Durable Growth

Great public spaces needn’t be owned by the public

Larkin Square in Buffalo

Larkin Square in Buffalo

Most well-used public spaces are owned by the public.  When I talk with others of creating more energized public places in the North Bay, the initial assumptions are publicly-owned parks and downtown plazas.

Much of the reason for the assumption is that privately-owned public spaces in recent times are often dismal places.

As has been documented by William Whyte and others who have looked at the plazas of Manhattan, people rarely linger in most plazas owned by private corporations.  The problem is that the corporations were induced to provide public spaces in exchange for additional building height.  But having provided the spaces, they had no interest in maintaining a plaza which people actually used.  So they sought design solutions that would make the plazas as dreary and unfriendly as possible.  As a result, few folks find enough enjoyment to hang around.

Here in the Bay Area, the plaza in front of the Bank of America Building in San Francisco is an example of an unfriendly public space.

But there can be well-designed and well-used public places that are privately-owned.  Corporations that followed the concepts put forth by Whyte have often energized their plazas.  Examples in Manhattan include the CBS Building and Rockefeller Center.

Here in the North Bay, although not as fully energized as some may have hoped, Theatre Square Plaza is an example of a privately owned public plaza that offers some vitality.

Yet one more example, this one again in the state of New York, is Larkin Square in Buffalo.

The Project for Public Spaces, an organization that is well-aligned with the work of Whyte, interviewed the Zemsky family who own Larkin Square.  Having revitalized their obsolete industrial buildings and finding that they didn’t need as much parking as they had anticipated, the family began looking for other uses for the land that remained.  Trying to build a place that they would themselves enjoy and learning from the usage as the public space evolved, Larkin Square was the result.

The lunchtime office worker crowd, fed by a restaurant in the square, is typical of many better public spaces, but where Larkin Square excels is in the evening, when food trucks and free music can attract crowds of more than 1,000 people.

As Leslie Zemsky notes, the family couldn’t always justify the costs for Larkin Square based on the projected bottom line, but they were sure that building the square as an engaged public space would provide benefits to the family.  And they were right.

In describing the success of Larkin Square, the Project for Public Spaces notes their eleven stepsfor building great public spaces.  I’ve linked the eleven steps before, but they’re worth reviewing again relative to Larkin Square.  The concept of triangulation, the idea that site features can be configured such that strangers are induced to begin conversations, is particularly intriguing.

I’m writing about Larkin Square because the Congress for the New Urbanism will meet in Buffalo this year.  The 22nd annual conference, better known as CNU 22, will begin in Buffalo in a few days.  Having enjoyed and learned much at CNU 21 in Salt Lake City last year, I’ll be in Buffalo this year.  And with the conference closing party in Larkin Square, I’ll have a chance to look around the square myself.

Based on the CNU 21 experience, I expect to rub shoulders for five days with inspirational urbanists and to return with lots to share, much of which will quickly find its way into this space.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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