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Why does the public not use public spaces?


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#1 Walter Moar

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Posted 23 October 2006 - 10:06 AM

This isn't entirely a core issue, but it seems to be more of an issue within the core areas of cities.

Why is it that we build "public spaces" into developments, but they are rarely used? Is it a cultural thing? For an example, why do we pick up Noodle Box and eat it at home, rather than across the street in Centennial Square? The obvious answer for Centennial Square is that due to the type of people hanging out there, others don't feel comfortable there (fair enough). For the example of Centennial Square, is it the design that makes it a failure, or is it cultural habit?

Centennial Square is just one example, there are many others around town that are vacant the vast majority of the time. It seems that each new development has land dedicated to "public space", but that space is under-used by the public.

In the interest of "vibrancy", what can be done to get people to use these spaces?

#2 Holden West

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Posted 23 October 2006 - 10:14 AM

Public spaces generally have to be small and feel intimate in order to be welcoming. They should be scaled to the size of the population. Large squares like in Venice are only welcoming because of the huge amounts of tourists that flock there.

Our observations suggest strongly that open places intended as public squares should be very small. As a general rule, we have found that they work best when they have a diameter of about 60 feet - at this diameter people feel comfortable there. When the diameter gets above 70 feet, the squares begin to seem deserted and unpleasant.


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#3 Baro

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Posted 23 October 2006 - 10:17 AM

The myth that all public space is good is thrashed nicely in the book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities"

it's a must read before you even THINK about thinking about urban issues.

But essentially people like to hang out where other people are and it's interesting. If a public square or area doesn't have a lot of people and fun stuff constantly going on, people won't go there.

Squares in europe are busy because they are generally lined with shops, they are shopping areas. The square is designed to accomadate the people that the shops and things draw, which end up drawing more people.

But if you just build a square, no one will come just because it's a square. They need a technical/economic reason to be there FIRST, then the social reason will follow.

It's like building a road. You can make a busy highway by just building a highway and expecting it to fill up with cars. Unless the highway goes somewhere where people want to go, no one will use it. We don't build highways or roads that won't serve anyone, yet we constantly build parks, squares, "greenspace" that arn't needed and go on not to be used. Unused public spaces can become the most dangerous spots in cities.

Look at Bastion square vrs Centenial. One is very busy and lively and a nice place to be, the other is a such a sealed off deadzone, it's become a nice private bathroom for street people. The difference of course is that one is full of shops and restaurants, the other has nothing but ugly 60's walls.
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#4 Number Six

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Posted 23 October 2006 - 11:47 AM

Another great reference is "A Pattern Language" by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein (Oxford University Press, 1977). It presents a language for building and planning based on 253 inter-connected "patterns".

Pattern 61 is "Small Public Squares" and you'll find a summary of it here (this is a link to the main index):

http://downlode.org/...erns/index.html

The book provides a lot more detail and is worth the $70 price tag if you love understanding why some buildings / homes / towns work and others don't. Munro's and Chapters usually always have one copy in stock.

#5 VicHockeyFan

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Posted 23 October 2006 - 12:30 PM

When the market is happening in Bastion Square, the place rocks. Other times, not so much.
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#6 Urbalist

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Posted 23 October 2006 - 12:35 PM

Historically, there are two main reasons that the public realm is not used extensively by citizens of this City. Culture and climate.

Culturally, because we prize private space much more than public. Most people have balconies, decks, yards and gardens, and will use those instead of a public space. As a result, most of our public places are poorly created and rarely used. And think of all the beautiful places to which you've travelled. Victoria scores very, very low on people watching, which in many places around the world is the prime reason for being in a public place; to see and to be seen. Think of the role that coffee shops have played in their resurgence in the decade or so as 'pubic' places.

Climatically because we are in a cool, Pacific climate; most nights throughout the year are uncomfortable for sitting or standing outside, except when bundled up. Even in the summer, nights are nippy. Vancouver has many more calm/balmy nights in a year, and that draws people outside. There is another issue related to Vancouver and that is demographics; there are more younger adults that will spend time in public places.

I notice these two aspects most dramatically on those rare nights when it is calm and balmy, and everyone wants to be outside of their suite or home. And outside their car. People stroll, people stop, people meet, people talk. Kids play on the streets. It feels like .. somewhere else.

So with public spaces in this City - particularly those without a nearby commercial component - it's somewhat of a 'build it but they won't come often.' But that will change eventually, and it's important that we plan and provide these spaces, as the private realm is built up around them.

#7 Doc Sage

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Posted 23 October 2006 - 01:06 PM

As I read the above posts a question comes to mind. Something as to attract the general public to public spaces so...why don't we?

Why is the Sunday morning market on Government Street when it could be at Centenial Square. Why not (more) food kiosts to draw hungry crowds? Buskers? Art shows? Crafts demonstrations?

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#8 G-Man

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Posted 23 October 2006 - 02:00 PM

I totally agree with you. Especially the food kiosks. The city, however, only allows something like 7 kiosks operate within the downtown. And the majority of these are hot dog stands on weekend nights.

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#9 Rob Randall

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Posted 23 October 2006 - 02:21 PM

My theory about public space is that people like to perch. They prefer places that have different levels to choose from. Steps are favourite public spaces, even if they were not originally intended for that use. When "accidental" spaces are more popular than actual spaces designed for public use, you know there's a problem. Here are some of my favourite public spaces:

The steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery are popular for meeting people, picnicking, and demonstrations:



The steps of the Vancouver Public Library attract a constant flow of people:



You can't go to Rome without wanting to linger at the Spanish Steps:




The beautiful Campo in Siena, Italy is used anually for horse racing but it's too large to be comfortable as a public space.



Even the ancient Romans knew how to make an intimate public space:



I hope "The Well" proposal has good public space. Because there is a steep slope to the site it would benefit from this type of space.

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#10 Mike K.

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Posted 23 October 2006 - 03:45 PM

Ok ok, a fire alarm evacuation does not translate into good use of a public space! ;)


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#11 Holden West

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Posted 23 October 2006 - 03:51 PM

^I thought that looked busier than usual. :roll:
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-City of Victoria website, 2009

#12 DelsterX

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Posted 24 October 2006 - 07:01 AM

Three words for a successful public space...

Safe
inviting
central

#13 aastra

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Posted 24 October 2006 - 12:10 PM

Ask Victorians to define those terms and you'll get 350,000 different answers.

#14 captain highliner

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Posted 24 October 2006 - 07:19 PM

Though I disagree with some of Christopher Alexander's "patterns' (the four story limit pattern being chief among these) his ideas on the scale of public spaces are spot on. Good to see Holden remembered that Weimar university Pattern Language database.

Obviously size is relative. Centennial square is small compared to some of the great town plazas of Europe or Latin America, but it is none the less too big to be comfortable, and too unconnected to the city's circulatory system to provide enough population to make the space feel inviting.

There's also something about the character of our population that seems to favour using certain types of public space over others. For example, anything semi "natural", like Beacon Hill park, the Breakwater, or our other parklands, as well as places that mix commerce with public space like the Causeway, Market Square, Government Street on market Sundays, etc. all have high usage.

#15 Caramia

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Posted 24 October 2006 - 07:52 PM

The Pattern Language is perfect bathroom reading too.
:-D
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#16 zoomer

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Posted 24 October 2006 - 08:46 PM

Another great reference is "A Pattern Language" by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein (Oxford University Press, 1977). It presents a language for building and planning based on 253 inter-connected "patterns".

Pattern 61 is "Small Public Squares" and you'll find a summary of it here (this is a link to the main index):

http://downlode.org/...erns/index.html

The book provides a lot more detail and is worth the $70 price tag if you love understanding why some buildings / homes / towns work and others don't. Munro's and Chapters usually always have one copy in stock.


From that site is seems that book kinda reads like sayings you might find in your fortune cookie!! Some pearls of wisdom, most often obvious, and a few bizarre statements thrown in as well, such as the Captain mentioned above:

Conflict
There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy.
Resolution
In any urban area, no matter how dense, keep the majority of buildings for stories high or less. It is possible that certain buildings should exceed this limit, but they should never be buildings for human habitation.


love the avatar by the way Number 6

#17 Nparker

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Posted 24 October 2006 - 09:06 PM

Perhaps that chapter was written by special guest author Pam Madoff

#18 G-Man

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Posted 24 October 2006 - 09:12 PM

That is just stupid. Yaeh who would want to live in anything taller than four storeys?

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#19 Caramia

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Posted 25 October 2006 - 07:41 AM

In defense, the Pattern Language is a classic, but like historic buildings, it has to be considered in context. Probably part of the reason that people of previous decades hated skyscrapers was in reaction to the excesses of the international style, and the scar that is public housing scrapers in cities around the world. These days we can do things with glass and steel that make skyscrapers no longer synonymous with low ceilings, poverty, or lack light, and common space. My impression is that the first residential scrapers had none of those features (high end commercial scrapers are a bit different - thinking of some of the art deco signature buildings) I've visited some low income scrapers in Hong Kong and wow, yeah... that would make me crazy. The challenge is to communicate the potential beauty and elegance, and LIVABILITY of high buildings along with the environmental benefits of building dense and high.
Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes.
Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900), The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891

#20 Willa

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Posted 25 October 2006 - 08:44 AM

I have travelled extensively in Latin America, and was always struck by their plazas. Every city had a central plaza, and then there were smaller ones in each neighbourhood. And they weren't busy because of tourists, as Holden said of Europe above. In many of the small, out-of-the-way towns, we were the only tourists there, and the plazas were packed with people. We spoke with many locals who said that's where everyone meets to do anything -- and if you have nothing planned for the night, that's where you go, and you'll find something to do. Many of the areas were poor, so the people didn't have TV, movies, internet, phones -- the sorts of things that keep us in our homes at night. It was very interesting.

Meanwhile, if Urbalist's quote up top is true, then the coffee shops have done more than I had thought...

"Think of the role that coffee shops have played in their resurgence in the decade or so as 'PUBIC' places. " :-)

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