filled with people. During prime evening retail hours (5-9pm), the main drag is filled with shoppers. The central plaza is home to an ice-skating rink in the winter, as well as a half-dozen chess tables. Both these features are well-used! Lastly, the 2nd and 3rd stories of all the buildings are residences (a mix of rental and for-sale).

Most importantly, to be on the main drag of Crocker Park is to feel that you are part of a larger public. There is a decent variety of people (agewise, though not economically), engaged in a decent variety of activities (mostly consumer, but not entirely). You can see and be seen. There is a real energy to the place!

Crocker Park, however, is entirely artificial! It was constructed out of an empty lot by a for-profit developer. It houses almost entirely national chain stores. There is almost no independent retail. In terms of retail taste, it belongs entirely to the realm of Corporate America. The economic mix of visitors is limited, too--the stores are quasi-upscale, so mostly middle- and upper-middle-class folks spend time there. It is located far away from the (ugh!) Central City, safely ensconced in the protective services of private security. Urban poverty does not nip at its heels (for now, anyway!). Crocker Park is a vision of public life far away from the difficult realities of organically developed urban public life. It is devoid of individual character. Being under the control of a single private developer, there is little chance that independent actors can contribute to its development. The housing is expensive, so it will tend to attract only upper-class residents. Basically, Crocker Park is a public space playground for the affluent.

Let us not forget, though, that Crocker Park is incredibly popular. Its main street is filled with people on summer evenings. This experience of a public place is indeed a powerful, and as much as we may bemoan its artficiality we cannot deny its appeal. Most importantly, we must look at Crocker Park's practical aspects to learn how to build better public spaces. Chief among these elements: a central, pedestrian-friendly road. Wide sidewalks. Bright street lighting. A variety of activities that encompass more than the 9-to-5 workday. A residential component (both rental and owned). Safety.

Ok, enough for now. I'll leave you with another image of a public place:


Blogger Frank A. Mills said...

Stephen, I agree that Crocker Park is a public space, however, it is a public space with one intent--- to generate customers for Crocker Park's retail, and thus, also enriching the coffers of the developers.

Compare that with, say Santa Monica's bluff park overlooking the ocean. Like Crocker Park, it too is full of all ages and types of people (including vagrants, which of course is a no-no at Crocker Park)going about various pursuits (people-watching, strolling, sipping coffee, chess playing), again just like Crocker Park. The difference, however, unlike Crocker Park, a quasi-public space, Santa Monica's park is for the enjoyment of all people (poor, rich, homeless, and mansion owner, without regard) , paid for my tax dollars, with little intent (if any) to generate retail dollars.

This brings us back to your question, if Crocker Park is public space what does it say about the public's view of public space? One thing it might say is that, at least in Cleveland, we want our public space sanitized. If so, then we should take the "public" out of Public Square, either that or just let Stark and company incorporate the Square into their vision for downtown, i.e. Crocker Park: Central City.


7:54 AM  

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