Social Places | Private Spaces

Triangle Plaza by Design Workshop is a privately constructed and maintained plaza in a vacated street right of way in Downtown Denver. The space serves as critical pedestrian connection and much-needed open space. The ‘Swing Forest’ shown here is a dynamic urban folly situated within the plaza. / image: Jamie Fogle

Privately owned public plazas and pocket parks play a valuable role in the open space fabric of our rapidly densifying urban cores. They provide social eddy spaces in the relentless street walls of our densest cities while complementing the larger parks and open space systems that struggle to weave their way into urban areas as pressure from development often keeps cities from acquiring and building new facilities. These spaces should be celebrated, but they should also be scrutinized to understand how they perform in the larger social and environmental context. One city where this dialogue is becoming more critical is Denver, Colorado.

Downtown Denver is growing at a record pace, drastically changing the urban form and demanding new public resources including public open space, connectivity, and transportation. / image: Design Workshop

Downtown Denver is undergoing one of the largest building renaissances in its history and almost all new public space is associated with new or refurbished buildings and is privately funded and maintained. Rated the best place for business and careers by Forbes, Denver is experiencing a huge influx of new workers, visitors, and most importantly, residents who infuse the streets with life at all hours of the day and night. While this urban core’s resurgence is something to be celebrated, the roughly 200% growth rate in downtown is putting strain on the existing parks and public spaces.

According to The Outdoor Downtown, a master plan for the future of Denver’s parks and public spaces developed by Design Workshop for the Downtown Denver Partnership and the City and County of Denver Parks and Recreation Department, privately owned public spaces account for nearly 30% of all the publicly accessible outdoor spaces in downtown. The study anticipates the places that the city’s new residents, workers, and visitors will want to congregate—to people watch, to eat, to walk their dogs, to engage in urban pastimes, to exercise, and to work outside. Much of this demand is currently being met by the small urban spaces that are created at the bases of buildings or as part of larger private developments. With so much pressure on these places, it is essential that their designs address complex urban challenges and contribute positively to the livability of the urban environment.

This trend happening in Denver is just a microcosm of the valuable role privately owned public spaces are playing in cities across America, and represents a leadership opportunity for landscape architects to influence urban cores across the country.

Paley Park in Manhattan is one of the best known and most studied example of privately owned public spaces. image: ercwttmn via Flickr

The idea that privately owned public spaces can play a critical role in the social, economic, and environmental performance of a city is not new in dense urban cores like Manhattan, or in Denver for that matter. In the early- to mid-1900s, as places like Manhattan were building up, city planners developed policies to ensure that access to open space and sunlight were maintained at the street level. Planning tools like density bonuses and step-backs granted developers the ability to build higher if they provided public spaces at the base of new towers.

In the 1970s and 80s, however, William H. Whyte shed new light on what made these spaces successful—or not—highlighting both the successes and limitations of those early policies. It was found that spaces that engaged their surroundings and created comfortable human-focused environments with a diversity of programs and amenities received far greater use than many of the stark, flat voids that were more often being built. Many of Whyte’s ideas defined the future of design of interstitial urban spaces, along with the historical precedents such as the well-known Paley Park (1967) in Manhattan, which is considered one of the more successful of these typologies.

Another well-known example is Jacob Javits Plaza in New York, which has seen several transformations over the years including an original design by Richard Serra and a redesign by Martha Schwartz, both of which were considered largely unsuccessful as social urban spaces. Recently redesigned by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, this space now serves as an oasis in dense Lower Manhattan. The third iteration of this contentious space delivers a design more typical of a public garden with lush seasonal plantings, a rich paving, water, and a series of seating opportunities arranged in social configurations. Projects like this can be seen across the landscape of places like New York, Boston, San Francisco, and other dense urban centers. However, they must begin to serve urban cores of all sizes and geographies, and landscape architects must be the primary authors of this cause.

As more of these spaces are introduced into our cities, they must be conceived and designed as integral parts of the urban experience. And as more attention is put on density and urban infill projects, it is critical that these spaces are not overlooked. Many developers see the benefit of creating dynamic social spaces that increase property value, but the profession of landscape architecture must step up to the challenge to deliver high-performing projects. Landscape architects are ideally suited to help deliver creative, functional, and beautiful solutions to these sorts of projects.

City agencies must see these spaces as critical components of their parks and recreation systems and capitalize on partnerships to use privately owned public space to increase the livability of urban cores. These small urban punctuations should not be simply the front doors to buildings, but rather part of the larger collection of spaces that make up a city’s outdoor living room. Many of the projects that I have worked on recently have leveraged these spaces to provide a spectrum of benefits for the larger city, such as the management of on-site and surrounding stormwater and the introduction of new commerce opportunities. Most importantly these places serve as an extension of the office or home and increase overall social interaction.

As cities across the country transform to accommodate changing demographics and trends, it is important that they evaluate their public realm within the downtown core. The Outdoor Downtown Plan for Denver is a precedent for how a city can start to include privately owned public spaces within an analysis of all available public realm to give a clearer picture of the spatial aspects of urban living. This will allow for a more precise gap analysis in determining critical needs of a downtown public environment.

We all know that many cities are strapped for cash and are struggling to keep up with the demand for safe and comfortable park and plaza spaces. Privately owned spaces can help fill these voids. Of concern though, is the prospect of successful private spaces changing ownership and purpose. In some cities, fears of these spaces falling victim to redevelopment or removal are warranted because there is no regulatory framework for protecting these assets. Plans such as the Outdoor Downtown Plan can be the first step in developing these policies, and organizations such as the Downtown Denver Partnership and other Business Improvement Districts or Downtown Associations can serve as critical facilitators of Public Private Partnerships that can ensure that these spaces remain a part of the urban fabric. However, with this trend on the rise, landscape architecture must still serve as a constant champion for publicly accessible spaces regardless of their ownership. It is our job to ensure these spaces become lasting legacies, and not inhabitable voids, in our urban form.

by Joshua Brooks, PLA, ASLA. Joshua Brooks is an Associate at Design Workshop’s Denver office and a Masters in City Planning Candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Design Workshop is an urban design, planning, and landscape architecture firm that specializes in complex design problems that balance environmental sustainability with economic and community vitality. Joshua’s recent work includes privately owned publicly accessible spaces in Denver and Phoenix. His research focus is on spatial analysis of urban form and its impact on mental and physical health.

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