We were presented with two timely developments this week. First, the Olympian’s Matt Batcheldor penned a piece about the latest effort to revitalize downtown.
A quick walk down the 300 block of Fourth Avenue, in front of the boarded-up location of the Northern, a former all-ages venue, reveals the situation the city wants to address.
About a dozen young people, some in their teens, some in their twenties or older, are gathered, meeting friends and asking passers-by for change. They’re careful to stand six feet away from the building’s edge; to do otherwise would violate the Pedestrian Interference Ordinance, a 2006 measure that bans blocking the sidewalk, sitting or lying within 6 feet of a building’s edge. There’s a blanket sitting right next to the curb, with two leashed dogs and a cardboard sign asking for change.
[The city’s downtown liaison, Ruthie] Snyder said business owners told her people don’t want to shop downtown “because they can’t walk down the street without being occasionally – not all the time – but occasionally, harassed.”
The next event was the groundswell of public testimony on the city’s busking ordinance which prohibits people from performing music in the streets and sidewalks without a permit.
In light of the testimony, the city council referred the matter to the Land Use Committee (LUC), chaired by Councilmember Steve Langer. The council instructed the LUC to consider a further referral to the planning commission. I eagerly await the opportunity to look at the issue with my fellow planning commissioners.
Batcheldor mentioned in his article that the city planned to hire the Project for Public Spaces. PPS has long been my favorite organization for creating community out of any built environment. I am interested in whether their experiences will translate to a downtown that does not make for such easy stabs as those that Batcheldor took in his lead: “Chronically drunk people urinating on the sidewalk. People sitting and lying on sidewalks next to the curb, blankets piled up and dogs in tow. Aggressive panhandlers.” (I work downtown as you probably know, and while this description may be accurate at times, it’s not the situation all of the time.)
How would our downtown need to change in order for it to become desirable? I suggest that there must be meaningful work (or at least a chance to acquire or create it), there must be access to amenities for daily needs and leisure activities, there must be sufficient physical and metaphysical space to live one’s life as one sees fit, hence the connection to the busking ordinance. The desirability of a city is completely in the eye of the beholder, and I submit that there are communities of people who like where they live and in number sufficient for them to be the object of study.
One of the tools that PPS uses to evaluate public spaces is found here. I imagine this will not be the only time we will see this chart. It should help spur our thinking, discussion, and might even result in some kind of epiphanal experiences. More has happened with less after all. Notice the assemblage of qualities that create a desirable space: 1.) Accessibility; 2.) Engagement in Activities (e.g. reasons for people to be there be it work or play); 3.) Comfort including safety; and, 4.) Sociability.
According to the Project for Public Spaces, the presence of these characteristics is more likely to make a space desirable. Here are their summaries that each factor requires:
Access & Linkages
You can judge the accessibility of a place by its connections to its surroundings, both visual and physical. A successful public space is easy to get to and get through; it is visible both from a distance and up close. The edges of a space are important as well: For instance, a row of shops along a street is more interesting and generally safer to walk by than a blank wall or empty lot. Accessible spaces have a high parking turnover and, ideally, are convenient to public transit.
Comfort & Image
Whether a space is comfortable and presents itself well – has a good image – is key to its success. Comfort includes perceptions about safety, cleanliness, and the availability of places to sit – the importance of giving people the choice to sit where they want is generally underestimated. Women in particular are good judges on comfort and image, because they tend to be more discriminating about the public spaces they use.
Uses & Activities
Activities are the basic building blocks of a place. Having something to do gives people a reason to come to a place – and return. When there is nothing to do, a space will be empty and that generally means that something is wrong.
This is a difficult quality for a place to achieve, but once attained it becomes an unmistakable feature. When people see friends, meet and greet their neighbors, and feel comfortable interacting with strangers, they tend to feel a stronger sense of place or attachment to their community – and to the place that fosters these types of social activities.
A fascinating analysis would consider how many desirable spaces does a community need for it to become desirable to maximum number of people living it in. But if we apply these factors to some of our existing public spaces, like the Percival Landing, the Artesian Well, our new city hall, Marathon Park, how many criteria would they satisfy? Do these factors actually assist us in evaluating urban amenities? Will it help us in resolving the problems addressed in the article? Why or why not?