Friday, December 1, 2006

Greensboro's Center City Park: Outstanding!

I wasn’t able to attend the ribbon cutting of the new Center City Park this morning, but Hero and I walked down to visit late this afternoon.

First impression: Wow.

Even though I’ve been passing by this park for more than a year as it was under construction, actually going into the finished product was – for me, at least – exhilarating.

Granted, I probably have more than the usual amount of enthusiasm for public spaces, but the other people there seemed to be impressed, too. And quite a few people were still walking through, sitting, and enjoying it, hours after the opening celebration. This park is going to be a huge success, and the people from Action Greensboro did one hell of a job.

But you don’t have to just take my word for it. The Project for Public Spaces has a set of 10 principles for good parks. Let’s go through them and see how the new park measures up.

1. Image and Identity. "Historically, squares were the center of communities, and they traditionally helped shape the identity of entire cities. Sometimes a fountain was used to give the square a strong image: Think of the majestic Trevi Fountain in Rome ..."

It remains to be seen whether this park will help shape the identity of Greensboro. But it's placed right smack in the heart of downtown, and it incorporates some features that are meant to highlight Greensboro's history, such as the shuttle-and-loom-like roof of this pergola, echoing Greensboro's textile-industry roots, and granite-inscribed quotes from Greensboro native son O. Henry.

Plus it has a really outstanding set of fountains, whose alternating sprays were delighting everybody, especially the kids.

(There was one minor glitch with the fountains, though. At one point in the display, some of the water arcs over a sidewalk from one pool to another. Very cool! -- and very wet if you happen to be on that sidewalk when it happens. The park designers were trying to figure out some way to warn people about that when I was there.)

2. Attractions and Destinations. "Any great square has a variety of smaller "places" within it to appeal to various people. These can include outdoor cafés, fountains, sculpture, or a bandshell for performances. ... some of the best civic squares have numerous small attractions such as a vendor cart or playground that, when put together, draw people throughout the day."

I didn't count them up, but the Center City Park has a bunch of attractions in addition to the fountains. There are small sculptures for kids to play on, a bandshell for performances, the Cafe Europa across the street, many small gardens, and large and small lawns for play or for events.

3. Amenities. "A square should feature amenities that make it comfortable for people to use. A bench or waste receptacle in just the right location can make a big difference in how people choose to use a place ... Public art can be a great magnet for children of all ages to come together. Whether temporary or permanent, a good amenity will help establish a convivial setting for social interaction."

The amenities in this park are excellent: ample benches and low granite walls (which kids love to walk on), public art by local artist Jim Cooper ("libation") and by Seagrove artist Fred D. Johnston ("Bird", "Pitcher", and "Chicks"), lots of little nooks for sitting, sidewalks paved with attractive masonry, and small gardens.

4. Flexible Design. "The use of a square changes during the course of the day, week, and year. To respond to these natural fluctuations, flexibility needs to be built in. Instead of a permanent stage, for example, a retractable or temporary stage could be used. Likewise, it is important to have on-site storage for movable chairs, tables, umbrellas, and games so they can be used at a moment's notice."

Although the park does have a permanent stage, it also has plenty of flex space as well as storage. Time will tell us how well these are used.

5. Seasonal Strategy. "A successful square can't flourish with just one design or management strategy. Great squares ... change with the seasons. Skating rinks, outdoor cafés, markets, horticulture displays, art and sculpture help adapt our use of the space from one season to the next."

Since the Center City Park has only been open for less than a day, we'll have to see how seasonal plans develop.

6. Access. "To be successful, a square needs to be easy to get to. The best squares are always easily accessible by foot: Surrounding streets are narrow; crosswalks are well marked; lights are timed for pedestrians, not vehicles; traffic moves slowly; and transit stops are located nearby. A square surrounded by lanes of fast-moving traffic will be cut off from pedestrians and deprived of its most essential element: people."

Access to the park is very good, and traffic is well-regulated for pedestrian use, with clearly-marked (and new) street-print crosswalks leading to the park, and an excellent new streetscape and sidewalk along Elm Street. Access is also good for suburbanites who want to come to the park for special events, since several (maybe too many) parking garages rim the park.

Action Greensboro made an effort to dress up one of the parking garages with a painting of Nathanael Greene, and the architects did a good job of distracting attention away from another of the garages with the placement of the fountains.

7. The Inner Square & the Outer Square. "Visionary park planner Frederick Law Olmsted's idea of the "inner park" and the "outer park" is just as relevant today as it was over 100 years ago. The streets and sidewalks around a square greatly affect its accessibility and use, as do the buildings that surround it. Imagine a square fronted on each side by 15-foot blank walls -- that is the worst-case scenario for the outer square. Then imagine that same square situated next to a public library: the library doors open right onto the square; people sit outside and read on the steps; maybe the children's reading room has an outdoor space right on the square, or even a bookstore and cafe. An active, welcoming outer square is essential to the well-being of the inner square."

The Center City Park is right across Davie Street from the Greensboro Cultural Arts Center, the Cafe Europa, and the YWCA. It is also right across Elm Street from the under-construction Center Pointe tower (the old Wachovia building), which we hope will have retail or restaurants on its ground floor.

In this case, the "inner park" has helped to create some of its own "outer park," since it is doubtful that developer Ray Carroll would have undertaken the Center Pointe project unless the Center City Park had already been underway.

8. Reaching Out Like An Octopus. "Just as important as the edge of a square is the way that streets, sidewalks and ground floors of adjacent buildings lead into it. Like the tentacles of an octopus extending into the surrounding neighborhood, the influence of a good square (such as Union Square in New York) starts at least a block away. Vehicles slow down, walking becomes more enjoyable, and pedestrian traffic increases. Elements within the square are visible from a distance, and the ground floor activity of buildings entices pedestrians to move toward the square."

The park designers did a good job on the footprint of the park, and the City of Greensboro has pitched in with some public sidewalk improvements. Making elements of the park visible from a block away is a tough one, though, since the park is surrounded on all sides by high-rises.

9. The Central Role of Management. "The best places are ones that people return to time and time again. The only way to achieve this is through a management plan that understands and promotes ways of keeping the square safe and lively. For example, a good manager understands existing and potential users and gears events to both types of people. Good managers become so familiar with the patterns of how people use the park that waste receptacles get emptied at just the right time and refreshment stands are open when people most want them. Good managers create a feeling of comfort and safety in a square, fixing and maintaining it so that people feel assured that someone is in charge."

Too early to make a judgement on this one: time will tell whether this park will be well-managed. However, former Action Greensboro Executive Director Susan Schwartz (pictured below) did a fine job of shepherding this complex project to completion. If past performance is an indicator of the future, things should go well.

10. Diverse Funding Sources. "A well-managed square is generally beyond the scope of the average city parks or public works department, which is why partnerships have been established to operate most of the best squares in the United States. These partnerships seek to supplement what the city can provide with funding from diverse sources, including--but not limited to--rent from cafés, markets or other small commercial uses on the site; taxes on adjacent properties; film shoots; and benefit fundraisers."

The park is privately owned and will be maintained in partnership with the city, and my understanding is that the owners plan to rent the park for various kinds of events in order to keep revenue flowing in.

In short, Action Greensboro seems to have done everything in its power to make this park a good public space. I guess that shouldn't be surprising; they brought in the Project for Public Spaces as consultants early in the process, and hired designers who knew what they were doing.

Well done! I'm very grateful, and Greensboro should be, too.


Darkmoon said...

That looks totally sweet. I'll need to stop by when I get a chance. I'm curious for the arcing fountain display, why they didn't shoot it higher than most people. I mean, you can direct it high enough that it doesn't hit anyone and you'd be underneath a stream of water. That'd be sweet.

In any case, it really looks wonderful. It's a great thing for downtown.

David Wharton said...

I didn't see it myself, but apparently the arc is high enough to walk under -- it's just that when the arcing stops, that last bit of water drenches the people on the sidewalk.

Anonymous said...

It gets hot here in the summer. That's a nice way to cool off :)

Seriously, David, this is a great post and one we'd like to link to from the AG and/or CCPark sites. Is that OK with you?

David Wharton said...

Of course, link away!

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to visiting this park, maybe tomorrow. I drove by it today and it looks intriguing, even more so now that I've read this post. I'm so glad the city decided to partner with Action Greensboro on this. I've always thought it was money well spent. Thanks, David!

Glenn said...

Dave, this is one of the best posts you've done. I am proud to be your brother!

David Wharton said...

Thanks bro -- that means a lot.

Back atcha!

Anonymous said...

Nice park. It will be better once they make the expensive changes to make it ADA compliant. The rough pavers will never be ADA friendly, but you can't let those crips have everything they want.
Nice job by City inspections.

David Wharton said...

In what way isn't it ADA compliant? As far as I could see, there were ramps to every part of the park.

David Wharton said...

I checked with Dabney Sanders at Action Greensboro -- the park is fully ADA compliant, and there is no part of it that can't be reached by wheelchair.

Anonymous said...

You checked with Action Greensboro. Good one! Check with GDOT's bike and pedestrian coordinator. They should have received a complaint and checked by now.

David Wharton said...

I spoke this morning with Peggy Holland, the city's coordinator for pedestrian planning.

You are right. Peggy identified two ADA problems: the driveways across the sidewalk on Davie St. have a cross-slope that is a few degrees too steep, and the supports on one of the pergolas will need blocking (like the granite blocks under the pergola pictured above) to keep people from knocking their heads on them.

Judy Morton at Action Greensboro told me that since the park is not yet fully complete, these items will be added to the punch list for correction before they sign off on the finished product.

Unknown said...

Hi David - this is a great post! It's exciting to see these great images of the park. We are interested in using some of your images on our website to illustrate our project experience - please contact me. I'd also love to hear some updates on activity in the park, and how it is being received by the community.
Katie Salay
Project for Public Spaces