The Qualities of Public Spaces: Four Case Studies

Fra_Carnevale_-_The_Ideal_City_-_Walters_37677Successful public spaces are those places where celebrations are held, social and economic exchanges occur, friends run into each other, and cultures mix. They are the “front porches” of our public institutions – libraries, field houses, schools – where we interact with each other and government. When these spaces work well, they serve as the stage for our public lives.

What Makes Some Places Succeed While Others Fail?
The Project for Public Spaces has identified four qualities generally shared by successful public spaces around the world: 1). they are accessible – the have good connectivity; 2). people are engaged in activities there; 3). the space is comfortable and has a good image; and finally, 4). it’s a sociable place, one where people meet each other and take people when they come to visit.

First and foremost of these qualities is #1, connectivity. Put another way, what is the measure of the space’s immediate and direct access? Access has most to do with connection, with how well the space is integrated into its immediate context, which is to say the streets and neighborhoods, which immediately surround it. A apt synonym might be integration: the better integrated public space will be more successful, the less integrated public space will be less successful.

Integration is by far the most important of the four qualities, because even though the public space might physically answer to the needs of human activities, be comfortable and within itself provide amenities supporting sociability, if poorly integrated, that public space is far less likely to succeed.

We can correlate integration to a public space’s success by examining four examples, one in San Francisco and three in the Monterey Bay region, namely San Francisco’s Union Square, Watsonville City Plaza, Mission Plaza Santa Cruz, and San Lorenzo Park Santa Cruz.

aerial photograph Union Square San Francisco, California

aerial photograph Union Square San Francisco, California

Union Square, San Francisco
A great square reaches out into the surrounding neighborhood. Just as important as the edge of a square is the way that streets, sidewalks and ground floors of adjacent buildings lead into it. Like the tentacles of an octopus extending into the surrounding neighborhood, the influence of a good square (e.g. Union Square) starts at least a block away. Vehicles slow down, walking becomes more enjoyable, and pedestrian traffic increases. Elements within the square are visible from a distance, and the ground floor activity of buildings entices pedestrians to move toward the square. Union Square is extremely successful, precisely for this reason.

Watsonville Plaza Figure-Ground

Watsonville Plaza Figure-Ground

Watsonville City Plaza
Watsonville City Plaza is bounded by principal arterials to the south and west, these being Main Street and Lake Street respectively. Neighborhood streets Peck and Union bound it to the east and north. Watsonville Plaza is well-engaged with the city grid, and thus its “arms” (continuing with the Union Square analogy) reach well out beyond the bounds of the plaza itself. This integration contributes to giving the space presence to those local residents passing by on their daily commute, supports it’s recognition as a destination point, and contributes feelings of safety and security to patrons of the Plaza. As well might be expected, Watsonville Plaza is one of those places where local celebrations are held, social and economic exchanges occur, friends run into each other, cultures mix, and thus is an excellent example of a successful public space.

MissionParkMission Plaza Santa Cruz
This public space benefits from being situated atop Mission Hill and by it’s association with Holy Cross Church to the north and Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park to the west, making it a sure success as a destination point. It’s far less successful in its integration with the urban fabric. Although bounded by Mission Street, a major arterial to the south, all other roads which might tie the plaza into the surrounding neighborhood – Emmett, School Street, High Street, and Sylvar – are all truncated, and lead nowhere. This is due in part by the steep topography of the hill itself which falls off steeply to the north and east, and in part by the Cabrillo Highway Expressway – not designed to admit cross traffic – immediately west. Because of these constraints Mission Plaza is not well integrated with its context, and does not seem to realize its full potential as viable public space.

san lorenzo parkSan Lorenzo Park, Santa Cruz
San Lorenzo Park is bounded by Soquel Avenue to the south, the San Lorenzo River to the west, Santa Cruz County Governmental Center to the north, and Dakota Street to the east. Although Soquel Avenue is a principal arterial, it does not in fact physically engage the park being isolated by the vast culvert of Branciforte Creek which in this context effectively acts as a moat. To the west San Lorenzo River and its levees physically separate the park from minor arterial Front Street, further west. Finally, on the fourth side Dakota Street is a neighborhood street from which traffic is, as appropriate to a neighborhood street, discouraged.

Thus San Lorenzo Park is effectively isolated from its urban fabric on all four sides and is thus, from an urban planning perspective, exhibits poor connectivity. To be sure, San Lorenzo Park does have the physical facilities to support large public events, but on a daily basis because it is effectively isolated it is not a public space where patrons feel as safe and secure in their surroundings as they might, where folks feel as comfortable as they otherwise might, nor whose public image is as good as it might otherwise be were the space appropriately integrated within the fabric of the city.

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