Imagine watching an aerial time-lapse view of a few city blocks. You see a continuously undulating scene—a living, patchwork quilt where buildings go up, come down, and pockets of open space fill in around them. There is a dialogue between developed space and open space that is crucial to humanizing cities. Like bubbles of air or shafts of light, open spaces give room and context to their built counterparts. And harnessing this space is at the heart of urban and landscape designers’ ethos.
In FastCompany’s September, 2015 article “Park Chops”, landscape architects Kim Mathews and Signe Nielsen consider several approaches to maximizing public spaces. Outlined below are three of those approaches, with real world ties to work in our own communities in the West.
1) Find a Thesis
Crafting open spaces works best when it orients around a main theme, or hook. This might be drawn from the history of a place, from some prominent building or natural land feature, or from some other unique social or demographic characteristic. A good thesis helps align design decisions to serve a common goal, and it is often what makes the space most recognizable and memorable.
2) By the People, for the People
Engaging the people who actually live near the space in a meaningful way is not just a nice gesture. All too often, people assume that ‘it’s someone else’s job” to design, implement, and maintain public open space. This passive approach leads to low adoption rates and misinformed solutions. And all too often, an outsider who comes in to ‘fix’ a space breeds contempt from those who are daily affected by the changes. Consequently, involving the local residents and users in genuine ways is crucial to promoting ownership and responsibility, and at the same time gives the designer access to the most useful, first-hand input possible.
3) Commit to Flexibility
Public space is just that—public. It’s open to an incredibly wide range of users and purposes. Often, especially in the public input phases, everyone will have their own ideas and visions for what they want the space to be or do. From dog parks to splash pads to amphitheaters, no space can actually offer every amenity or function requested of it. This is why flexibility goes such a long way. Flexibility, properly executed, lets a single features serve multiple purposes, like a sculpture doubling as a fountain of table. And flexibility, fully considered, understands that future needs may not mirror current ones. A plaza and fountain may give way to a park and jungle gym should the demographics of a region change. Flexibility is a way to structure space to be broadly relevant, both at present and lasting into an unknown future.