Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

My hometown of Portland is currently considering a proposal to privatize two-thirds of a downtown park called Congress Square — a not-particularly-successful product of late-1970s urban renewal.

There's a broad consensus that the park's current design is a failure. Surrounded on two sides by the blank walls of adjacent buildings, and with odd proportions that make most of the park inaccessible to the activity of surrounding streets, the only people who linger here tend to be panhandlers and loudmouthed street preachers.

The neighboring hotel's new owners, a real estate investment trust called Rockbridge Capital, are extensively renovating the building and would like to have a better neighbor. Even before they came along, there had been some rumblings about renovating Congress Square, and even of selling off a portion of it. But their real and specific offer has accelerated the debate.

It's hard for me — and for many other Portlanders — to hear out a pitch to turn over public space to a 1% outfit that calls itself "Rockbridge Capital." And it's disappointing that it was the hotel's owners — not citizens — that were allowed to set the terms of this debate about what the park's future should be.

Yet in spite of those handicaps, I find myself receptive to their most recent proposal for the park, which, though smaller, would be more far more welcoming and engaged as a public space than the status quo is.

Opponents will still object to losing publicly-owned real estate, but the quality of a park's design is far more important than the quantity of its square footage. The current Congress Square suffers from the same basic design problem as your typical suburban McMansion: it's too big, for no good reason.

In their pitch to the City Council, the hotel's architect included a number of points from William H. Whyte's book "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces," a brilliant empirical study of what makes successful city parks work.

There's a great film version of "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces" that illuminate Whyte's theories with detailed footage of New York's Seagram Plaza circa 1980. It's a lot of fun to watch, and not just because it offers a filmed version of the people-watching that attracts us to good parks. Whyte's photography also brilliantly illuminates how subtle elements of design — things most of us don't consciously notice — can have tremendous impact on how public spaces are used. It's like a Roman Mars podcast from 30 years ago.

If you're anything like me (and especially if you're one of my Portland neighbors thinking of weighing in on Congress Square), it's well worth an hour of your time: