Shown above is Campus Martius Park in the heart of downtown Detroit, MI. Opened in 2004, this public space has provided a welcome shot in the arm to the beleaguered central city. It’s an example of “placemaking”, where citizens and stakeholders develop a vision for transforming particular spaces. These spaces in turn can catalyze the surrounding areas, and return a sense of pride and ownership to neighborhoods. Here’s an excellent article about this topic that one of our readers sent in.
Public input in the design of public spaces has been around for some time. But this newer approach doesn’t use the public as a filter for a preconceived idea, but rather as the primary idea generator. The process can lead to something as simple–yet revolutionary–as reusing part (or all) of a street for pedestrians rather than cars (see Broadway near Times Square in New York City above). It is amazing to be in the middle of New York–where real estate, building costs, and zoning changes are all notoriously expensive and challenging–and enjoy a great public space that’s just asphalt, chairs, and some plantings. No buildings demolished or private property acquired; no expensive design or construction costs. The people wanted to sit in the street and they got it.
The non-profit Project for Public Spaces (PPS) consults across the world to help developers and cities create great public space, with “placemaking” as a tool. As has been argued here before, every progressive city needs certain things–a modern convention center, good transit, bike lanes, mixed-use zoning, etc. But these items themselves, even when connected through solid holistic planning, don’t necessarily add up to the intangible quality that make a place memorable–drawing attention, businesses, tourists, etc. Court Street in Brooklyn pictured above, with its layers of storefronts, signage, benches, people, and dogs may do as much (or more) for Brooklyn’s image as shiny new condo towers or well-planned bike lanes. PPS helps cities, through people-oriented planning, achieve this quality of place.
Which brings us to the Birmingham Comprehensive Plan: the first plan for the City in 50 years that will produce a “policy and strategic framework” that will establish a city-wide vision for the future, how to pursue that vision, and how to get started (full disclosure: your author is on the steering committee for this project). While the initial round of public hearings kicks off Saturday October 22 from 9 AM-1 PM at Birmingham Crossplex, the notion of “placemaking” will most likely be generally, rather than specifically addressed in the Plan. It will be up to all of us, once the Plan is produced, to insist on great place-making within the individual projects suggested by this Plan.
Birmingham, like other cities, used top-down approaches to public space for much of its existence. If you have enlightened leaders then this gets you the Olmsted Brothers Park System plan of 1924 (only partially implemented, unfortunately). Less enlightened leadership and planning departments gave us the redesign of Magnolia (now Brother Bryan) Park, seen above in a 1971 newspaper article. Totally out-of-context A-frame picnic huts, formal reflecting pools, and ugly metal benches were the palette of that era’s City Planning Department. Today these same elements, forlorn and rotting, remain but the public mainly doesn’t care to use this park. What if, instead of the City continuing to spend money annually to keep it up, the park were turned over to a people-powered placemaking process? A vision established, a top designer similar to that used at Railroad Park could be hired to reconstruct this space. The Comprehensive Plan will probably identify Five Points South as a vibrant neighborhood with strengths and weaknesses, one weakness being this park. With the Plan as a roadmap, we can tackle this and other place-making needs around the city by involving good consultants like PPS, and designing from the bottom up, not the top down. Too many good plans have sat on the shelf in this City, from the Olmsted Brothers to the 2004 City Center Master Plan.This time around, actual implementation would be a refreshing change.
A lot of us, despite the challenges and frustrations of the City, have an intuition about the “soul” of Birmingham; the fundamentals of great place-making, we sense, are here. With the right nurturing, we just maybe could turn that long-vaunted “potential” into reality. Hey, if they can ice-skate to Christmas tunes in the middle of Detroit…