Greening of Main: A failure in the making?

March 16, 2007 27 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Well in this case, let's substitute the asphalt with a $700,000 patch of grass. Today we'll introduce 10 things needed to create a successful urban public space and illustrate why the pocket park being constructed as a part of the Greening of Main project is destined for failure.

1. Image and Identity

Historically, squares were the center of communities, and they traditionally helped shape the identity of entire cities.  Sometimes a fountain was used to give the square a strong image:  Think of the majestic Trevi Fountain in Rome or the Swann Fountain in Philadelphia's Logan Circle.  The image of many squares were closely tied to the great civic buildings located nearby, such as cathedrals, city halls, or libraries. Today, creating a square that becomes the most significant place in a city--that gives identity to whole communities--is a huge challenge, but meeting this challenge is absolutely necessary if great civic squares are to return.

Outside of being an irregular shaped $700,000 dollar patch of grass in a sea of surface parking lots, what is the intended image and identity of our latest pocket park?


2. Attractions and Destinations

Any great square has a variety of smaller "places" within it to appeal to various people.  These can include outdoor cafés, fountains, sculpture, or a bandshell for performances. These attractions don't need to be big to make the square a success.  In fact, some of the best civic squares have numerous small attractions such as a vendor cart or playground that, when put together, draw people throughout the day. Project for Public Spaces often uses the idea of "');">The Power of Ten" to set goals for destinations within a square.  Creating ten good places, each with ten things to do, offers a full program for a successful square.

Detroit's Campus Martius Park is the perfect example of a recently built urban recreational space designed to contain a wide variety of uses within it's grounds.  Having a diverse collection of uses, means a diverse segment of the local population will visit the grounds on a regular, around the clock basis.  As you can see in the graphic above, you'll need more than freshly laid sod to attract the masses.


3. Amenities

A square should feature amenities that make it comfortable for people to use.  A bench or waste receptacle in just the right location can make a big difference in how people choose to use a place.  Lighting can strengthen a square's identity while highlighting specific activities, entrances, or pathways.  Public art can be a great magnet for children of all ages to come together.  Whether temporary or permanent, a good amenity will help establish a convivial setting for social interaction.

Campus Martius Park's amenities include fountains, which have become popular with parents and children visiting revitalizing downtown Detroit.


4. Flexible Design

The use of a square changes during the course of the day, week, and year.  To respond to these natural fluctuations, flexibility needs to be built in.  Instead of a permanent stage, for example, a retractable or temporary stage could be used. Likewise, it is important to have on-site storage for movable chairs, tables, umbrellas, and games so they can be used at a moment's notice.

Campus Martius' design includes a hardscape area that serves as a popular lunch spot during the work week for downtown office workers.  During special events, this area can easily be configured to host an array of festivals and outdoor markets.


5. Seasonal Strategy

A successful square can't flourish with just one design or management strategy. Great squares such as Bryant Park, the plazas of Rockefeller Center, and Detroit's new Campus Martius change with the seasons.  Skating rinks, outdoor cafés, markets, horticulture displays, art and sculpture help adapt our use of the space from one season to the next.

Campus Martius seasonal strategy includes transforming the public lawn into a public ice skating rink, during the winter.  In the summer months, free movies are shown on the public lawn.


6. Access

To be successful, a square needs to be easy to get to.  The best squares are always easily accessible by foot:  Surrounding streets are narrow; crosswalks are well marked; lights are timed for pedestrians, not vehicles; traffic moves slowly; and transit stops are located nearby.  A square surrounded by lanes of fast-moving traffic will be cut off from pedestrians and deprived of its most essential element: people.

Houston, we have a problem.  Our latest pocket park is cut off from the pedestrian friendly areas of the core by our most traveled north-south routes... Main & Ocean Streets.  If that's not bad enough, the surrounding blocks consist of surface parking lots, parking garages, and the Salvation Army.  Combine these negative pedestrian foot traffic generators together and you're well on the path to falling faster than Winn-Dixie stock. 


7. The Inner Square & the Outer Square

Visionary park planner Frederick Law Olmsted's idea of the "inner park" and the "outer park" is just as relevant today as it was over 100 years ago.  The streets and sidewalks around a square greatly affect its accessibility and use, as do the buildings that surround it.  Imagine a square fronted on each side by 15-foot blank walls -- that is the worst-case scenario for the outer square.  Then imagine that same square situated next to a public library: the library doors open right onto the square; people sit outside and read on the steps; maybe the children's reading room has an outdoor space right on the square, or even a bookstore and cafe. An active, welcoming outer square is essential to the well-being of the inner square.

On first look, one would say this site is ideal for a park because it's adjacent to the public library.  However, once you realize the library actually faces Hemming Plaza (only one block away), contains it's own courtyard for outdoor reading, and is separated from the structure by a freeway with lights and the whole "next to the library" concept goes up in flames.

Nevertheless, it does sit on the same block as the Salvation Army.  Does it take a rocket scientist to figure out where a majority of the visitors will come from?


8. Reaching Out Like an Octopus

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 (such as Union Square in New York) 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.

The pocket park may not reach out like an Octopus, but it sure does roll up like a Rollie Pollie.  As shown in this image, there will be ZERO interaction between this park and it's neighbors.  In the suburbs you can get away with this poor design element, but in the urban core, it has disaster written all over it.


9. The Central Role of Management

The best places are ones that people return to time and time again.  The only way to achieve this is through a management plan that understands and promotes ways of keeping the square safe and lively.  For example, a good manager understands existing and potential users and gears events to both types of people.  Good managers become so familiar with the patterns of how people use the park that waste receptacles get emptied at just the right time and refreshment stands are open when people most want them.  Good managers create a feeling of comfort and safety in a square, fixing and maintaining it so that people feel assured that someone is in charge.

Hopefully things will turn out different, but our city's history with properly maintaining urban park space is nothing to brag about.  In fact, its outright deplorable.  If you need proof, check out the parks lining Main Street one block north of State Street, or the riverwalk in front of the Hyatt.


10. Diverse Funding Sources

A well-managed square is generally beyond the scope of the average city parks or public works department, which is why partnerships have been established to operate most of the best squares in the United States.  These partnerships seek to supplement what the city can provide with funding from diverse sources, including--but not limited to--rent from cafés, markets, or other small commercial uses on the site; taxes on adjacent properties; film shoots; and benefit fundraisers.

Campus Martius' grounds include a small Au Bon Pain Cafe (similar to Eistein's Bagels/Atlanta Bread Co.).  This structure is significant because it not only attracts a variety of residents on an around the clock basis, seven days a week, it also brings revenue into the city to help maintain the public park.


If you're familiar with the Metro Jacksonville Group by now, you know we don't chastise without offering proven solutions incorporated in other places.

If you must turn every square inch of the urban core into a pocket park to fulfill your suburban desires, then at least make sure to give visitors a viable reason to visit the space on a routine basis.  An example of a pocket park with a purpose is Boston's Holocaust Memorial, shown above.  The design, layout, and purpose (it tells a story as you walk through) has made it a highly visited attraction on its own right.



At a recent Metro Jacksonville meeting, city representatives laid out their argument that building more parks is the way to bring ultimate vibrancy to the core.  Basically, if you build it, they will come.  Well, we're still waiting for "them" to come at the corner of Bay & Broad and the corner of Forsyth & Newnan.

In closing, we'll suggest a tried and true alternative to the pocket park theory... Work on your urban zoning ordinances and issue an RFP to the private sector.  The core needs a drastic population density increase, not more greenspace.  This is especially true when we can't maintain the public spaces we already have.  Instead of pulverizing the remains of downtown, find a way to build dense development on those surface lots and use the sidewalks paralleling Main to connect the urban district to the parks lining Hogan's Creek and the Riverwalk.

As always, do you need an example?  Take a look at Boston's Boylston Street.


Main Street Workforce Housing Renderings 

With Main's traffic count and it directly connecting Springfield and Hogan's Creek with the St. Johns River, this is what Main Street should resemble.  Not a scene from Macclenny.

For more information on urban park planning visit: