People Power

Now there's a reason to be on Woodward Avenue after 5 PM

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.

The people spoke: take back the streets!

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.

Intangible quality

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.

It needs to be top-notch, and it needs to avoid the shelf

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.

Civic pride ca. 1971--it didn't last long at this park

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.

The potential for great "place" is here...

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…

[thanks to dig downtown detroit for the Campus Martius pic; Project for Public Spaces for the NYC pics; bhamwiki for the news article; visual2 for the South East Lake neighborhood pic]

6 responses to “People Power

  1. I don’t know that Magnolia Park’s cedar-clad A-frame picnic pavilions are any more “out of context” than the wavy waterwalls at Campus Martius or folding chairs in Times Square. Since I remember them from picnics in my own childhood, to me, at least, they do a great deal toward establishing any sense of place that Magnolia Park may have. As for whether they are rotting, it seems like I remember them being outfitted with bright new shingles and copper flashings not so long ago. I dare say they may hold up better over time than Detroit’s water features will.

    On the larger scale, while we are clearly overdue for a new city-wide comprehensive plan, I would like to think that some of the recent plans on the shelf, such as the 2004 City Center plan and even the Regions 20/20 book, are still guiding our public investments to some extent. Has the traffic department given up on the one-way to two-way street recommendations? Has the MPO lost sight of the hopes for pushing I-20/59 below grade? Are UAB and others not at least glancing at the planning strategies outlined for midtown? Who makes a plan dead? Is it someone else, or is it US not treating it like it’s still relevant when we interact with public leaders?

    • Thanks for your comments–in response, first my labeling Magnolia Park’s A-frames as “out-of-context” is certainly subjective. Their form, height, and proportions relative to the park itself give them more of a prominence, I would argue, as compared to folding chairs on Broadway or water features surrounded by high-rises on Woodward. And while they may have been repaired recently, the park generally is haggard and dated; and what is the point of pouring pubic money into a design that clearly no longer functions, except abstractly, for nostalgic purposes?

      Second, I agree there are a handful of initiatives related to the 2004 Center City Plan. But it is not US, meaning private citizens and developers, that are responsible for adhering to the plan. Without incentives, seed projects, and redevelopment authorities in place to guide development, the individual developer is left to the usual whims of the marketplace when deciding how/where to develop. Time and again, the cities like Chattanooga that have invested resources in implementing plans on an “official” scale are the ones with results on the ground. This isn’t top-down implementation, but organizing public and private resources around planning objectives to then guide additional public and private investment. This leveraging creates critical mass. What we have right now in Birmingham is scattershot.

      All that being said, yes of course WE are at fault for not insisting our leaders provide this type of planned guidance in achieving goals.

  2. I believe that the City Center Master Plan was shelved when the City administration changed (Kincaid to Langford). ONB kept focus on the plan but had/has little ability to do it on its own. Changes in administration are easy opportunities to lose focus. As citizens we can’t let that happen, regardless of how strong-willed the leadership is in charting their own course.
    The MPO provided money to the City to conduct the one-way conversion study (to initiate that recommendation in the City Center Plan). I suspect that a combination of factors led to its falling flat: It was not SEXY enough for Langford (and it wasn’t his idea); City traffic engineers think it is their job to get people OUT of downtown at 5pm as quickly as possible; and some loud, business owners believed the change to two-way streets would hurt business.
    Thankfully, UAB is moving forward on their own plan, which is very consistent with the CCMP.

    • Good points. Without continuity at the top, many of these issues fall flat. That’s why successful cities have redevelopment authorities (or something like them) which are apolitical, not bound to election cycles or vagaries of a particular mayor.

      Unfortunately, like many other things in this City, creating such an authority is seen as giving up power. Sometimes it seems that each existing entity would rather hold on to its crumb, rather than giving up a bit of it to bake a communal pie.

      As citizens yes, we need to do a better job in expecting consistency/implementation on some of these issues. Thanks.

  3. I’ve always thought Magnolia Park should be turned into the primary dog park for 5PS, SouthTown & Highland Park- make it a truly canine-centric oasis for our four-legged friends to be natural and socialize after long days stuck inside (often in crates at that, too). Since hobozombies and miscreants are the only denizens using the park on any regular basis, it’s not like we’d be taking it out of circulation. This repurposing would also (hopefully) relieve pressure on Rhodes Park, which has become Southside’s de facto dog park. MP is so easy to walk to!! Designing this space as a dog park, with Quinlan Castle & Blaze the Dragon as inspiration (castles. dragons. more actual magnolias = “magic”), has the potential to enliven and revive this prime piece of real estate… and boost the value of surrounding properties, too.

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