Centering in on the Public Realm

Tonight Metro held another in their series of Get Centered events, this one featuring Fred Kent from the Project for Public Spaces on the topic of public squares.

Many of the models of great public squares were European of course, but Pioneer Courthouse Square compared favorably. Esther Short Park in Vancouver was also discussed in detail (and with compliments).

A key difference between European and American squares/plazas/piazzas is that in Europe the square extends all the way to the building faces, while in America they are almost always bounded by streets. Which is an excellent reminder that streets are an important part of the public realm and very important in how they frame public spaces.

So what examples can you site for streets in our region that make great public spaces or set off other public space? What are the biggest opportunities lost?

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the great work of City Repair (pictured left).

4 responses to “Centering in on the Public Realm”

  1. I am struck by the fact that few if any of our neighborhoods have squares or plazas at their crossroads or centers, leaving even those with many positives without focus or a clearer identity… Where is the “center” of Multnomah? of Westmoreland? of NorthWest? of Alameda? Not to be found! This could be a project for City Repair…find/create centers for each of Portland’s many fine neighborhoods.

    My favorite potential project is the Fireman’s Memorial at 18th & W. Burnside. We could narrow 18th and 19th this afternoon with no great consequence for auto traffic, allowing for more trees and grass to frame the Memorial. Burnside could be paved with something other than asphalt to give drivers pause, and the angle onto Alder could be re-routed to create a nice little open space at the front of the Memorial where citizens on foot could pause in some peace and reflect on our fire fighting heros.

    Alas, my reaction to the Tanner Springs Park…viewed through the fences before its opening…was one of disappointment; such wide sidewalks, in addition to the streets and so little meadow/greenspace.
    Image if just one street had been vacated! or if Northrup were just there for Streetcar a la Portland State and the “meadow” reached right up to the tracks!
    Lenny Anderson, NE Portland

  2. This is an interesting topic. At what point does the value of a street switch from moving traffic to becoming part of the public realm. PDX made a mistake with Tanner park in not closing one of the roads (which was in the original design) Traffic movement won over public design. The thing is with densities as high as they are in the Pearl it should have been a no brainer. The needs of the residents should have trumped commuter movement. The street should have been closed as it is at Jamison Square.

  3. “At what point does the value of a street switch from moving traffic to becoming part of the public realm.”

    I think the question ought to be at what point does the value of a street switch from being part of a the public realm to moving traffic?

    Our belief that we will create “special” streets that are interesting spaces while the rest are Soviet-style industrial artifacts is part of the problem. The reason people are so concerned about making the inside of their car a pleasant environment is that outside the environment it travels in are so unpleasant.

    What I took away from the discussion yesterday was the paucity of examples for the suburban areas that are trying to retrofit late 20th century suburban development into the 21st century. Virtually all the work seems to be focused on restoring areas that were originally designed as public spaces, not creating spaces out of the suburban development that characterizes a lot of areas.

    The other thing that struck me is that many of the parks and public spaces we do have are not integrated into the commercial core. They are set off away from commerce with hedges and fences to shut them off from the surrounding space where the roads don’t. Even in residential areas like Laurelhurst, the park is edged with planted screens to cut it off from the surrounding community.

    When we talk about “mixed use” we are almost always talking about adding housing to commercial development. Perhaps we need to figure out ways that are politically acceptable to add appropriate commerce to existing residential areas. A commercial mix with a bookstore, coffee shop and small cafe adjacent to Laurelhurst would make it much more a destination.

    The second thing that struck me was the suggestion of using libraries as the center of communities. It is a very different idea than the current libraries in Multnomah County. Currently none of them are really adjacent to public spaces, muchless providing a center. Perhaps a place to start would be by looking at the Midland library on 122nd. It is adjacent to a park and on a major commercial street. Perhaps it could be the catalyst for reclaiming 122nd from the automobile and turning it back into a public space.

  4. I think this city needs a Traffic Safety Masterplan. Part of the masterplan should call for one public square in each Neighborhood Association in the City. We hear all the time that Parks can’t provide more parks for neighborhoods because land is too expensive. Why not have PDOT contribute one intersection in each neighborhood (where two residential streets intersect) to be dedicated as a public square with connectivity for pedestrians and bicycles?

    It would provide small parkspace throughout the city(Parks are experts at designing safe public space), while reducing the number of cars on our neighborhood streets.

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