October 25, 2016

3 design elements that make a public space inviting

An architectural designer for Cleveland's Public Square on what can bring a community together

Cleveland's Public Square opened this summer, just before the Republican National Convention. Photo by Erik Drost

Effective public spaces are more than a shady spot to rest and people watch, they are a democratic platform, says landscape and architectural designer Veronica Rivera.

“It’s the space where everyone—it doesn’t matter their background or their social class or what they do for a living—everyone enjoys public space equally,” Rivera said in a recent interview for The Renewal Project. “If they’re an executive, if they’re a mom, if they’re transient, or if they’re part of the community. It’s that space where everyone can come together and enjoy one another.”

Rivera was the on-the-ground designer for James Corner Field Operations, the firm behind New York City’s famous High Line, which led the design and implementation of Cleveland’s Public Square. The $50 million renovation in the heart of downtown opened this summer to rave reviews.

During the Republican National Convention in July, Public Square served as a place to protest and also a place to relax. The Plain Dealer reported that “conventioneers and protesters generally co-existed peacefully in what amounted to a festive celebration of free speech” in the city’s revitalized public spaces. On visitor to the square told the newspaper he found the water element “very calming.”

So what makes a great public space? I asked Rivera what were her top 3 elements for creating a space that everyone in the community can enjoy. Here’s what she told me:

1. A range of space that people can use. “Every time we design a project, we’re kind of in shock at how people—you designed a bench for people to sit on but they actually lay, or they sit on the backrest, or they sit backwards—so you create the platform and people just use it in so many different ways,” Rivera says. Creating that space is where people feel welcome and they can sit back and they don’t necessarily have to do anything, just sit and watching people pass by. And having that range of scales where people can sit back and relax or run around or see a concert is definitely important for a success public space.

James Corner Field Operations led the design and construction of The High Line, a 23-city-block-long elevated railway reclaimed as a public space on Manhattan's West Side. Photo by Flickr user Craig Dietrich

2. Interesting planting. The High Line is a good example of this, Rivera says. Vegetation creates intimacy and shade and places where people can just rest on a hot summer day.

3. And water. It’s an incredible element to add to public spaces because humans are instinctively attracted to water; it doesn’t matter if it’s a full waterfront or just a small jet in the ground, Rivera says. Children and people in general love taking their shoes off and just running through a thin skim of water.

Not necessarily all projects have these components, she says, but an array of seating, planting, and water are features that definitely make people feel welcome, and want to linger in a space.

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers

The Renewal Project Editor