World class public space

What does "World Class Public Space" mean?

Each new public-space project brings hopes and aspirations for renewal--the vision of a city changed for the better. As the stakeholders behind a project set on their journey of transformation, they typically will share their ambition what is to become. Invariably, this effort will proudly proclaim that the new park (or beach, or sea-side pier) is to be a "world class public space." This has a reassuring tone to it: the money spent will be worthwhile, the result something one can be proud of and the project managers know what they are about. 

But here we pause. What does world class mean in this context? The words are not defined, and are stated as self-evident. Seldom are examples provided. The reader is left to his own imagination. At prima facie, this hardly seems an issue—Who can argue with such an ambition? But I believe it is a problem. Often, the work of creating the new space will focus on appearance and design features—the components most prominent in  renderings--while ignoring the outcomes produced by great spaces, which should drive the design work. As a result,  rarely do the spaces created rise to the quality of the great parks, plazas and streets of our time. Those are very real, and when we visit them, we immediately feel that we are immersed in the exceptional.  

Again, we can pause for a moment and draw a distinction. World-famous public space, does not mean world class. World class is a product of the inherent quality of the place. World famous is a product of notoriety. Certainly Tien An Men Square is world famous. But the barren plaza hardly registers as world class as a space. Neither would the Place de la Concorde in Paris, nor many others.

Thus the question: what makes a world-class space? Can we offer a list of categories or elements that a space must possess to qualify as "world class?" I answer "yes" and offer the four necessary items below as definition.

First, the park or plaza must be one that is used primarily by locals. No world-class place is just a tourist attraction. It is part of the fabric and daily life of its home city. While tourists will seek it out, it will be in part because they hope to see how the locals behave in their own town, and wish to familiarize themselves with the native lifestyle.

Second, and  intertwined with the above characteristic: a world-class space is one that draws repeat visitors .  It is intrinsically related to a city’s self-image, and that of its citizens. As they come back--be it frequently or at an interval of several years--patronizing the plaza or park will invoke a sense of pleasant nostalgia. There can be many reasons for them to keep coming: the beauty of a site,  its convenient location within the city, nearby attractions. Above all, I think the determining factor is comfort. This place is comfortable, and easy to use. One can always find a good seat. There is something interesting to eat or drink. Unexpected things can be expected to happen. There will be a bathroom nearby. 

Third, and yet another reason why people will come, and return, is that this place is a great people-watching spot. From her chair or bench, or from the terrace of a cafe, a patron will observe the world passing by, in its extraordinary diversity. Unexpected things might happen. Most people never tire of this entertainment, and with good reason. World-class public spaces openly invite us to look at each other, and provide us with a great platform from which to do so. 

Finally our space will be appealing to all kinds of people--young, old, women, men and everything in between, of all incomes, shapes, origins and abilities.  One might say: "But all public spaces do that!" They do not. Many otherwise interesting or beautiful spaces will be hosts to one kind of people in particular. One might feel welcome to pass by, but because the space feels transient, there is no compelling reason to stay. Whereas our natural bias is to seek those similar to ourselves, the great public spaces will invite everyone. They enable interactions between folks of varied backgrounds who otherwise have little reason to be in contact with each other, and even less social allowance for a direct exchange. 

This is the challenge designers and placemakers face when creating a space or refurbishing one--Creating a space that will allow this amazing alchemy to take place; the combination of pleasing locals and attracting out of towners, maintaining physical comfort for all visitors, contriving a sense of theater-in-the-round, all for patrons as diverse as humanity itself.  This is what world class is.