Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

The Importance of the Public Realm – Our Space

Dateline: 11:09 am December 21, 2011 Filed under:

Are we doing enough to create good cities and urbanism? Due to property rights, we cannot always control exactly what is built on private land, but we can certainly have a say in the ever-so-important public realm. An article earlier this month entitled Treasuring Urban Oases, featuring renowned urbanist Alexander Garvin, as well as examples in my own Minneapolis, would suggest that we are not doing enough in this respect. Garvin’s premise is we should reverse our process, thinking first about the design of public space and then private development.

Garvin suggests that New York is not unlike other cities in terms of its approvals process, pointing out public space and plazas are “bonuses,” in zoning lingo, provided as add-ons by developers seeking approvals from the city and/or neighborhood. Sometimes we citizens get lucky and the public space created as part of the development is sublime. The plaza at Rockefeller Center provides an example of the sublime. Unfortunately, one has but to throw a rock to hit a public space that wasn’t given enough consideration in the design and planning process.

Take a good local example in Minneapolis – West River Commons. Visit the Longfellow Grill or Dunn Bros (located within West River Commons) at Lake Street and West River Road in Minneapolis and chances are you’ll meet the rest of your party or wait for a table on the public plaza. The plaza provides a place for customers and the public to meet informally, and even hosts events like beer tastings. Although technically private property, the plaza at West River Commons provides a sublime, seamless transition from public (streets and parks – the Grand Rounds) to private businesses and residences. It is effectively the public realm, and wonderful at that.

While West River Commons is a very good local example of public space, it is not a good example of the process. It came out of a lengthy series of negotiation between the developer, city and neighborhood. In other words, while the West River Commons plaza is a wonderful space, it was not part of the original vision for that site, exactly what Garvin points out in the New York Times article. We got lucky with West River Commons. There is no mechanism by which we are guaranteed a good public realm in other projects around the city, and in fact, West River Commons is the sadly the exception.

Garvin looks to the Dutch for a fine example of how to do this right (I know, Europe this, Europe that, blah, blah, blah. Urbanists wouldn’t go on ad-nauseum if so many European cities didn’t repeatedly “get it right” with their development process). They take a formal, fine-grained approach to the public realm first, considering in detail where surrounding buildings should be and how they should relate to each other and the public realm.

But we need not go overseas to find good examples. Take the Pearl District in Portland (I know, Portland this, Portland that, blah, blah, blah. Urbanists wouldn’t go on ad-nauseum if Portland didn’t repeatedly “get it right” with its development process). There, they began with what is effectively a master plan for the public realm, including a walkable grid of streets, sidewalks, with parks interspersed every few blocks, a school, and the provision of a streetcar serving the neighborhood. Development followed that, but even that included plans for amenities like a grocery store.

The general public and talented designers together must be involved more intensively at the front end of the process. As an aside, it is disturbing is how little public input went in to the Peavey Plaza redesign process. The Star Tribune points out that some critics dislike the plan, and another (former) designer for the project, Charles Birnbaum, wrote a scathing attack on the public process. Decide for yourself. Maybe Birnbaum is blowing hot air, but he may very well have a point. After all, this is the premier gathering space in downtown Minneapolis. We cannot screw it up.

The final phase of development at the old Grain Belt Brewery site in “Nordeast” Minneapolis poses another challenge. The city owns the site, a portion of which at the corner contains underground ruins from the former Orth Brewery. The city’s RFP for development indicates that the ruins cannot be built upon, and that space will effectively be a plaza of some kind – read “public realm.” Yes, the city wanted a feasible, marketable private development that would add to the tax rolls, and that is all well and good, but I believe the city process should have focused on the plaza first, with everything around it to follow in a well-designed manner. (Full disclosure – I was on the Diversified Equities team that did not win the RFP bid from the city. So, while I’m not complaining about the outcome of the team(s) that won (Everwood’s proposal meets the city criteria – they won fair and square), my issue is with the overall process and lack of attention to the public realm. Indeed, our group had some very interesting conversations about the design of the plaza, its use and how the surrounding buildings would activate it. Better guidance by the city would have helped the process.) So while it is true the city has already invested heavily in subsidizing the Grain Belt Brewhouse renovation across the street, and preferred not to throw more money at the project, the reality is there will be a public plaza at the Orth Brewery site, and it should not be left entirely to the private developer to find a good solution. Designed right, it will activate the entire redevelopment and be a gatherting place for the neighborhood. Done wrong, it will be a windswept underutilized space surrounded by blank walls and surface parking. The city’s process did not do enough to specifically address this, and it should have. This is our space, the public realm, and it should have been the starting point for any planning on the overall site.

We citizens of Minneapolis got lucky with West River Commons, and time will tell if we do with the final Grain Belt development phase and Peavey Plaza (I won’t even get in to the public realm that touches the new Walker Art Center). Whether it’s Minneapolis, Portland, or a Dutch city, we own the public realm, and we all deserve for it to be given more consideration first and foremost in our planning and development process. Doing so will go farther than any starchitect ever could to create sublime urbanism for all to share and enjoy. The public realm isn’t just streets. It includes sidewalks, boulevards, paths, trails, public plazas, parks, and the private building facades that front them.

Alexander Garvin says it better than me in the New York Times: “The public realm is what we own and control….the streets, squares, parks, infrastructure and public buildings make up the fundamental element in any community — the framework around which everything else grows.”

Well put, Mr. Alexander. We can do better.

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  1. […] Joe Urban: The Importance of the Public Realm […]

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