Saturday, August 09, 2014

What makes a Successful Public Space?

Hotel Portland, since demolished
Hotel Portland, since demolished (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Pettygrove Park in Portland, Oregon. ...
English: Pettygrove Park in Portland, Oregon. Created by Lawrence Halprin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Occupy Portland protest at Pioneer Co...
English: Occupy Portland protest at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland, Oregon on October 6, 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What makes a good public space? One that people want to use and is used by a large number of different people? The Project for Public Spaces is a good source for information about what a successful public space should have, today I am going to look at two public spaces in the city of Portland Pettygrove City Park and Pioneer Courthouse Square.

The latter one is known as Portland's "living room" while the other languishes despite being close to office buildings and residences.
Pettygrove Park is the oldest of the two public spaces having been created during the Urban Renewal period that went from 1949 through 1962. Pettygrove Park and its environment pretty much shows everything that went wrong with the Urban Renewal projects.

The Park sits in the middle of several super blocks that broke up Portland's well known short blocks, to the west sit suburbs in the sky high rise apartment complexes that have no street life and office buildings that turn their backs on the square. The park sits between two pedestrian right of ways that also represent the failures of Urban Renewal projects because the pedestrians streets have no activity centers located along them.

I pass through Pettygrove Park at least twice a week and often four or more times a week when Portland State University is in session. Despite being located on the border of the school, several office and residential  buildings there is rarely more than a few people near the square, most of them usually just taking a smoke break from the nearby office buildings or walking dogs if they live in the surrounding residential.

While I pass through this park many times I never find a reason to actually stop here and stay. While there is a few benches around the number of seating areas are limited and for those looking for a quiet place it works beyond that there is little activity to bring people here. Even during the middle of the lunch hour few people walk the 3 blocks from the 4th avenue food cart area to this park, even at its peak it feels like an empty place.

On other hand while there is no residences near Pioneer Courthouse Square (although a new project is now being built a block away), the square is surrounded by activity including a major transit node with stops on three sides by Tri-Met's light rail lines. There is also two major retailers nearby with Nordstrom's and Macy's with Pioneer Square Mall located only a block away on SW 5th. The park was opened in 1984, after being a parking lot for many years after the Hotel Portland had been bulldozed.

If you pass Pioneer Courthouse Square you will usually find people in the square. There is plenty of informal places to sit and do a variety of activities. Along the east side of the square that faces Pioneer Courthouse is a low wall that just invites informal sitting. I will often sit along this wall, eat my lunch, read a book and observe the variety of people walking by. In addition there is a three food carts located in the square so you do not have to travel far to get something to eat although I have to admit I have never actually bought food from these food carts as I prefer some of the other carts that are a few blocks away.

It takes more than a spot of land to create a successful public space. Pioneer Courthouse Square has become the major focal point of downtown Portland while Pettygrove Park languishes despite being close to Portland State, residences and offices. However, Pioneer Courthouse Square is design to take advantage of its environment while Pettygrove Park sits largely ignored by neighboring buildings. Once again the Project for Public Spaces has a great listing of elements that are needed to create a great public space.

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