This weekend, we held the 4th anniversary of the original Better Block on the site of the first ever project. One of the major issues we’ve faced since that original effort was that funds were directed by the city to convert an unnecessary and dangerous strip of roadway to a quality public plaza. $600,000 were set aside to the street, but local property owners who originally were on board with the effort, decided later that it wouldn’t be sustainable, and that the space should fall into private hands. For our birthday event, we wanted to show how a plaza would actually work in the area and outlined the needs and hurdles that would be required to understand and negotiate in order to have a great plaza like we’ve seen in places around the world. So here’s the quick list:
8 Elements for creating great public plazas
– Affordable food businesses facing plaza, and something for each major meal time of the day. For Texas, think breakfast tacos in the morning, sandwiches for lunch, and pizza by the slice for dinner. Nothing too fancy, but accessible and easy to grab and go.
– Tables and chairs
– Shade providing landscaping, and specifically, tall trees that can create a canopy feel that shed their leaves in the winter so sunlight comes through
– Edges that define the space with easy access for pedestrians and strong connections from the nearby neighborhoods
– Free amenities, whether it be a dog park, table games, bocce ball, or a stage for local musicians.
– Alcohol fixes most broken space. If you allow beer in your public space, you’ve just upped the usage and success rate by 100%.
– Lighting, and elements that make the area feel safe.
– Regular programmed activities. Let the surrounding merchants or community organizations schedule markets, art shows, concerts, plays, or anything that celebrates the neighborhood’s assets.
If any of these elements are skimped on, then expect low usage, and potential failure for the space. Now let’s address the potential problems:
-Sustainability – Who’s going to take care of all of the tables and chairs, trash, et cetera? Simple, the small businesses facing the plaza. If you are not able to help setup, clean up, and maintain, then you are no longer allowed to be a business in the area. As simple as that.
– Keeping programming happening – This is something that should be developed alongside the rollout of the public space. Develop a “Friends of” organization that can sit under an existing communities foundation, and have its sole purpose be to manage, administer, and improve the activities and amenities in the public space. Allow the merchants and property owners the first seats since they stand the most to gain from the enhanced space.
– Parking – Keep the space small, focus on locals, and recognize that the higher quality the public space, the further out people will be willing to park (read: Klyde Warren Park). We all have to recognize and be okay with the fact that it’s hard to find parking in great places, no matter where you are in the world.