Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Social Life of Brewer Fountain Plaza

As landscape architects, we often spend a lot of time agonizing over the details of a design – Which bench is most fitting? What type of paver will best illustrate the design pattern? What plant species best reflect the intended character of this space? – but more importantly, we must consider how – and why – people use the public spaces we create.

When I was a landscape architecture student, I visited a public plaza designed by one of my favorite contemporary landscape architects. It was a relatively large plaza/park situated in the center of an enormous apartment complex. I touted the ingeniousness of the design to my professor, showing him an array of site photos illustrating the various playful features and colorful site furnishings. ‘Wasn’t there anybody there?’ was his immediate response. Well, no, as it turns out, I did not encounter a single person using this plaza. Here I learned one of my most important lessons as a designer, and one that seemed so obvious once it was pointed out: If no one uses a space, how can its design ever be considered successful?

When I visit an urban plaza today, I always remind myself not only of that lesson, but also of William H. Whyte's seminal Street Life Project. In 1970, Whyte began studying the social life of small urban spaces. Through time-lapse recordings and site observations, he developed a series of criteria, or features, that together create urban spaces that draw people in. If you aren't familiar with his work, you can check out the original video here: http://vimeo.com/6821934    (I promise, it's a fun watch!)

After years of study, Whyte and his team were able to distill seven common features that transform small urban spaces into plazas teeming with life and social interaction.  The relationship between the plaza and the street is arguably the key design factor. Whyte determined that a good plaza starts at a busy street corner, which will have a social life of its own. The best, most highly used plazas have a blurred transition between where the sidewalk ends and the plaza begins.

The second most critical factor is sittable space. As designers, we often include benches or tables and chairs in our designs, but do we always consider how people want to sit and experience a space?  Whyte found that people prefer options; the most successful plazas incorporated a range of seating options, including fixed benches, movable chairs, and informal seating, such as ledges, steps, or tall curbs. With options, people are free to experience the life of the plaza in whatever way they want – secluded in a single chair placed under a shady tree canopy, together with a friend on a bench for prime people-watching, or sitting on a step or ledge, basking in the sun.

Environmental factors, such as sun and wind are also important. People want access to the sun, but don’t want to be overwhelmed by it, making the balance between sun and wind extremely important. Whyte also found that trees played important roles in drawing people into plazas. Use of trees is closely related to sitting and sun exposure. Tree canopies can create patterns of sun and shade, defining pleasant cool spots under which users can sit.

Food draws people into a plaza. This, in turn, will attract more vendors, which will attract more users. Whyte’s study found that the type of food isn’t the critical factor; whether it’s a full service outdoor restaurant or simply a vendor with a cart full of pretzels, the availability of refreshments will entice people to enter the plaza. 

Water draws people into a space; the sound of flowing water can create a much-needed escape from the sounds of a city street. However the presence of water is not enough; water should be accessible to visitors. People like to be able to reach out and touch the water.

The final element is something called triangulation. Whyte defines this as an external stimulus that prompts strangers to interact and talk to each other. This could be something as simple as a nice view of a nearby object or building, or could be more something interactive, such as a street performer.

If you watched even a few minutes of Whyte’s video, you quickly realized how long ago his study was undertaken. However, if we look at today’s urban spaces, these lessons still apply. The recently renovated Brewer Fountain Plaza is a prime example.  

Before its renovation, many people weren’t very keen on using the Brewer Fountain Plaza, in spite of its prime location in the Boston Common. There was a strong contingent of homeless people who slept on the benches, making people wary of entering the plaza space. A stepped terrace separated people from the central fountain and the plaza was deteriorating. Through a series of conceptual design alternatives, Pressley Associates helped the Friends of the Public Garden and Boston Parks and Recreation develop a plan for the plaza that would bring life back to the historic public space. Now the fountain plaza is alive with residents and visitors eager to enjoy the new urban oasis.

When we compare the features of the new Brewer Fountain Plaza with Whyte’s criteria, we’ll find it stacks up quite well. The plaza is situated at the southeast corner of the Boston Common; people enter and exit the red and green line subways via highly used head houses on the sidewalk adjacent to the plaza. With the widened sidewalk, it is difficult to pinpoint where one leaves the sidewalk space and enters the plaza. Here, the social life of the sidewalk and subway spills over into the fountain plaza. 

A large paved area between the sidewalk, subway head houses (visible in the background), and the plaza creates an undefined transition, blending the sidewalk space with the plaza proper.

The new fountain plaza also boasts a range of seating options. Park benches sit at the outer edge of the plaza, circling the fountain and allowing people to choose whether they face the street or the park. Small park tables are placed on the plaza with movable folding chairs available for visitors to arrange however they please.

Seating options include fixed benches and movable chairs with small tables. Umbrellas function as trees would, providing shade in the open and otherwise sunny plaza.

Because much of the plaza is open to the sun, people also sit on the tall granite curbs that line the walkways leading to and from the plaza. Here, people can enjoy the plaza while sitting comfortably beneath a shady tree. Folding umbrellas placed with the tables provides additional shade within the plaza itself. The openness of the plaza combined with the tree-lined walks leading to it allow for cool breezes without overwhelming wind tunnel effects. 

People sit on tall granite curbs that line the pedestrian walkways, enjoying the plaza from beneath large shade trees.
Food options abound at Brewer Fountain Plaza. Boston's famous Clover Food Lab has a food truck parked just beyond the plaza, in the transitional space between the plaza and sidewalk. A variety of food vendor carts also arrive at the plaza each day, selling refreshments like lemonade, frozen treats, and even gourmet pickles!

Clover Food Lab parks a truck, at right, at Brewer Fountain Plaza every day, providing one of many food options.
Water, of course, is the major feature at Brewer Fountain Plaza with the historic fountain sitting center stage. The new plaza gives visitors direct access to the fountain basin; here people can be observed peacefully sitting on the basin edge or posing for pictures while children reach in and splash the cool water. 

The fountain basin, and water, are easily accessible and draw people into the center of the plaza.

Plenty of opportunities for triangulation can also be found at Brewer Fountain Plaza. One of the most prominent is the striking view of the Massachusetts State House, sited at the top of the hill in direct alignment with the fountain. The solar-powered player piano that is rolled out onto the plaza every day could also spark conversations between users. The plaza boasts a ‘reading room’ with shelves of books defining a mini-space within the broader plaza. Here users can borrow books and arrange themselves on the movable chairs, enjoying a quiet read in the shade – another scenario that is likely to strike up conversation between readers. 

The view of the State House from the plaza is an example of triangulation, prompting visitors to interact with each other.
A reading room is tucked in a corner of the plaza; the piano sits in the shade of a large tree beyond.

Whyte argues that the popularity or level of use a plaza receives is not related to its aesthetics or visual appeal, but rather a combination of elements that inherently draws people in and encourages them to interact. If there’s any doubt that the synthesis of these factors create successful, well-used plaza with engaging social lives, head on down to the Brewer Fountain Plaza on your lunch break – you’ll enjoy it so much, you won’t want to leave!!

The lunch hour is the best time to enjoy the rhythm and excitement of the renovated Brewer Fountain Plaza!

-Sarah K. Cody
    Landscape Designer
    Historic Preservation Specialist
    Brewer Fountain Plaza Enthusiast