Programming, Place and Permeability 

So what makes a good urban public space, the outdoor “living room” we all are rediscovering?

Now that “walkable neighborhood” has become a term on everyone’s radar, outdoor community spaces are a hot topic again.  Developments based on the New Urbanism concept are springing up (aka “Lifestyle Centers”) that include this feature, while older urban neighborhoods that have always had community spaces are revitalizing their “living rooms”.  Some have been very successful, while others have become little more than underutilized ornamental plazas.

The degree of success of these spaces has a lot to do with what I call the three P’s: Place, Programming and Permeability.

Place refers to the physical features that define a space and give it personality.  Older neighborhoods have history on their side here, often showcasing features and surrounding structures that have decades of stories to tell.  These older areas often serve as the template of place for new neighborhoods with an easily accessible and identifiable community space.  Time-tested methods of providing a mixed-use boundary-defining street wall with residential and commercial components augment the function and enjoyment of the “living room” while keeping it active around the clock.  An all commercial or solely residential perimeter tends to be devoid of life at some hours of the day and is a strategy best avoided.

Programming is the most active of the three components, the easiest to change, and the most obvious to the public. Good programming can provide an intensity of interest to the public that can even overcome deficiencies with the other two components.  Here in Cincinnati, already strong outdoor spaces like Fountain Square and Washington Park see even more utilization simply because there is always something going on.  Concerts, art fairs, ethnic or religious festivals, children’s workshops and games, all serve to keep the public engaged.

Permeability is a more nuanced feature often overlooked.  Most successful urban squares, parks, plazas and the like encourage inflow and outflow of people to the surrounding neighborhood at small, walkable intervals, even if the central functions of the space have distinct control points.  The boundary is very porous, full of cross streets and entrances, allowing the discovery of secondary amenities like restaurants and shopping.  Private residences bordering the area are privileged by their proximity to the space, a major selling point.

Creating a rhythm of things to do, or at least to see (via shop windows and the like) coaxes passers-by to explore the space within.   The narrow lot designs of older neighborhoods achieve this naturally, as each building is different than its neighbor, with possibly a different function.  Newer developments with block long structures often have multiple storefronts within the block to generate the interest required.  The thing to avoid here is designing a “dead zone” by having one large structure with a single purpose (and just as many entrances) dominating a large stretch of the scene in the typical suburban, meant to be experienced from a car, mindset.

There are other details that can help to make or break one of these “living rooms”.  Even the very successful ones may be a little weak in one of the areas above, but these three “P'” principles always have a hand in creating the public spaces that really resonate with us and help our neighborhoods to thrive.

-Robert Haldi