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Public spaces in urban areas

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Public spaces are obviously one of the biggest keys (and necessities) to a successful urban environment and those that live in it. It gives us an easy buffer to life in the city.

When I think of public spaces I think of Central Park in New York or Grant Park or Lincoln Park in Chicago. I would go so far as to count Lake Michigan as a public space for Chicago.

What are some of the best examples of public spaces for cities of all sizes? What makes them appropriate for their respective city? What design elements work best for all cities in general?

My own city of Charlotte is, IMO, lacking in urban public spaces, but the city does have an abundance of pocket parks or other pocket public spaces like fountains and urban art. These smaller parks offer a great way to experience the newness of spring or a location to have have lunch, but don't offer much of a true buffer like that of a much larger park (i.e. Central Park).

Are larger parks like Central Park even needed to create a great experience? Can the same experience be had in a much smaller public space such as Bryant Park in New York?

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You got me thinking that there might be some sort of equation to help figure out what the optimal park size in relation to population and density would be. So I tracked down some info: But I'll leave it up to someone else to figure out the equation.

New York City

- Land 304.8 sq mi (789.4 km2)

Population (July 1, 2007)[1]

- City 8,274,527

- Density 27,147/sq mi (10,482/km2)

Central Park

Size 843 acres (341 ha)



- Land 48.4 sq mi (125.4 km2)

Population (2007)[3][4]

- City 608,352

- Density 12,327/sq mi (4,815/km2)

Boston Common

Area: 50 acres[1]

Los Angeles

- Land 469.1 sq mi (1,214.9 km2)

Population (2006)

- City 3,849,378

- Density 8,205/sq mi (3,168/km2)



- Land 227.2 sq mi (588.3 km2)

Population (2007)

- City 2,836,659 (3rd U.S.)

- Density 12,649/sq mi (4,816/km2)

Grant Park incl. Millenium Park

Area: 319 acres


-Land 127.4 sq mi (326.144 km2)

Population (July 1st, 2007)

- City 1,449,634 (6th)

- Density 10,882.8/sq mi (4,201.8/km2)

Fairmount Park


Richmond, VA

- Land 60.1 sq mi (155.6 km2)

Population (2007)

- City 200,123

- Density 3,211.1/sq mi (1,239.8/km2)

Maymont Park (questionably central to the city) - but Monroe Park doesn't qualify

Area: 247 acres

Belle Isle (more suitable location)

Area: 54 acres

I don't think I could pick ONE park for Charlotte to call it's "Central Park." My criteria would require an urban setting, more offering amenities beyond "grass and trees", and be walkable from the density maybe Independence Park? Latta would be better suited, but I feel like it isn't "Central."

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One of the best public spaces for a city its size is Falls Park on the Reedy River in downtown Greenville, SC (pop. 56K, urban area 321K, MSA 624K). It's right smack in the middle of downtown and provides quite an urban oasis. It essentially serves as the demarcating point between the Main Street/CBD district and the historic West End district. The city was just naturally blessed to have a river with falls run through its downtown, and it has capitalized on that feature extremely well:













As for the things that work well for any successful public space, I think the first thing would be connectivity. If it's too isolated, it won't be used as much. Some sort of water feature(s) also seems to be ubiquitous in successful public spaces.

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I'd like to check out that SC park!

When thinking about public space, I think it's also good to look beyond the big, signature spaces like Central Park or the Boston Common, etc. Great cities have a network of smaller public open spaces peppered throughout. I'm in school for architecture. In two separate courses we've used the same resource for learning guidelines to designing urban public spaces: For over thirty years the bible on this topic has been William H. Whyte's film and book "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces." I found a link to the intro to the film here:

Yes the film is obviously dated (and he turned out to be exactly wrong in diagnosing the problems of Manhattan's Bryant park), but it is very watchable for layperson and professional alike. It altered the way I viewed urban public spaces and after I saw it, I began to see its influence everywhere I went.

I'm sorry if it's mentioned elsewhere on the forum; I'm an infrequent visitor.

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It's kind of interesting to propose that one of the most important features of a successful urban environment is a place of nature where you get away from the built environment. But I think it is that juxtaposition that makes a downtown more identifiable. Just as the most successful modern brutalist buildings relied on well planned greenery or signage to soften the edges and make it approachable, so does a green space make the urban environment more acceptable and settled in.

The most successful public spaces, however, aren't always the largest but rather those than most provide a city with an identity. For instance London has many huge greenswards. But what are perhaps the most important social spaces are the pedestrian streetscapes of Soho and Trafalgar Square. The streetscapes provide socialization and interesting destinations, Trafalgar Square has the magnetism of a grand fountain which draws people in and provides a focal point both visually and more importantly socially and directionally. The same could really be said of Times Square.

I don't think there is any one style which works best - it depends upon what other features the city already has. What I think DOES need to be there is destination. A reason, a focal point (and not necessarily visual) to bring people out and to bring them together.

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Center-City park opened about 3 years ago in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. This is a very successful urban park and there are usually plenty of people in the park day and night. Its located right in the heart of downtown where office workers go during their lunch breaks. many nights there are between 40 to 100 people there. The park is not just a green space where people go to relax. It also service s a venue for concerts and other community events. Street musicians sit down in the park to play a little jazz and free WiFi is available. The focal point of the park are the fountains




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