May 29, 2008
Community-engaging design activates civic spaces
By SEAN CANADY and MARIEKE LACASSE
This past May Day, Seattle’s Harbor Steps was transformed into a two-hour-long, live interactive spectacle of visual and aural delights to kick off the spring season’s downtown Art Walk. The performance, titled “Ooo La La,” created the celebratory and whimsical atmosphere of a luxury cruise ship from the 1920s, with a live orchestra, bubblegum-snapping Brooklyn bellboys, lovesick British maids, French waiters, pink poodles and many more surprises from a cast of more than 150 actors, dancers and musicians.
Many people there likely had not considered the delight they would experience in this surprisingly interactive performance. With the existing urban landscape as a canvas, the audience was invited to be part of a vivid shared experience with people that they normally might just pass by on their way home from work. The event also illustrated the power of art to enliven and enrich the social environment.
Design of dynamic urban spaces, at its best, is an exercise that not only considers the function of a place, but the potential for meaningful human interaction. That is the hallmark of our world’s best cities.
Urban open space
This free outdoor performance served as a reminder that Seattle has a shortage of downtown open spaces. The Seattle Parks Department’s 2006 gap report states that 21 acres of open space have to be added in the city by 2024 to meet the needs of projected numbers of residents and workers.
To support urban density and attract residents, Seattle needs more open spaces that will make our downtown healthy and vibrant. As our own city’s downtown core transitions from a primarily commercial environment to one with 10,000 new households in the next 15 years, creating places that foster community is critical to the city’s vision of a livable downtown.
Minding the community
Fostering community in the urban landscape involves creating flexible spaces with elements that encourage interaction in ways that can happen with ease and that integrate seamlessly with people’s lives.
Let’s use the example of the classic urban plaza where it is important that a space have a significant amount of usable surface and be spacious enough to accommodate a large gathering of people. To create a vibrant nexus, the edges of the space should be porous so people can easily enter the site and active so people are attracted to what’s going on. Site amenities such as seating, lighting and shade structures need to be flexible, with potential for multiple uses. And the space needs to have a sense of organization, with unifying elements that bring the design together and serve as focal points or gateways.
Other aspects of good community-focused design include:
• Performance spaces with organized programming that provide year-round activities and celebrate the diversity of people within the local community.
• Connecting the site with the existing urban grid and paths of least resistance, so that people are drawn in and invited to walk through a space, in a way that feels organic and aesthetically pleasing.
• A variety of spaces and sizes in one larger space, offering a range of uses from large gatherings to smaller, intimate spaces for respite.
• Interactive elements, such as kinetic or dynamic water features or art pieces that invite human exploration and interaction.
• Site-specific uses like retail or services that activate and strengthen the character of the space, as well as fulfill the needs of visitors at various times of the day, week or season.
• Creating opportunities such as “Ooo La La” for people to have a shared experience or a focal point for interaction.
• Infusing renewable interest with subtle conceptual elements that encourage discovery of the space over time, through multiple visits. Users then feel like they are in a place that consistently reinvents itself because the experience is kept fresh and intriguing.
At GGLO, activating the public realm and enlivening the community is part of our design approach. Our vision is to create great civic places that celebrate cultural diversity.
Examples of projects from GGLO and others that illustrate this vision include:
Seattle Civic Square
GGLO is part of an international team that includes Foster + Partners and Atelier Dreiseitl designing Seattle Civic Square to be a new heart in downtown Seattle, bringing the social, cultural and civic functions of the traditional town square, plaza or piazza to a 21st century urban environment. It will be a place for the entire community to enjoy and gather, with more than 65 percent of the site as open space. We envision multiple uses of the square, such as groups of young people taking light-rail to this stop for civic education events, downtown workers and residents enjoying lunchtime performances or concerts, and people gathering for peaceful protest or celebration.
Twenty years before it was completed, Seattle visionary Stimson Bullitt of Harbor Properties assembled a 2.5-acre parcel in a declining neighborhood with the intent of creating a vibrant, downtown residential community. Harbor Steps now stands as an excellent example of a successful mixed-use development built around one of the area’s favorite outdoor places. Designed by Arthur Erickson, Callison and Hewitt, the project integrates businesses, retail, apartments and the cascading steps into a downtown oasis for residents and visitors alike.
Fremont Peak Park
Fremont Peak Park is the result of a collaboration among GGLO, artists Haddad|Drugan, Seattle Parks and Recreation, and a committed community. Envisioned as a neighborhood walk-to park, it is a peaceful urban refuge that integrates the art and the history of the neighborhood. The art is not static, but experienced spatially, in a way that connects you to both the immediate and distant landscape. It captures the spirit of Fremont, “the center of the universe,” by integrating mythological symbolism with cosmological events as visitors travel through a carefully planned discovery sequence from street edge through preserved woodland to a panoramic view of the Olympic Mountains.
A vision for our future
As designers of the urban environment, we are also designers of our community. How we choose to design reflects the kind of community we want to create. Carefully planned outdoor urban spaces are a necessary component to support and maintain healthy, vibrant, livable cities.
Designing spaces with a long-term vision creates opportunities for events like “Ooo La La” to occur. Reimagining the design of spaces and their myriad potential uses produces a canvas of possibility.
Through the support of public interactive events, GGLO and other designers at work in the public realm can “test” their efforts to create great places for community celebration and enjoyment. We can’t be sure if bellhops, bakers and pink poodles will ever grace the steps of the Seattle Civic Square one day, but at least we’ll have “Ooo La La” to remind us that anything is possible.
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