April 3rd, 2008

Less is More: New Public Spaces

Posted in Canada, Public Space, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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Movable tables and chairs in a plaza at Broadway and 66th, New York

Montreal is in the midst of a great public space building boom. Plenty of new squares, plazas and open spaces have been created over the past six or seven years, most notably in the Quartier international, but also throughout the city. With the redevelopment of Griffintown, Viger Square and the area around Rosemont metro, along with the construction of the CHUM superhospital and the reconstruction of Place d’Armes and the Pine/Park interchange, ensuring that our new public spaces are well-designed is particularly important.

So how have we been doing until now? In the latest issue of Canadian Architect, Gavin Affleck offers a review of some of our newest public spaces. “In many ways the story of recent public space design in Montreal has been a story of moving from more to less,” he writes. “The city core boasts an impressive inventory of public spaces ranging in age from colonial squares to contemporary corporate plazas. During the last 20 years, the design of both historic refurbishment schemes and contemporary projects has been marked by a gradual shift towards a more minimal expression. The most successful of recent projects are evidence that well designed urban space is simple, flexible and free of physical encumbrances.”

By that standard, many of the spaces built in the 60s and 70s are abject failures, with Viger Square a particularly apt example. Designed by a team of highway engineers and visual artists, the resulting square is a “seemingly endless plethora of concrete park pavilions, pergolas, retaining walls, fountains, planters and outdoor sculpture” that is too crowded with architectural objects to be of any practical use. Many newer projects stand in contrast to this unsuccessful approach, including the early 1990s redevelopment of the Old Port, the renovation of Place des Arts and, most recently, the Quartier International, which is produced a revamped Victoria Square and the new Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle, two of Montreal’s most interesting squares.

The key lesson that Montreal’s designers have applied in recent years is that simplicity and flexibility make the best public spaces. Beyond those two attributes, though, they also need activity, which is something that good design cannot create, but only facilitate. Affleck recognizes this: “What public space is about is human activity; what it is not about is architectural objects. The great urban spaces of European cities are precisely that: spaces. What fills them is the ebb and flow of life–events, experiences, activities. Rather than aesthetic, formal or visual concerns, the measure of success of a public space is the degree of vitality it achieves as a support for human activity,” he writes.

St. James United Church, Montreal

In the case of Montreal’s newest public spaces, it often seems that too little is being done to ensure that they are used to their fullest potential. While Dalhousie Square, located on the edge of Old Montreal next to the Faubourg Québec development, is one example; despite its open and engaging design, I have never seen more than two people using it at any given time. The new plaza in front of St. James United Church is another example. While it does an admirable job of opening up the church’s Gothic façade, bringing it back into the pedestrian’s experience of Ste. Catherine Street, it functions pretty much as a void, with no tables, benches or anything to draw people in. Even the church’s steps fail to attract lingerers the same way that the steps at nearby Place des Arts or Christ Church Cathedral do.

So here’s a simple idea for simple spaces: more public seating. When I was in New York in late February, I was reminded of how effectively-designed even the smallest of its squares can be. Subway entrances, newsstands and street vendors attract people and ample seating is provided for them. Some parks feature movable tables and chairs, like in an outdoor café, a successful idea borrowed from Paris that has proven popular and reliable throughout the world (including in Toronto’s Dundas Square). Maybe Montreal could adopt something like this to generate activity in spaces like the St. James plaza.

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Seats integrated into a planter in a small plaza at Broadway and 72nd, New York

Photo of St. James courtesy Canadian Architect


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3 comments

  1. Georg D says:

    note how the seats in new York are designed to keep people from lying down – a simple and quite undemocratic way to deny the space to homeless. Then again, this is one big question about public spaces, how public and accessible does the public really want them to be?

    April 4th, 2008 at 2:49 am

  2. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Although there’s no denying that homeless people are marginalized and deprived of their right to use public space, the question of how they (or anyone) should be allowed to use that space isn’t simple. Should everyone have the right to lie down or sleep on a public bench? Doesn’t that infringe on the right of others to use that bench?

    April 6th, 2008 at 12:26 pm

  3. SubC says:

    The last thing a well used public space needs is homeless people, most of whom are lazy, crazy , addicted or a combination of these. A sizeable presence of homeless will easily drive away the regular folks for whom the place was developed in the first place.

    December 5th, 2009 at 11:32 pm