Revitalizing Public Spaces: What my Research Says

I’m working on the 20-year master plan for Gallivan Center, the signature public space in downtown Salt Lake City. It’s a great project and my focus has been on how to revitalize and infuse new life into this central space, ensuring it continues to serve as a vibrant, inclusive gathering space for the community. I’m pleased to work with GSBS Architects and Civitas on this great project.

This project has given me a good excuse to update and expand my research database, which catalogs information on successful public spaces and how they are governed, financed, managed, programmed…even down to how many public bathrooms they have.

A program at the Reading Room in Bryant Park, NYC

Research Conclusion: Programming Drives Success

My latest deep dive into case studies around North America reveals an unsurprising truth: the essence of a public space’s success lies in its location and its programming. The busiest spaces in the country are often in super high density downtown locations where foot traffic is high. But that’s only contributes to success if the space is well-integrated into the pedestrian network and surrounded by busy ground floor uses. If the public space is cut off, raised, hidden, or otherwise separated from foot traffic then the usage may drop off precipitously. It may come as a surprise, but Bryant Park was once an overlooked space in midtown Manhattan. Enclosed by walls and hedges, it was detached from the bustling sidewalks and unwelcoming to visitors.

But the other big factor is the number and diversity of programs and activities. There is no such thing as too many programs when it comes to activating an important public space. Here’s a list of some of the busier well-known public spaces in my dataset and the number of programs they offer to the public:

Campus Martius+ refers to 6 spaces in downtown Detroit all managed by Detroit 300 Conservancy

What is Programming in Public Spaces

What’s the nature of these programs? When it comes to public spaces, programming can be put into two categories:

1. EVENTS AND ACTIVITIES require an organizer. These can be subdivided into two subcategories:

–         Scheduled events, such as concerts, which draw large crowds and require significant organization. They can be good for generating revenue (through sales of food, drink, and sponsorships) and they raise awareness across the city. However, too much focus on large events can exhaust the staff managing a public space. Furthermore, these events tend not to build daily visitorship.

–         Day-to-day activities that require some supervision but are small in scale, such as a yoga class, farmers markets, a lunchtime musician, food trucks, storytimes, and the like. Building regular visitorship of a space depends on daily and predictable programming of this kind, because these programs will form habitual use among the public.

Programming is a full-time job, best undertaken by a team of people who are relentlessly enthusiastic and not afraid to fail. For production of scheduled events, it helps to have a team member who is part of the local cultural scene. The programming for Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco is led by YBG Festival, which has a team of nine people who all have a background in the performing arts. Millennium Park’s famed Pritzker Pavilion is programmed by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), along with the Millennium Park Foundation. 

CityGarden, St. Louis, Missouri

2. NON-EVENT ATTRACTIONS don’t require an organizer because they are part of the infrastructure of the space. These are uses such as a restaurant, a coffee kiosk, a playground, an interactive fountain, a skating rink, and so on. These attractions can be some of the most powerful drivers of use in any public space and require less day-to-day effort from staff to keep a space busy.

Take a look at what some of the busier public spaces in North America have to offer in terms of everyday attractions:

  • Discovery Green, Houston: Two restaurants, two libraries with Wi-Fi, 2 dog runs and fountains, shuffleboard court, putting green, 2 bocce ball courts, playground, 4 water features, 11 different gardens, 2 outdoor market areas, jogging path, 2 hills, 1 lake, rentable spaces indoor and outdoor, public artworks.
  • Bryant Park, New York: Outdoor café terrace, a restaurant, several food kiosks, Fountain, Carousel, outdoor reading room, ice rink, winter village (craft market).
  • Washington Park, Cincinnati: The Porch bar concession, interactive water feature with lights and sound, children’s playground, dog park, bandstand, gardens, Winter Market, Santas Workshop.
  • Millennium Park, Chicago: Public art, ice skating, restaurant, Lurie Garden, large play fountain with interactive art, signature architecture.
  • Lebauer and Center City Parks, Greensboro: Water feature, Wi-Fi, public artworks, pavilion, Café Europa, two food kiosks, sculptural wall, dog park, 1-acre garden, putting green, play area w slides and sand area, reading room, pingpong, foosball, Lincoln Financial Children’s Garden.
  • Fountain Square, Cincinnati: WiFi, Umbrellas and seating, Fountain Bar, markets, food trucks, BLINK art installation, Ice rink and bumper cars.
  • Yonge Dundas Square, Toronto (soon to be renamed Sankofa Square): Computerized fountains, big LED screens, public art, wi-fi, buskers.
  • Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco is part of a power center of institutions: the George Moscone Convention Center, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Children’s Center (which includes the Zeum, the (indoor) Ice Skating Rink, Bowling Center, and indoor carrousel), Child Care Center, the Metreon (Sony entertainment complex), SFMOMA, The Jewish Museum, The Mexican Museum, other galleries/museums, African-American Museum, MLK Memorial, public artworks, dog relief spot.
Crown Fountain at Millennium Park, Chicago

It’s desirable to have a mixture of small-scale attractions plus major anchors that attract people in large numbers. The most common anchor is a restaurant in the park, which is a very effective practice that is found worldwide. In fact, case study research would suggest that it is all-important to have either a central restaurant or an active edge condition. Besides the fact that a park restaurant draws crowds to the park, they also create a revenue stream that gets put back into managing the park for the public.

Placemaking is more than Design

In conclusion, placemaking transcends aesthetic enhancements and design, embodying a holistic approach that intertwines dynamic programming, creation of engaging destinations, and consummate management practices. It’s about instilling life and energy into spaces, transforming them into vibrant centers of community activity and economic vitality. The metamorphosis of places like Bryant Park from neglected voids into superstar public spaces is testament to the profound impact of thoughtful design, diligent stewardship, and varied, inclusive programming. Any space, regardless of its current state, holds the potential to go through a similar transformation. Successful placemaking is an ongoing process, requiring continuous engagement, innovation, and a deep understanding of the community’s needs and aspirations.

Final note: I’m always looking for more case studies– if you manage a public space and would like to join my knowledge base, let me know and I will be in touch!

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About Phil Myrick

Phil Myrick is an advisor to planning and development projects around the world and former CEO of Project for Public Spaces. Phil applies research into how people interact with their environments and each other to create vibrant places, destinations, districts, and developments. His strategic advice has helped his clients achieve their goals of attracting people, engaging people in their community, strengthening connections and social fabric, and stimulating economic development. Phil is married with two teenagers and struggles to satisfy his passion for being outdoors or on the water.

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