ShireenAbdelrahman Urban plazas
To create an urban plaza, urban designers must know what kind to make, where to place it, how to design it to provide a humanizing contribution to urban life. Contemporary plaza types include the street plaza, corporate foyer, the urban oasis, the transit foyer, and the grand public place. Design recommendations on all these types are reviewed including location, size, visual complexity, activities, microclimate, boundaries, circulation, seating, planting, public art, paving, and related amenities.
TYPES OF DOWNTOWN PLAZAS Downtown spaces can be categorized in many ways: by size, use, relationship to street, style, predominant function, architectural form, location, and so on. This article is concerned with the interplay of form and use, how the physical environment influences activities, socialization, or simply repose. The classification is based on a mix of form and use, moving from smallest to largest in size. The typology is not necessarily exhaustive; rather it is presented as a starting point for design thinking about downtown plaza areas. The typology is an attempt to make some sense of the varied categories of downtown open space in cities. It can be applied to most cities as a basis for understanding the variety of spaces described as urban plazas, categorizing plaza spaces in a specific city, and developing local guidelines for specific plaza types.
The street plaza The street plaza is a small portion of public open space immediately adjacent to the sidewalk and closely connected to the street. It sometimes is a widening of the sidewalk itself or an extension of it under an arcade. Such spaces are generally used for brief periods of sitting, waiting, and watching. They tend to be used more by men than by women. • The seating edge: A seating height wall of stepped edge to a sidewalk • The widened sidewalk: A widened portion of the sidewalk that is furnished with seating blocks, steps, Used primarily for viewing passersby
The street plaza • The bus waiting place: A portion of the sidewalk at a bus stop, sometimes furnished with a bench, shelter, kiosk, or litter container. • The pedestrian link: An outdoor passage or alley that connects two blocks or, sometimes, two plazas. • The corner sun pocket: A building footprint that is designed to open up a small plaza where two streets meet and where there is access to sun during the peak lunchtime period. • The arcade plaza: A sidewalk that is widened by means of an extension under a building overhang.
The corporate foyer The corporate foyer is part of a new, generally high-rise building complex. Its principle function is to provide an attractive, often elegant entry and image for its corporate sponsor. It is usually privately owned but accessible to the public. It is sometimes locked after business hours. • The decorative porch: A small decorative entry, sometimes planted or supplied with seating or a water feature. • The impressive forecourt: A larger entry plaza, often finished in expensive materials (marble, travertine) and sometimes designed to discourage any use by passing through • The stage set: A very large corporate plaza flanked by an impressive tall building that it helps frame it. The plaza is primarily a stage set with buildings as a backdrop.
The urban oasis The urban oasis is a type of plaza that is more heavily planted, has a garden or park image, and is partially secluded from the street. Its location and design deliberately set this place apart from the noise and activity of the city. It is often popular for lunchtime eating, reading, socializing, and it is the one category that tends to attract more women than men, or at least equal proportions of each. The urban oasis has a quiet reflective quality. • The outdoor lunch plaza: A plaza separated from the street by a level change or a pierced wall and furnished for comfortable lunchtime used. • The garden oasis: A small plaza, often enclosed and secluded from the street, whose high density and variety of planting conveys a garden image • The roof garden: A rooftop area developed as a garden setting for sitting, walking, and viewing.
The transit foyer The transit foyer is a type of plaza space created for easy access in and out of heavily used public transit terminals. • The subway entry place: A place for passing through, waiting, meeting, and watching. It sometimes becomes a favorite hangout for a particular group (e.g. teens) who can reach this place by public transit. • The bus terminal: Where many city bus lines converge and many commuters arrive and leave the city center each day. It is primarily a space to move through, but it sometimes attracts vendors of newspapers, flowers, light snacks, and the like.
The grand public place The grand public space comes closes to our image of the old-world town square or piazza. When located near a diversity of land uses (office, retail, warehouse, transit) it tends to attract users from a greater distance and in greater variety than do other plazas. Such a plaza is often big and flexible enough to host brown-bag lunch crowds; outdoor cafes; passers through; and the occasional concerts, art shows, exhibits, and rallies. It is usually a public area owned and is often considered “the heart of the city.” • The city plaza: An area predominately hard surfaced, centrally located, and highly visible. It is often the setting for programmed events such as concerts, performances, and political rallies. • The city square: A centrally located, often historic place where major thoroughfares intersect. Unlike many other kinds of plazas, it is not attached to a particular building; rather, it often encompasses one or more complete city blocks and is usually bounded by streets
Plazas Seating Boundaries Subspaces Location Planting Circulation Paving Size Vendors Programs Food Uses and activities Public art and sculpture Microclimate Visual complexity Information and signs Universal design Level changes Maintenance and amenities
Maintenance and amenities • Will there be adequate staff to maintain plantings, so that lawns are green and trimmed, dead flowers are removed, and so forth? If there is some question about the availability of maintenance, an effort should be made to use attractive yet low-maintenance planting. • Are there enough litter containers and a collection schedule that will prevent their overflowing? • Will lawns, as well as shrubs and flowers in planters that double as seats, be watered on a schedule that will leave them dry and usable during lunchtime?
Information and signs • Although permanent employees in any building soon find their way about even if there are no directional signs, the occasional visitor or new employee may become disoriented without this information. • Is the name of the building clearly displayed and well lit after dark? • Is the main entrance to the building obvious and accessible? • After entering the building, is an information/reception desk immediately visible, or are there at least clear signs to one? • Are there signs directing visitors to elevators, restrooms, telephones, and cafeteria or coffee shop? • On leaving the building, are there clear signs indicating the way to transit stops, taxi ranks, and nearby streets? • Has provision of a simple, clear map of the neighborhood been considered?
Vendors • Small items have been sold from stalls, wagons, handcarts, and kiosks in city plazas since cities first evolved. But when retail districts developed and especially since department stores sprang up, vending began to be viewed as detrimental to commercial districts. Merchants saw it as unfair competition; city officials worried about health codes and congestion. • Since the 1960s, at least in United States, there has been a remarkable reversal of this attitude in many downtown areas. • Merchants began to see that vending certain types of goods in particular locations can increase the popularity of retail areas, enliven the environment of a plaza or a sidewalk, and provide security. • Has the plaza been designed to accommodate vendors, whose presence will add to the vitality of the space, provide a measure of security, and often increase the popularity of surrounding retail outlets?
Vendors • Have vendors been considered especially for plazas that are already popular for lunchtime use, poorly used and in need of something to draw users, and/or sidewalk or transit plazas with many pedestrians? • Does the plaza include an area that can be used for a farmers’ market? • When providing for a market or vendors, could a colorful, fabric “roof” be provided for that area, to draw attention to the facility, provide shelter and shade, and contrast with the scale of downtown buildings? • Has the area for vendors or market been situated so as to be easily accessible and highly visible, yet not impede regular plaza circulation?
Universal design Universal design is an overriding design awareness and thus provides a helpful summary and overview of all design elements. • Universal design is the sensitivity and commitment to design for all people of all ages and of all abilities. • Universal design responds to legally mandated requirements of accessibility, but goes well beyond minimum provisions by design details that do not marginalize in any way. • The Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University, suggests “Principles of Universal Design” that apply to design of urban plazas. • Equitable use. The design is useful and accessible to people with diverse abilities. • Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
Universal design • Simple and intuitive use. Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills or current concentration level. • Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient condition or the user’s sensory abilities. • Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue. • Size and space for approach and use. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use, regardless of user’s body size, posture or mobility.
Programs Designers customarily “sign off” the design project when the construction is completed. But in the case of urban plazas, as in most other designed spaces, subsequent management of the plaza is crucial to its success or demise. The provision of food in a plaza is one crucial element in its success; another is the provision of programs that will attract a variety of activities and uses. • Do the plaza’s management policies encourage special events, such as temporary exhibits, concerts, and theatrical events? • Does the plaza design include a functional stage area that can be used for sitting, eating lunch, and other activities during non performance periods? • Is the stage situated to avoid undue disruption to pedestrian circulation and to avoid making the audience face directly into the sun? • Will movable chairs be provided for the audience, and is there storage nearby for such chairs when not in use? • Are there places on the plaza to post event schedules and notices, so that they will be readily visible to plaza users? • Is there some method available to announce an event— decorations, banners?
Food • William Whyte observes that a Manhattan plaza with a food kiosk or outdoor restaurant is much more likely to attract users than is one without such features (Whyte 1980). This is more than a local custom • Are any food services available in and next to the plaza, such as food vendors, a food kiosk, or an indoor-outdoor café? • Are there comfortable places to sit and eat either a bag lunch or food bought from a vendor? • Have drinking fountains, restrooms, and telephones been provided to augment the facilities for eating, as one would find in a restaurant? • Have enough trash/recycling containers been distributed around the plaza to prevent littering of food wrappers and containers?
Paving • To even a casual observer of people in public places, it becomes apparent that people seek to move from any two origins to destination points from A to B in as direct a line as possible establishing so called “desire lines” and most apparent for example by pathways tracked in the snow. All major circulation routes must accommodate this principle, or people will take shortcuts across lawns or even planting to get to where they want to go, as directly as possible. • Surfaces that most people avoid (and so can be used to channel movement) are large-sized gravel and cobbles. Women are more likely to avoid them than are men. A change in surface that is readily apparent to the feet and eyes, such as the transition from sidewalk paving to brick, can define a plaza as a separate place without discouraging entry.
Paving • Do major circulation routes follow the plaza users’ principal “desire lines”? • If a design’s intention is to channel pedestrian movement, have cobbles or large gravel been used where walking needs to be discouraged? • Has a change in paving been used to signify the transition from sidewalk to plaza, without discouraging entry?
Public art and sculpture • The authors of Livable Cities propose excellent criteria for evaluating art in public places that, “should make a positive contribution to the life of the city, and to the well-being of its inhabitants…public art should generously give the public some positive benefit—delight, amenity, fantasy, joy, sociability—in a word, a sense of well-being • If public art has been included in the plaza design, will it be able to create a sense of joy and delight, stimulate play and creativity, and promote communication among viewers? • Can people interact with any planned public art—touch it, climb on it, move it, play in it? • Is the art likely to “speak” to a large proportion of the public, rather than an elite few? • Has a fountain or other water feature been included in the plaza design, for its visual and aural attraction? background for it?
Public art and sculpture • Does the sound of the fountain screen out traffic noise? • Is the fountain in scale with plaza space? • Will wind cause water spray to blow, thereby rendering the sitting areas unusable? If so, is a gardener or plaza manager available to adjust the fountain? • Has a fountain been designed to be “hands on,” so that plaza visitors can interact with it? • Have the costs of running the fountain been calculated to ensure that the fountain can be operated? • If sculptural elements are to be used in the plaza, will they be scaled to the plaza itself ? • Is some of the sculpture experiential, that is, can people sit around it, climb on it, or alter its shape? • Is the sculpture located so as not to impede plaza circulation patterns and sight lines? • Has the sculpture been located off center, to avoid creating the impression that the plaza is merely a background for it?
Level changes • Careful consideration of aesthetic and psychological effects, the perils of sunken plazas, the wise use of people attractors in sunken plazas, and the use of raised plazas are all important variables in the use of level changes in plazas • Have some modest but observable changes in level been included in the plaza design, to create smaller subareas? • Have level changes been considered as a means to separate seating areas and circulation? • If level changes are used, has a visual connection between levels been maintained?
Level changes • Where level changes are incorporated, have ramps been provided to allow access for disabled people, those with baby strollers, and so forth? • Is there an elevated vantage point, with a wall or railing to lean on while watching people? • Have dramatic grade changes between plaza and sidewalk (either up or down) been avoided, as such plazas will be underused? • If a plaza must be sunken more than slightly, has some eye catching feature been included to encourage people to enter? • If a plaza must be raised more than slightly, has planting been used to “announce” its presence and draw people upward?
Planting • The variety and quality of textural, color, massing, aural, and olfactory effects created by a careful planting plan can add immeasurable to the plaza’s use • Has a variety of planting been used to heighten and enliven the users’ perception of change in color, light, ground slope, smells, sounds, and textures? • Have feathery leaved, quasi-open trees been selected where a see through effect to other subareas is desirable? • If the plaza must be sunken, have trees been planted that will soon grow above sidewalk level? • Have open canopy trees been selected for windy plazas, to reduce potential damage associated with dense foliage and high winds? • Have a variety of annuals, perennials, shrubs, and tress been selected for their color and fragrance?
Planting • Has the eventual height and mass of mature plants been considered, in regards to views, shade, and maintenance? • Have tree plantings been used that screen out adjacent building walls but, if necessary, still allow light to reach building windows? • Is there adequate seating so that people are not forced to sit in planted areas, thus damaging the vegetation? Are planter seat walls wide enough to prevent users from sitting in planted areas? • Do lawns vary the plaza’s overall character and encourage picnicking, sleeping, reading, sunbathing, sprawling, and other casual activities? • Is the lawn area raised or sloped to improve seating and viewing opportunities, and has it avoided creating a vast “prairie” expanse in favor of smaller more intimate areas?
Seating • Even when zoning regulations encourage the provision of more downtown public open space; there is not necessarily a parallel increase in places to sit. Perhaps the most detailed evaluation of outdoor seating behavior, William Whyte’s study of Manhattan plazas, reported: “After three months of checking our various factors—such as sun angles, size of spaces, nearness to transit— we came to a spectacular conclusion: people sit most where there are places to sit. Other things matter too, food, fountains, tables, sunlight, shade, trees—but this simplest of amenities, a place to sit, is far and away the most important element in plaza use.” (Whyte 1974, pp. 30). To design for the importance of seating: • Does the design recognize that seating is the most important element in encouraging plaza use? • Does the seating meet the needs of varying types of sitters commonly found in most plazas? • Has seating been placed in those locations that are sunny during lunch hours, or, in very hot locations, in the shade?
Seating • Does the plaza seating reflect the fact that sitters are drawn to locations where they can see other people passing by? • Has secondary seating (mounds of grass, steps with a view, seating walls, retaining walls that allow sitting) been incorporated into the plaza design, to increase overall seating capacity without creating a “sea of benches” that might intimidate potential users when sparsely populated? • Is there at least as much primary as secondary seating in the plaza • Are elements intended as secondary seating (with the exception of lawns) within the optimal sixteen-to-thirty-inch height range? • Have wooden benches been given high priority, and do they include those that are three by six feet and backless, for flexible use? • Is some seating linear (benches, steps or ledges) or circular and outward facing to allow people to sit close to strangers without the need for eye contact or interaction?
Seating • Are there wide, backless benches, right-angle arrangements, and movable chairs and tables to accommodate groups? • Has seating been located to allow a range of choices, from sunny to shady? • Has a sense of privacy been created for some of the seating, through the placement of planters or other designed elements? • Have a variety of seating orientations been included to allow water views, distant views, views of entertainers, foliage views, views of passersby? • Have seating materials been used that seem “warm” such as wood, and have those been avoided that seem “cold” (concrete, metal, stone) or that even look as though they might damage clothing if sat on? • Has the appropriate amount of seating been provided with reference to standard guidelines? e.g., Project for Public Space recommends one linear foot of seating per 30 sq. ft. of plaza area (1 linear m of seating per 9 sq. m of plaza area). The San Francisco Downtown Plan guideline is a one-to-one ratio of one linear foot (or meter) of seating for each linear foot (or meter) of plaza perimeter.
Circulation • The principal use of many plazas is by pedestrians entering and leaving nearby buildings. Regardless of local weather, the aesthetics of the plaza, or anything else, people will take the shortest and straightest route between the sidewalk (bus stop, car drop-off, intersection) and the nearest building entry. A necessary analysis in plaza design is predicting the route by which people will flow in and out of a building, to ensure an unimpeded path for their movement • Has the plaza been designed to mesh with, or enhance, existing downtown circulation patterns? • Are plazas linked by a system of safe pedestrian walkways, malls, street closures, and the like, to encourage walking? • Has thought been given to predicting the direct routes between sidewalk and building entries that people will take at rush hours?
Circulation • Does the plaza layout also allow easy access to a café, bank, or retail establishment peripheral to the plaza; access to seating or viewing areas; and opportunities for shortcuts or pleasant walkthroughs? • If there is a need or desire to guide pedestrian flows, have physical barriers such as walls, planters, bollards, or distinct changes in level or texture been used to do so, rather than color or pattern changes in paving, which have been shown to be ineffective? • Does the plaza design allow for the tendency of pedestrians to walk in the center of spaces and sitters to gravitate to the edges of spaces? • Does the plaza accommodate the needs for the disabled, the elderly, parents with strollers, and vendors with carts? Do ramps parallel stairs whenever possible, or at least allow access to every level?