Lighter Quicker Cheaper


The University City District and Project for Public Spaces hosted a discussion yesterday at the International House at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss The Porch at 30th Street Station and other public spaces in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The lecture was called “Lighter Quicker Cheaper,” which is a new way of thinking about how to create public space.

The Porch

The Porch at 30th Street Station. From universitycity.org.

Prima Gupta, director of planning and economic development at UCD, gave the first presentation. She showed an aerial view of University City and said that the impact of urban renewal on the area was apparent; this isn’t the fine grain found in Center City. “There are a lot of harsh pedestrian landscapes,” she said, emphasized by the fact that she got hit by a car her first week at UCD.

The core of University City is mostly a large bridge structure over the various railroad tracks that go under 30th Street Station. The Porch was squeezed into a PennDOT project to update this bridge structure. Originally, it was just going to be a widened sidewalk.

This area has some of the highest pedestrian counts in the city, and will be surrounded by new development as the Cira Center and Drexel University continue to expand.

Drexel’s massive plans for expansion. From hiddencityphila.org.

Gupta showed images of Greeley Square Park in New York, calling it her “fantasy image.” She noted it for its great horticulture, its civilized barrier from the street, and its food kiosks.

Greeley Square Park. From designtrust.blogspot.com.

The Porch today is extremely busy, especially at lunch time. Most of its resources are dedicated to maintenance, with three changes of plantings a year. “It’s still such a concrete space, and it needs the horticulture to brighten it up,” said Gupta. In addition, a robust programming calendar means that there are frequent events there to attract more people, ranging from music to farmers’ markets to much more.

The Porch is also a laboratory for researching how people use public space. UCD is constantly performing behavior mapping on the site, seeing how people of different, genders, ages, or groups use the space. For instance, they found that use is more intense on the west side of the Porch, where most of the pedestrian traffic is. What this tells them is that they need a significant intervention at the east end, to attract more users. They divided the space based on the areas between the large planters into rooms, and found that different rooms are used for eating, reading, or sitting with luggage. They have also tracked people’s desire lines through the site, and even administered surveys to find what people like about the site or what they think is lacking.

Gupta talked about other projects the UCD is working on. They successfully built a number of parklets, small sitting areas taking up parking spots, and will be bringing them back in the future. They are also working on new pedestrian plazas at 48th and Baltimore and 42nd and Woodland.

Parklet at 43rd and Baltimore. From phillymotu.wordpress.com.

Lighter Quicker Cheaper

Ethan Kent from the Project for Public Spaces took over, introducing what they do and asking, why don’t we have better public spaces today?

As an example, Kent mentioned PPS’s work with Rockefeller Center. The Center initially came to PPS asking how they could keep their bushes safe from people. PPS convinced them that public spaces should invite people, rather than being protected from them. They convinced the Center to put in benches and a giant flower puppy.

Rockefeller Center after installing PPS’s benches. From doubleyooteeeff.wordpress.com.

According to Kent, there are a few things that make a good place: It needs to be comfortable and have an image; it needs a variety of uses and activities; it needs to be sociable; and it needs access and linkages to the outside. Places like this have a number of benefits: they nurture and define community identity; build and support the local economy; create improved accessibility; promote a sense of comfort; draw a diverse population; and foster frequent and meaningful contact.

Kent presented a concept used by PPS known as the Power of 10. This concept states that a city should have at least 10 well defined districts; within those districts, there should be at least 10 successful public spaces; and within those public spaces there should be at least 10 different activities available. The clustering of these activities creates great public space, which strengthens the district and then the city.

Kent listed a number of definitions for what placemaking is, including “Placemaking is turning a neighborhood, town or city from a place you can’t wait to get through to one you never want to leave.” He gave Placemaking Chicago as an example of the work that PPS does to help cities make better places. He argued that a lot of the problem with creating good places is the process most cities follow. He said that, instead of a project/discipline driven approach, good places come from a place/community driven approach. Instead of trying to reach the end of a project, we need to see placemaking as an iterative process, where we make small changes over time to improve a site.

Kent showed how PPS uses the place game to determine what works for a place and what it needs. He listed a number of examples, including the pedestrianizing of Times Square, to demonstrate how this works. He concluded by saying that we need to reorient local government around placemakers.

Response

Andrew Stober of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities responded to the presentations by saying that placemaking in neighborhoods is becoming more important as more people work at home. “It’s no longer about a center city being urbanized at mid day … our neighborhoods are places of work,” he said, because working at home is less about working in one’s house and more about working at the park or the local coffee house.

He said that more empty nesters are coming into cities and young families are staying longer, and the changing relationship with the car in America necessitates a new look at how we make our public spaces. He pointed out that these projects are often being implemented by transportation departments and not planning or parks departments.

Maintenance is particularly important, Stober notes, because poorly maintained parks can become home to undesirable elements of society. Some city neighborhoods are afraid to even create new parks because of past issues. The retail mix also needs to be right to attract people.

Pilot projects are also very important to test concepts, according to Stober. “Parklets are a way of letting people try some change,” he said. He emphasized, however, that organizations like the UCD don’t exist everywhere in the city to facilitate these sort of projects.

He also emphasized that 30th Street Station is a natural place to become a hub in a future bikeshare network. Smartphone apps and similar programs can also help people interact with their surroundings in the future.

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About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

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