10 Great American Public Spaces
It’s a safe bet that when you walk into Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, you’ll be awed by its grand proportions and its hive-like activity. You’ll want both to speed up to join the busy fray and to find a perch to observe it. Under its 96-foot-tall vaulted ceilings are shops and architecture that invite you to linger unless, of course, your train is calling.
Places like Union Station exude a palpable energy, while others possess a more subtle magic. Whatever the quality that makes for a magical public space, everybody wants it—every urban renewal committee, every city planner, every commercial developer who sits down to design a shopping mall. And they also want the recognition of the American Planning Association, which just announced the best of the best in its list of 10 Great Public Spaces.
America boasts tons of amazing spots, of course, so what was the APA looking for?The 10 winners are used by everyone—visitors and residents alike—and strongly reflect (or even in some way, define) the distinctiveness of their surrounding community. It’s a free-ranging jumble of sites—some focused on commerce, others on recreation; some are refuges from urban density, while others provide opportunities to gather the community. Says the APA’s site, “They are places where people want to be.”
It’s this last point that makes them especially attractive to travelers. Winners were open-air markets, urban parks, plazas, beaches, railroad stations, and waterfront areas—indeed, all places travelers want to experience.
Take Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon. Known as “Portland’s Living Room,” it happily plays host to many concerts, rallies, speeches, and art installations. Of course, that was the plan when it was designed in 1984; there’s easy access from all surrounding streets, large spaces for gathering, and smaller areas to break away from the crowds.
The West Side Market in Cleveland, Ohio, also received a nod from the APA. Almost 100 years old, the market offers meat, produce, pastry, and seafood vendors selling their products to shoppers, diners, and restaurant kitchens under a herringbone-brick vaulted ceiling. It’s an important gathering place for city residents, and a can’t-miss spot for visitors.
From New York City to Charleston and Santa Monica to Prescott, Arizona, every corner of America has something to brag about. So go for a stroll through the American Planning Association’s 2008 list of 10 great public spaces.
Mellon Square, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
What the APA Says: “Mellon Square creates a definable space that improves the plan, design, and functionality of Pittsburgh’s central business district.”
Why They’re Right: Created in 1955 to keep post-war businesses from relocating, Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square not only accomplished that, but continues to attract city dwellers and tourists with live concerts and performances. While its elevation above street level (it’s built above an underground parking garage) hushes traffic noise and visual clutter, the low profile of the square’s architectural landscape—granite plank Modernist benches, sculpturally-trimmed boxwoods, and airy abstract sculpture—affords soaring views of the surrounding city.
Church Street Marketplace, Burlington, VT
What the APA Says: It’s a winner “not only for the historic buildings, thriving retail trade, and carefully maintained streets and walkways,” but also because of its “strong community support.”
Why They’re Right: While the advent of the indoor shopping mall in the 1970’s meant the death of most pedestrian malls, this one—established in 1981—still buzzes with activity. Burlington’s anti-establishment politics and its passionate embrace of cold weather contribute to the success of the four-block-long, brick-paved mall of Victorian, Art Deco, and modern buildings. Church Street Marketplace draws crowds year-round not only for the shops and restaurants, but also through cultural programming, street performers, festivals, art exhibits, concerts, and seasonal celebrations.
Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland, OR
What the APA Says: It won for “its role as the city’s central downtown meeting place, its integration with transit, and the precedent it set for other revitalization projects in Portland.”
Why They’re Right: “Keep Portland Weird” read bumper stickers around town. Spend any time in Pioneer Courthouse Square and you’ll find that it’s ground zero for the alternative lifestyle embraced by the city. The square, known as “Portland’s Living Room,” hosts organized concerts, anti-war rallies, all-city sleepovers, art installations, local political speeches, an annual Tuba Christmas gathering of 200 tuba and euphonium players, as well as frequent impromptu performance art. The square’s current design, completed in 1984, features easy access from all surrounding streets, small welcoming areas of activity and leisure, as well as grander, more public spaces where locals come to be seen, as well as to watch the “weird” unfold.
Santa Monica Beach, Santa Monica, CA
What the APA Says: “The designation stems from the beach’s commitment to accessibility, environmental stewardship and historic preservation, and maintaining its distinctive character.”
Why They’re Right: Perhaps the most unusual designee in this year’s 10 Best Public Spaces, this 3.5-mile stretch of public beach just west of Los Angeles draws millions of people annually to watch sunsets, stroll along the beachfront paths, sunbathe, people-watch, listen to musicians, surf, or ride the 1920’s carousel on Santa Monica Pier. Iconic images abound along the strand, which is recognized as the birthplace of beach culture: stilt-borne lifeguard stations, bikini-clad rollerbladers at Venice Beach, sun-bleached surfers at Malibu, body builders at Muscle Beach, leggy palm trees along Ocean Avenue, and those remarkable and unaffected sunsets over the Pacific.
Union Station, Washington, D.C.
What the APA Says: It was named for its “vibrant social and welcoming atmosphere, its transportation options, its historic position in the L’Enfant Plan for Washington, and its sustained civic support and revitalization after periods of decline.”
Why They’re Right: In a city known for grand edifices and soaring public spaces, Washington’s Union Station holds its own. The terminal’s classical façade—three monumental arches with alternating columns and a pediment soaring 600 feet high—faces the Capitol building five blocks away, providing a dramatic entrance into the heart of the city. The scale of the main waiting room, with 96-foot-high vaulted and coffered ceilings, is somewhat softened by the noise and motion of the 20 million people who pass through annually. Not only is Union Station a transportation hub for Amtrak, Washington D.C.’s Metro and transit buses, and suburban train lines, but it’s also a destination for restaurants, music, and shopping, and its easy walking access from the surrounding neighborhoods ensure that it serves more than just train passengers.
Waterfront Park, Charleston, SC
What the APA Says: It won for its “welcoming design and public accessibility, unique design integrating the park’s two basic elements, land and water, and its role in the successful revitalization of downtown Charleston.”
Why They’re Right: Though a Great Lawn invites group activity, Waterfront Park was intended to remind Charleston of its place in the natural world—its proximity to the Copper River and the harbor, and the borderline between civilization and the wild. Pathways meander along the river; a grand avenue of trees passes smaller, more intimate garden spaces; walkways intersect with quiet piers jutting over the water; and then, as the path gets farther from the city streets, it runs alongside salt marshes. Wading birds, porpoises, and working boats dominate the view on the water, but a slight turn brings you back to Charleston’s charming architecture and bustle.
Waterplace Park, Providence, RI
What the APA Says: It won because of “the careful planning; unprecedented, strong collaboration; and unwavering commitment to transform the ’world’s largest bridge’ into a network of attractive and inviting parks and walkways.”
Why They’re Right: When Providence moved its railroad tracks underground, the ugly and off-putting jumble of railroad bridges at the junction of the Moshassuck, Woonasquatucket, and Providence rivers became ripe for re-imagining. That process took 10 years and required the relocation of rivers, but the result—a peaceful stretch of water, river walks, plazas, and bridges—has become a focal point in the city’s arts renaissance. Theater and musical performances take place both on the water’s edge and, in the case of the annual Waterfire music festival, on torch-lit water beneath the walkways and bridges. The four-acre park has transformed a blighted and inaccessible area of downtown Providence into a thriving cultural, commercial, and residential community.
West Side Market, Cleveland, OH
What the APA Says: It won for “its functionality as a neighborhood gathering place and fresh food market; its engaging atmosphere; and its role as an anchor in the community, stimulating nearby commercial and residential activity.”
Why They’re Right: Cleveland shines brightly on the map of new American food destinations. The once-quiet city boasts star chefs, up-and-coming restaurants, and innovative cuisines informed by the cooking traditions of the Cleveland immigrants. Much of that local identity can be traced to the almost 100-year-old West Side Market, a market complex that includes brightly lit indoor food stalls as well as an outdoor annex of vegetable stalls. Decorative ceramic corbels depicting vegetables and animals sit atop columns that support a herringbone-brick vaulted ceiling and a distinctive clock tower. An anchor to a thriving downtown neighborhood, the West Side Market serves household shoppers, diners, as well as the kitchens of the surrounding ethnic restaurants.
Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza, Prescott, AZ
What the APA Says: It “exemplifies how citizen support, planning and design, and grounds management and maintenance can create a treasured urban space that is the center—both geographically and spiritually—of the community.”
Why They’re Right: As a 1900 fire engulfed the saloons and brothels of Prescott (Arizona’s Whisky Row), patrons carried their bottles, glasses, and the monumental 24-foot-long oak bar out of the Palace Saloon and set it across the street in Yavapai County Courthouse Plaza to create a makeshift bar. That was not the first spirited event to take place in Courthouse Plaza’s history, nor was it the last. Prescott holds almost all community events—craft fairs, concerts, political speeches, art exhibits, antique shows, and seasonal celebrations—at Courthouse Plaza, just as it has since city planners mapped the square in 1864. The 4.1-acre square, with the 1916 granite courthouse at its center, anchors the town’s still-lively historic district of shops, cafes, bookstores, and art galleries.
Central Park, New York City
What the APA Says: “An exemplary public space that successfully maintains a large naturalistic landscape in the midst of one of the densest cities in the country, Central Park is arguably the most emulated park in the country.”
Why They’re Right: At least once, everyone should stand in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow on a summer evening. That’s when the setting sun stretches shadows across the lush lawn and dapples the surrounding green trees, and distant music drifts up the sloping path from the carousel. And those rude and short-tempered New Yorkers?You’ll see them strolling the paths and greens, savoring the last light. Central Park, 843 acres of precious parkland in the heart of a space-challenged city, offers succor in forms both civilized and untamed: open fields, craggy outcroppings, playgrounds, ponds, performance spaces, skating rinks, gardens, and majestic tree-lined promenades.