It’s been awhile since my last post. I haven’t died. I just returned from visiting friends and family in NYC and Boston. I’ll spare you the comparisons of their transit systems to Baltimore’s, or other gushing remarks, like, “Oh the architecture bla bla bla”. Baltimore will never be NYC or Boston, but we can have one thing that makes walking around these cities interesting; great public spaces.
Both cities have active public spaces where people can relax, get creative, get weird, or just watch other people. I saw a man try to walk what looked like a bald eagle on a leash in Union Square. There are formal and informal spaces within the park for almost every conceivable type of activity. In Boston, there were these really bad break dancers in a plaza near the Irish Potato Famine monument. But they drew a huge crowd and it became sort of an event. The famine monument itself is an outdoor living room where people were mingling and having lunch.
Even the smallest parks in NYC and Boston have a sense of playfulness and spontaneity. This encourages people to explore another block, turn a corner, or stop into a local coffee shop on their walk around town. There is a little bit of this at the Inner Harbor, but its mostly people walking from one tourist spot to the other. The Katyn Memorial in Harbor East seems to exist solely as a solemn reminder of a tragedy and nothing more. Preston Gardens, in its current form, acts as more of a highway divider than an urban park, though if the number of traffic lanes on St. Paul Street were reduced, widening the park could improve its visibility and function.
Central Plaza on Fayette Street has potential if it just loosened up. It’s a really serious place with signs saying “Keep off the lawn!” and people in business suits eating their serious lunches very seriously. If more benches were added and trees planted near the internal walkways – and not just around the perimeter (sort of like Farragut Square in DC but on a smaller scale), it would encourage more use and make the park seem more active. Like William Whyte said, people attract people. Central Plaza is a bit handicapped since it exists mid-block and not at an intersection, but this could also work to its advantage. There was an outdoor performance by a folk singer at Central Plaza a few weeks ago and the acoustics were great – filling the small space which is surrounded by buildings on 3 sides.
Project for Public Spaces and Downtown Partnership held several design charettes for the Downtown Open Space Plan last month. While the economy sputters along and big ticket projects get cut back, improving the design and programming of our public spaces could be a low-cost way of making Baltimore a more vibrant, fun city. Places like Boston Common or Union Square were carved out hundreds of years ago, so we’ll have to make do with the parks we have, though we might be able to expand a few of them.
William Whyte, the famed park designer and people watcher, said in the book “City: Rediscovering the Center“:
Cities should take a closer look at what they already have. Most of them are sitting on a huge reservoir of space yet untapped by imagination. They do not need to spend millions creating space. In their inefficiently used rights-of-way, and their vast acreage of parking lots, there is more than enough space for broad walkways, small parks and pedestrian places.
Update: The Infrastructurist has a piece on Dallas’s new Main Street Garden. I was in Dallas this past May visiting a friend and was pretty impressed by their public spaces. Even some of their corporate plazas are unique and really active. Also check out Urbanite’s “Baltimore Parks Lag Behind” piece.