Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

Plazas & Walkways Create Ideal Gathering Places for a Community

If you want to create excitement in your downtown, consider open air plazas, squares and pedestrian walkways.  These newly created spaces could serve as major gathering places for the community and help to revitalize downtown areas.

According to Downtown Again, when occupied, public plazas radiate a sense of activity, display a high degree of camaraderie among the occupants, and seem to release drawing powers that passing pedestrians find difficult to resist.

Plaza sites must be highly visible and well lit.  Ideal locations for plazas are within walking distance of downtown businesses and around eateries, retail shops, brew pubs, and other businesses are located.   However, other potential sites could be existing parks or green areas, highly visible and accessible portions of surface parking lots, yard areas and alleyways linked to major downtown buildings such as courthouses and county offices, and locations where sidewalks might be expanded to accommodate plazas.  Plazas should also be within reasonable proximity of public restrooms.

Triangle Plaza: Los Angeles' First Pedestrian Plaza
Triangle Plaza: Los Angeles' First Pedestrian Plaza

Public squares and plazas should have activities that attract people individually as well as groups. They also need to include amenities such as tables, seating, fountains and reflecting pools, play areas, kiosks, Wi-Fi, flowers, trees and other landscaping, game boards, lighting, litter receptacles, bike racks, signage, etc.

Design and maintenance are also important keys in achieving the benefits that public plazas can offer.   Plazas must be well maintained with the daily removal of litter and trash and cleaning of tables and benches.  Plaza care can be part of a daily park management program.

Public plaza in Columbia Heights (Washington, DC).

Public plaza in Columbia Heights (Washington, DC).

The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) suggests the development of plazas and squares ideally requires four key ingredients: community ideas, public space design that supports a program, a management group in charge of the square and active public uses in adjacent buildings.

PPS also believes public squares are as vital to cities as economic development because they are where the people who live and work in a community experience their neighborhoods and each other. The benefits go far beyond just making better spaces for people:

  • Economic and Community Development – Public squares can catalyze private investment and small scale entrepreneurial activities.
  • Community identity – Squares nurture and define community identity by providing a sense of identity, encouraging volunteerism, and highlighting the values within the community.
  • Bridge-building – Squares draw a diverse population, including more women, elderly, and children, as well as a greater ethnic and cultural mix – and encourage people to get involved and take pride in the area.  Public squares are a “common ground.”

Public plazas also play a unique role in the lives of children, accordingly to the Project for Public Spaces (PPS).  Experiencing the space from two or three feet from the ground, children can seamlessly transform a safe street of colorful, moveable chairs into a fantasy world where hiding in plain sight becomes the best hiding place ever.

And, if communities aren’t quite sure if a plaza will work out, they may start as temporary projects to test the waters.

The Jackson Heights (NY) Green Alliance began working with local parents in 2007 to provide more play space for neighborhood children. By successfully transforming 78th Street into a play street closed to car traffic, the Alliance continued its advocacy resulting in a permanent public plaza.

A “Flicnic” at the 78th Street Plaza in New York.
A “Flicnic” at the 78th Street Plaza in New York.

One of the most discussed plaza projects is The Porch at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, PA, which represents a transformative new urban open space.  Adjacent to the second busiest train station in the country, between two magnificent historic buildings and within a short walk of over 16,000 jobs, The Porch is a key gateway to the region. Once a congested parking lane and a bland, barren sidewalk, The Porch has quickly become one of the most animated public places in Philadelphia, with amenities such as abundant seating, vibrant seasonal plantings, ongoing performances, fitness classes and a variety of special events such as The Porch Beer Garden and mini-golf.

The Porch at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, PA
The Porch at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, PA

Campus Martius Park, a 2.5 acre public square and year-round entertainment venue, anchors a two square block district that is the commercial center and heart of downtown Detroit. Surrounded by over 6.5 million square feet of mixed used space, the Campus Martius district is a regional destination. All of the major avenues radiate out from Detroit’s Point of Origin in the Park and the Park is also the crossroads to all the other major downtown activity.

Residents enjoying the space and activities in Campus Martius Park, Detroit.
Residents enjoying the space and activities in Campus Martius Park, Detroit.

REALTORS® are getting into the action too with hopes of revitalizing their downtowns with a new public place for the community to gather.

In Greenville, SC, a concrete space was not only an eyesore but also was an example of an underutilized property in a centrally located area downtown.    The Sumter (SC) Association of REALTORS® will be creating a courtyard in the space complete with fountain, flowers and benches.

Vacant, concrete space in Greenville, SC will be turned into a community garden.
Vacant, concrete space in Greenville, SC will be turned into a community garden.

The Bronx-Manhattan North (NY) Association of REALTORS® partnered with William Rivera, a District Leader & State Committeeman for New York’s 87th Assembly District on the Morrison Avenue Plaza Project.  The Association received an NAR Placemaking Micro-grant to create a mural which will help to activate the area and give residents another reason to visit the new plaza area.

And, while most of us think of a plaza being a square space, there are other options too.   The Ada County (ID)  Association of REALTORS®  is using an NAR Placemaking Micro-grant to create a pedestrian plaza, including seating and landscaping, to connect folks to Main Street and to help revitalize downtown Meridian.

Underutilized area between two buildings to be transformed into a pedestrian walkway in Meridian, ID.
Underutilized area between two buildings to be transformed into a pedestrian walkway in Meridian, ID.

The Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of REALTORS® has the same type of idea.   They will be converting an alley in Fortville, IN, which was recently closed to vehicular traffic, into a pedestrian walkway with benches, planters and public art.

So as you can see, there may be a variety of underutilized and vacant spaces in your community that could be transformed in plazas, walkways and gathering places.   Can you think of any?


Community Outreach Programs

Housing Opportunity Grant
Housing Opportunity Grants support state and local REALTOR® Associations’ affordable housing activities. The goal of the program is to position REALTORS® as leaders in improving their communities by creating affordable housing

Smart Growth Grant
Smart growth is an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and community engagement. The Smart Growth Program offers state and local REALTOR® Associations to way to engage with government officials, community partners and the general public in planning and designing community’s future.

Planned diversity initiatives makes good business sense. REALTOR® Associations with well-planned diversity programs create a stronger sense of community, particularly in neighborhoods with high concentrations of foreign-born and minority residents who are moving up the socioeconomic ladder and are buying homes.

NAR Placemaking Resources

Placemaking Guide: A Guide to Transform a Public Space into a Community Place
REALTORS® and state and local association staff can learn the details of Placemaking, the kinds of projects placemaking entails, how to organize them, and where to go for assistance and resources.

Placemaking Webinar Series
Our Placemaking Webinar Series will provide more in depth information on the various types of Placemaking and how REALTORS® were involved in Placemaking activities in their communities.

Placemaking Grant
The Placemaking Grant funds the creation of new public spaces, like pocket parks, trails & gardens, in a community. The grant focuses on “lighter, cheaper, quicker” placemaking projects, which can be built under a year and cost less  than $200,000.

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