Plaza Design Dos & Don'ts / Salt Lake vs St. George

By Richard White, August 17, 2014 (an edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald titled "Public Plazas need to be friendly" August 16, 2014)

You would think that after centuries of urban design there would be a checklist of dos and don’ts for urban designers to make sure every new plaza and town square is public friendly.  But over and over again, I see millions of dollars wasted on public plaza designs that don’t work, or don’t work as well as they should.  

This past spring, we visited two downtown public plazas that illustrate some of the dos and don’ts of public space design. 

Salt Lake City Olympic Plaza, Utah

We came upon Salt Lake City’s Olympic Plaza almost by accident while wandering the Gateway Mall, a downtown outdoor shopping centre.  The Plaza is in the middle of the Mall with no links to the streets and no real sense of arrival. something you would expect from an Olympic Plaza. It is actually a small, intimate space.

We DO love the dancing snowflake fountain, which did attract some children to play in it. However we DON’T like the fact that kids can’t play in the inviting man-made stream complete with rocks and trees plaza’s edge. It should have been designed to allow for families to play in the water and climb the rocks.  Good public spaces don’t have a long list of things you can’t do!

We DON’T like the steep stairs entering the plaza at one side. While the steps may make for good seating at times, it was a huge barrier for young children, older people, and those arriving with strollers, bikes and wheelchairs. 

We DON’T like that overall; Salt Lake City’s Olympic Plaza feels more like a private space, which supports the commercial retailers of the Gateway Mall.  In fact, it is almost identical in scale and scope to a similar dancing fountain and man-made stream plaza in the city’s brand new City Creek Centre shopping mall, just a few blocks away.   

Salt Lake City's downtown Olympic Plaza with its central fountain. 

The plaza includes these red rocks and water feature inspired by the Utah landscape. 

The plaza includes these red rocks and water feature inspired by the Utah landscape. 

It seems a shame that children can't play in water and climb on the rocks.  Public spaces should be design to encourage as many different activities as possible, especially passive activities.  

It seems a shame that children can't play in water and climb on the rocks.  Public spaces should be design to encourage as many different activities as possible, especially passive activities.  

Salt Lake City's Olympic Plaza from afar with its small grass area for play. Too often plazas are over designed and have too many different levels.  A flat grass space that allows people to play different games is much better than a sea of concrete with lots of steps. 

Salt Lake City's Olympic Plaza from afar with its small grass area for play. Too often plazas are over designed and have too many different levels.  A flat grass space that allows people to play different games is much better than a sea of concrete with lots of steps. 

Salt Lake City's plaza is lined with shops like European plazas, unfortunately they don't open out onto the plaza. 

Salt Lake City's plaza is lined with shops like European plazas, unfortunately they don't open out onto the plaza. 

City Creek Centre's plaza and fountain. 

City Creek Centre's plaza and fountain. 

There is an actual creek running through the shopping centre. 

There is an actual creek running through the shopping centre. 

St. George Town Square, Utah

Contrastingly, St. George’s Town Square seemed to DO everything right. The Square is right off of Main Street and is visible to pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. The dancing water fountain is front and centre, inviting people of all ages to stop, look and play.

Our visit was in late March, and already the weather was nice enough for dozens of children and their families to enjoy the Square. I can only imagine how refreshing this fountain is in the summer when it gets really hot. 

We DO like that not only the fountain (very similar to Salt Lake’s Olympic Plaza fountain), but also the man-made stream just a few meters away can be played in and enjoyed by everyone. 

We Do like that there is a picnic area with movable tables and chairs in the middle allowing parents could easily watch their children run from one area to the next. 

We DO like that there are public washrooms in the immediate area.

We DO like that there is also carousel in the square for families to enjoy. It is also priced right at $1 per ride with kids under 42 inches getting to ride free.   Not sure what it is about small American cities but many seem to have a carousel somewhere in their Downtown – Helena, Missoula, Spokane and Idaho Falls. (There used to be 5,000 carousels in USA, now there are fewer than 125).  There is something fun about the sound and sight of a carousel. They enliven many urban spaces including Paris, New York City and Lyon. A carousel would be a great addition to Calgary’s Olympic Plaza, Devonian Gardens or the Eau Claire Plaza/Wading pool.

We DO like that the square is anchored on three corners by a public buildings, giving it a definite sense of being public.  As well, two of the buildings – Library and Children’s Museum – are very synergistic with the family focus of the Square.

We DO like that the Square and streets around it are home to several small public artworks. In an innovative twist, the sculptures are actually for sale, so they are temporary rather than permanent. So rather than the City purchasing the works of art, the City offers up the square and streets as an outdoor exhibition space on a temporary basis to sell their art.  There is even a price list posted at the entrance to the square.    

We DO like that the square includes a large rectangular multi-purpose grass area that is used for non-programmed activities like throwing a ball or a Frisbee, as well as major programs like movies in the square, arts and craft fair and being the “finish line” for an international iron man competition.

St. George’s Town Square was completed in 2007 and designed by Bruce Jorgensen, GSBS Architects from Salt Lake City for $4.5 million.  

The water fountain is right next to the sidewalk and open to the street so pedestrian and drives can see all the fun being had by the families.  

Children love to walk, run and jump in the water. 

Kids are ENCOURAGED to play in the water.  

Inviting seating area for parent in St. George's Town Square.  Great place to watch the kids play, have a chat or even work on your laptop, iPad or phone. 

The Carousel is just one of several elements that makes St. George's Town Square and inviting public space. 

One of several, life-size fun sculptures in or near St. George Town Square. 

Last Word

Over the past 10 years, Calgary has created dozens of public spaces that are nice to look at but rarely get much use.  Poppy Plaza is a good example; this $11 million dollar public space, located on Memorial Drive right next to the Louise Bridge and the busy Bow River pathway, you would think would be a busy place. Yet I have walked, cycled and driven by 100s of times (at various times of day and of the week) and at most, I might see one or two people there and usually they are just passing through. Good public spaces are engaging and allow for multiple uses year-round - they are more than just decoration.

Currently there area three new urban public spaces in the works for Calgary’s Beltine – ENMAX Park (on the east bank of the Elbow River, part of Stampede Park’s mega-makeover), Enoch Park (Macleod Trail between 11th and 12th Avenues SE) and Connaught Park (on 16th Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets SW). 

Over the summer, I hope to meet with the designers of these spaces and share with you what urban dwellers can expect from these new spaces. 

Poppy Plaza at noon on a beautiful summer day sits empty. 

The site of the new ENMAX Park at Stampede next to the Elbow River. Putting the park back into parking lots. 

Calgary's Century Gardens is not public friendly.  When designing public spaces designers should be thinking about how to foster activities not restrict them.

Kids, get back here you can't climb on those rocks, no wading in the water!

Kids, get back here you can't climb on those rocks, no wading in the water!

If you like this blog, you might like:

Olympic Plaza needs a mega makeover

Poppy Plaza Review

The importance of the public realm

Footnote:

Richard White is the Urban Strategist at Ground3 Landscape Architects; this blog reflects his opinions and not necessarily those of Ground3.