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


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

An Atheist's Look At Salt Lake Temple Square

Richard White, March 26, 2014

As a young child, I was raised a Catholic and was even an altar boy. But I have been a confirmed atheist since I was about 14.  However, I have a Mother who is a devote Catholic and many friends who have strong religious beliefs. Over the years, I have developed an “each to their own” philosophy when it comes to religion.  

You can’t say you have visit Salt Lake City unless you spend some time exploring the headquarters of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) commonly known as the Temple Square. Not only is Salt Lake City's sense of place closely tied to the Mormon Church, but so is its economy. In 2012 Reuters reported the Church had annual revenues of $7 billion from tithing and donations alone, with another $1.5 billion from its business enterprises.  In total, it has assets estimated at $35 billion.

However, the Square is really just a small walled area in downtown. It has five buildings - Assembly Hall, the Tabernacle, the Salt Lake Temple and two Visitor’s Centres (one focused on family and the other Jesus Christ). Outside the walls are the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Lion House, Beehive House, Administrative Building, Office Building, History Library, a massive Conference Centre, History Museum and Family History Library.  Thought, I haven’t been to any Silicon Valley high-tech company campuses, I imagine the Latter-Day Saints campus is much the same.

Throughout the five and half block campus, there are wonderful gardens and fountains that make for a very pleasant place to stroll or sit and contemplate the meaning of life.  It is a very cordial atmosphere with everyone smiling and saying “Hi.”

The only building tourists can’t enter is the Salt Lake Temple; all the other buildings offer free tours or some form of public access.  While the imposing blank stucco walled is not very pedestrian-friendly, I was told it was designed to muffle the sounds and distractions of the cars and people, thereby creating a more peaceful and contemplative place.  It is true the square is very calm and relaxing; for the most part there is no running and no shouting.  Surprisingly, there is also no graffiti on the exterior side of the blank walls. 

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Office Building at 26 floors, towers over the Temple campus.  Its strong, vertical lines give it an uplifting skyscraper quality that is usually associated with much taller office buildings. 

The Salt Lake Temple makes a dramatic almost heavenly - some might say Disney-esque - statement at night.  

An ugly stucco wall guards Temple Square with just a single entrance on each of the three sides that face the outside world.  The Square, more open on the east side, connects to the other church buildings on the same block.  The remainder of the campus buildings face out onto the street.

The Tour

We entered at the South Visitor Centre and were quickly greeted - no surprise, as all of the Mormons always say “Hi” to you even in the street - and asked if we’d like a tour.  While we are usually the self-guided tour types, we decided this time it might be good to get the “inside scoop” on the place and the people.

After waiting about ten minutes, we were introduced to two young missionaries Sister Asay from Dallas and Sister Lopez from Mexico, our two tour guides.  After a bit of chit chat, we were off to check out the model of the Salt Lake Temple (which we couldn’t go into) to learn about the different spaces inside and what kinds of things happened there. It is not your typical church with a big congregation area, but rather a series of rooms where you study and discuss your religious beliefs with more senior church members. You have to be a “member in good standing” to get in. We did question what that meant, but the answer was ambiguous. 

Then we went outside to the Assembly Hall, which in fact was the first Salt Lake church and built in 1889.  This was followed by a tour of the Tabernacle (built 1875) next door,  where the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir practises and performs.  The building's exterior looks like a mid-century hockey arena with its oval-shape and curved roof. Inside are pews like any church and a balcony like a concert hall, with a huge stage that accommodates a full orchestra and a 300-person choir.  The organ is one of the largest in the world with 11,623 pipes. There is minimal ornamentation in this building - the ceiling is just white plaster and the wall behind the organ is the same.  We attended the free Thursday night rehearsal and the acoustics were great. 

Next it was the North Visitor Center, which houses a series of large paintings about the life of Christ. It reminded me of the Catholic Church’s stations of the cross.  The paintings are competent, but I wouldn’t say they are outstanding; yet when I took pictures, a glow appeared around the head of Christ that was not there with the naked eye – a little eerie. 

You then walk upstairs and into the celestial room or at least that is what I call it. The walls and ceiling are painted like the universe with a 11-foot white sculpture of Christ in the middle of the room.  We were there at noon and the sunlight was streaming in. It was visually stunning; there was a definite heavenly feeling to the space.

This is the end of the tour for the standard 30 to 45 minute tour. But not for our 90+ minute tour! 

This is a  model of the inside of Salt Lake Temple.  You can see the six different spaces on ascending levels. We were told that as you move up the leadership ladder in the church, you get access to higher levels. This adds a whole new dimension to the term "working your way to the top."

The Assembly Building is where church services take place. It has many of the original furnishings, including the pews. 

The Tabernacle building is where the Mormon Tabernacle choir rehearses and performs.  You have to live within 100 miles of Salt Lake City to be in the choir. 

The blank white stucco walls and ceiling become a canvas for the projected light that is the background for the music and singing in the Tabernacle. 

A few of the Stations of the Cross-like paintings in the North Visitor Centre.

Detail of one of the paintings in the North Visitor Centre. Note the aura around Christ's head. 

Statue of Christ in the celestial room on the second floor of the North Visitor Center makes a very powerful statement. This 11-foot statue titled "The Christus" is an exact replica of Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen's original in Copenhagen, Denmark. We were told a senior church member was so moved when he saw the original that he negotiated with the Church and the artist to commission the replica for Temple Square. 

The Lunch

Throughout the tour we were chatting with the delightful Sisters Asay and Lopez about the Mormon culture, their families and lifestyle, as well as sharing information on our families and religious beliefs.  There was no pressure, no missionary zeal it was more like a first date as we keep asking each other to reveal some tidbit of information so we could get to know and understand each other better.

I asked if they would like to join us for lunch. They said they would, but would have to ask for permission. I was shocked when they said yes they could join us.  So, it was off to the Lion House's Pantry Restaurant for a quick, cafeteria-style lunch and more discussion. 

The conversation continued with the two Sisters being very forthright in answering more questions.  For early 20 somethings, they were both very mature and articulate, moreso than most other young people we know.

Lion House has a wonderful pantry restaurant that is popular with both tourists and workers on the Mormon Temple campus. Best buns in town! In fact, they truly are famous for their buns - soft dinner rolls with just a touch of sweetness. 

Outside The Square

I spent another two hours checking out the other Mormon buildings outside the square.  I had been told the conference centre had a capacity for 21,000 people.  The doubting Tom I am, I had to check this out for myself.  I wandered in and was immediately greeted with the proverbial “do you want a tour?” I said, “ No thanks, I just want to see the seating capacity.” 

I was quickly introduced to a tour guide who said he’d show me inside which he did, and yes indeed there are three tiers each with 7,000 seats. At ten times the size of your average concert hall, it is an impressive sight.

He then asked if I’d like to see the rooftop native species garden and off we went - so much for not wanting a tour! The views of the city and the valley from the rooftop are impressive. He informed me the church owned all of the buildings to the south of the campus which includes several major office buildings and a large residential tower. 

I then wandered the campus taking pictures of the other buildings, not daring to go inside, as I was toured-out. You could easily spend all day taking pictures and people-watching.

The Conference Centre is impressive in its starkness and simplicity of design. 

The Conference Centre's rich red carpet, stage, seats and drapes creates an immediate sense of life, awe and passion, which  I expect is perfect for the events that take place here. 

Stupid Me

It was only when I got back to the hotel and collected my notes and photos that I realized I hadn’t taken a picture of our new best friends.  Lucky me, the same evening we decided to check out the rehearsal at the Tabernacle. While standing in line, who should walk by but Sisters Lopez and Asay, a quick shout and there were big smiles all around.  And, yes I got my picture of them with Brenda. 

Sister Lopez, Brenda and Sister Asay

Last Word

I don’t know what the Catholic Church does at the Vatican in the way of museums and tours, but I can’t imagine it could be any better than what the Mormons do at their Salt Lake Temple campus.  With over 170 young women from around the world studying there, they offer FREE tours in 30 languages year-round.  Everything is free, including the Family Search centre where you can spend as much time as you want. You even get your own personal tutor to assist you with looking up your family history. Did I say it was all FREE?

Throughout the tour, I was surprised at how similar all of the stories and beliefs of the Latter-Day Saints were to Catholicism.  I was shocked there was no attempts to push their religion or beliefs on us.  It was a very non-judgemental conversation about sharing one’s personal values, faith and beliefs. 

My take home message was that the Mormons have very strong commitment to family.   Both Sisters, although only in their early 20s, were definite they would be getting married and having multiple children.  I’ve not heard many early 20 somethings be so sure about getting married and having children.  We even talked about marriage counselling, divorce and premarital relations. 

I couldn’t help but think the importance of family is not a bad thing.  Too often we hear complaits about cities (suburban and urban) being unfriendly, unhappy and alienating places where nobody knows their neighbours.  I can’t help but think part of the reason is that we have lost the sense of community which starts with a sense of family, as that is our first community. Too often the loss of sense of community in modern society is blamed on city design when it probably has more to do with a decline of the importance of family. Based on my limited sample size of family and friends, I have noticed that the stronger the nuclear family bond, the stronger sense of community they have.  


There was never an attempt to ask for a donation and in fact, there are no donation boxes anywhere on campus.  Neither, is there is no requirement to give  your contact information so they can hit you up later. How refreshing! 

If you like this blog, you might like:

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Postcards: Emerald Pools & Wilderness Area Trails, Zion National Park

By Richard White, March 23, 2014

After yesterday's hiking the Canyon Lookout Trail in Zion National Park, Utah we decided to check out some other trails in the park today.  In the morning, we did the Emerald Pools Trail (lower, middle and upper) and then headed to the Zion National Park wilderness area where there are less people and we were told some easy to moderate hikes for beginners. 

We were also told to get there before 10 am as there is limited parking.  So we were up early for breakfast and to check-out.  It was cool and windy and we were wondering if hiking so early was a good idea - we are fair weather hikers at best.  However, at the Park Gate we were told that as the air warms, the winds would die down within the hour.  He didn't lie - it was a beautiful morning for a hike.  Not sure how people do it in the summer when the temperature is over 30 degrees Celsius almost daily.   

Postcards: Emerald Pools Trail

While yesterday's postcards spoke for themselves, I think these postcards do need some context. For example, there are not emerald-coloured pools on the Emerald Pools Trail. 

I was intrigued by this rock wall that looked like it had a huge head etched into it. Can you see it just to the right of the big black, tree-like shadow?

This is one of the many rock steps that you have to negotiate on the trail up and down.  It is challenging to balance the need to look where you are walking while looking at the rock formations above.

I loved the light through this gap. The rock on the right looks like it has the lips of a tuna. 

Again. the bright light created intense shadows and colours that are very surreal.

This is a close up of the water that trickles out of the rocks at the upper pool.

This is a close up of the water that trickles out of the rocks at the upper pool.

One of several small waterfalls we experienced on our hike. Again, the bright light and the water combine to create a surreal image.

Postcards: People On The Trail

The Emerald Pools hike is popular for people of all ages and fitness levels. This postcard is under the largest waterfall where you can feel the mist and some water falling.  It was refreshing on a hot day in March; I can only imagine how welcomed it would be in the summer.

Other people found a quiet place to relax and meditate. 

We also found this 19-month old who was busy colouring while Dad carried her up the trail.  However, we were told she had hiked on her own another trail the day before. 

We also found this 19-month old who was busy colouring while Dad carried her up the trail.  However, we were told she had hiked on her own another trail the day before. 

Some people aren't satisfied just looking at the rock formations, they have to climb them.  Look for the climber in orange helmet about two thirds of the way up in the crack of the rock in the middle of the photo.

Postcards: Zion Wilderness Area

From the parking lot, you see an eerie vista of a meadow of dead-looking, stunted trees surrounded by a luminous red rock wall.  

As you get to the trail head, you get closer to the wall of rocks and the savanna of small, twisted and stunted trees. 

An example of the shedding bark of the one of the larger trees.

Just a few minutes on the trail, you encounter this sign. Indeed, it does feel like you are entering a wilderness; you feel like you are leaving the world behind. At this time of year, the landscape of dead-looking trees creates an eerie setting.  

As you proceed along the trail, you encounter beehive-shaped rock formations that are deeply etched horizontally by the elements.

The constant struggle to survive was never more evident than in this tree growing near the top of this beehive formation.

These mushroom-like growths, no more than a foot-long protruded off the side of the beehive. You could spend an hour exploring just one beehive.  

This six-foot abstract sculpture was hidden in a crevice in the rock formation.   

As you get closer to the rocks, they become more and more abstract and intense in colour, shape and line.

As you get closer to the rocks, they become more and more abstract and intense in colour, shape and line.

Last Word

I think we lucked out in visiting Zion National Park in late March as the weather was cool in the morning, but quickly heated up by 11 am.  By April, you are already getting temperatures of +30 Celsius in the afternoon.  

We also lucked out in that we could take our own car to wherever we wanted to hike and then move on.  Beginning in April, you have to take the Park's shuttle bus rather than your car as there are so many people visiting and limited parking.  It would not be the same experience with so many people and buses. 

If you are traveling in the area of Zion National Park, consider booking a night or two in Springdale and plan a couple of fun hikes or maybe a bike, horse or tube ride.  

I also think the light was wonderful in the spring. The southerly sun was low enough to get into of the caves and gaps, which wouldn't be the case in the summer when the sun is more overhead. The combination of the coloured rock and the intense sun had a magical synergy.  I can see why the indigenous people would see this as a sacred place.

If you like this blog, you might like:

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Postcards: Canyon Lookout Trail, Zion National Park

Richard White, March 22, 2014

I am not a professional photographer, but I love taking pictures and love looking at them.  I know I should be editing my collection of over 20,000 images, but I love to surf through them as they immediately bring back great memories. 

I also not an experienced hiker. In fact, most of my hiking is done on golf courses looking for my ball that has gone into the woods (this happens far more often than I would like).  However, when you are in Utah, you have to get our and enjoy the great outdoors.  People were shocked when I was in Salt Lake City and I said I wasn't going skiing.  I didn't know the only reason to go to Salt Lake City was to ski. 

Yes, I live in Calgary, next to one of the world's greatest parks - Banff National Park, but I seldom go.  I also have access to thousands of world class hiking trails and every year I threaten to go hiking, but I never do.  Just like I say I am going to bike more but don't.   

What is it about travelling that makes you do things you would never do a home?  People who never go to an art gallery or museum at home don't hesitate to visit them when they are in New York, London or Paris.  As soon as we hit the colourful sculpture-like peaks of Zion National Park, I was keen to jump out of the car and explore.

The first trail we came to was the Canyon Overlook Trail, so I quickly pulled over and off we went.  The trail an easy one - we saw everyone from a young children in flip-flops negotiating the rock steps and the narrow cliff trails to a young mom carrying a young child.

The trail is about a mile and leads you up to a lookout spot where as you might expect you can see the Virgin River canyon.  Along the way, you enter caves see hoodoos as well as colourful rock formations.  

Here are my postcards from my first hike in 2014 and perhaps a new take on flaneuring for the "Everyday Tourist."  These photographs don't need any explanation they speak for themselves. 


Last Word

Sorry I lied. Brenda reminded me I went to two hikes last year, both in Canmore, Alberta. One was a summer hike to Grassi Lake and the other was a winter walk around the pond at the Olympic Nordic Centre. I liked today's hike in Zion National Park so much we have planned two hikes for tomorrow.

However, that will probably be the end of the hiking, as we head to St. George, UT and the golf courses there are open and in mid-season shape.  Bring on the Red Rock Golf Trail!

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Postcards: Emerald Pools & Zion Wilderness, Zion National Park

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