Public spaces make our cities work

By C.J. Barbre

"It's hard to create a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished."

- William H. Whyte

Writer/Sociologist

In the April 13 Sun-Gazette, the City of Lindsay was reported to be looking at creating "great public spaces" as part of its downtown renovation. They had hired PPS (Project for Public Spaces) to give two workshops illustrating how this has been accomplished in other cities, and showing how it could be done in Lindsay. PPS is a non-profit based in New York. They travel the globe collecting and dispensing information about workable public spaces. They presently count 45 communities as clients in the U.S.

The following week the city called a special study session with city council members to go over what they had learned and begin mapping out a plan to implement creating great public spaces in Lindsay.

"As you know, we have several projects [in the planning stages] and close to $4.5 million coming in for infrastructure," City Manager Scot Townsend told the council, "then close to $8 million for the [new] library and Wellness Center." In round numbers, Townsend said the city will be getting almost $12 million in the next four years for community improvements.

"PPS didn't look at things from an architectural or engineering standard," Townsend continued. "They taught truths we already [instinctively] knew." PPS had stressed that the professionals lose the common sense approach and frequently over design and eliminate possible great public spaces in the process. They clearly illustrated this with some of today's most prized and sought after architecture such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, by Frank Gehry, at Bilbao, Spain. Although it is a striking building, it is difficult to get to and in and out of and it does not encourage people hanging around, like say, the Piazza di Spagna, or the Spanish Steps, by Alessandro Specchi, in Rome, Italy.

"We need to look at this from the community perspective. Instead of telling engineers to design the downtown, we say we want it to look like this. Then they are a resource," Townsend said. But then he confessed he wasn't exactly sure of how to proceed and asked for the council's input. They seemed on equally unsure footing.

A review

Fred Kent, president of PPS, had said at the workshops that creating parks around schools and libraries was "ingenious." He said, "A good place is a lot more than just an institution. Just a stand-alone library is not integrated enough to be a good place." In fact EBM Design was already reworking plans for the new Lindsay Library to probably have a park area in front instead of in a central courtyard.

Needed change

Kent said the mayor of Bogota created 1,200 parks. "Parks give integrity and make citizens feel important, especially in barrios. They don't mind the increase in their water bills," Kent continued.

He took up the topic of transportation and livable communities. "Lindsay is barely evident when you go by on Highway 65, one of the barest slices I have ever seen and the activities on the road ar e like all the others. They have nothing to do with the community. Then you come back and find these little jewels." One of his little jewels was finding a Mexican restaurant that served fresh squeezed orange juice.

Needed changes

"The road is working against you," Fred said about Highway 65. "We're totally at odds with traffic engineers. They solve traffic problems. They don't build communities." By-passes like Highway 65 have killed many a small community and relocated the majority of the business districts of a lot of larger cities. "People want successful, thriving places that are about their community. The success of this town would be multiplied 10-fold if people had some sense of what this wonderful community is all about," Kent said.

Public markets and local economies

The whole world is all about markets, Kent said, and he had the slides to prove it - except the white anglo saxon world. In fact PPS gives a two day workshop on "How to Create Successful Markets"

The city was so impressed that it was decided to send a contingent back to New York City where PPS is based, to take this workshop next month. According to their website at www.pps.org, "Nowhere is the vibrancy of public markets more apparent than in New York - a city rich in cultures, food, festivals, music and street life. This workshop puts us in the heart of the action. We'll visit some of the city's most famous markets, in addition to smaller, though equally vital, neighborhood markets. We'll also visit Union Square - a former hangout for junkies - now home to the city's best known open-air farmers market, which draws more than 100,000 shoppers on a hot summer's day."

Obviously, markets give people a reason to go to a place, which can be attested to around the Valley by the number of flea markets or "swap meets" out in the middle of nowhere, far from city centers.

"What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people," was one of Kent's observations. He said it is possible to build great cities through local markets. "I think this could be great for you," he said about Lindsay. He said big box stores drain the whole economy of local entrepreneurs whereas open air markets "offer entertainment, freshness, convenience, economy, and bring people together."

At the April 19 study session, the council discussed a number of possible ways to proceed. They decided to walk the downtown just prior to the next study session and "throw out ideas in an open-ended brain storm." They scheduled three more workshops on consecutive Tuesdays including April 26, May 3 and 10, in preparation for the New York junket.

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