There’s public space, and then there is good public space
In the previous post about why public spaces matter, I discussed five reasons why it’s important to create, preserve, and invest in public spaces. But what exactly does a good public space look like and what makes a good public space? Most importantly, how does a public space become successful? Imagine this: It’s the dead of winter, minus 40 degrees outside and snow piled high as the eye can see. But amidst the freezing temperature, there’s music in the air, people lined up at kiosks, children in snowsuits, seniors sipping coffee on benches and teens are checking out art installations throughout the space. Though outdoor activities often migrate indoors during wintertime, Quartier des Spectacles comes alive through the Montreal Highlights Festival, an annual festival that showcases Montreal’s creativity and talent through performing arts, gastronomy and activities for all ages. During the festival, the space is filled with interactive, vibrant art installations such as Prismatica, which acts as a vessel to build community in an otherwise dead space during the colder months.
This annual festival attracts both locals and international visitors from around the world, and it’ the perfect example of why cities need to stay creative. In fact, investing in culture shouldn’t just be put on the agenda, but it is an economic imperative. Not only do arts and culture attract and retain labour, it puts a spotlight on the city as an inviting and vibrant destination. A city that is willing to invest in new ideas translates to a progressive city. In “The economic imperative for investing in arts and culture”, an Op-Ed piece penned by Todd Hirsch, Chief Economist at ATB Financial, he stresses, “Canadians need to keep up with global competitors, but we’re only as good as our last creative idea. If we want to truly be a country of innovators – looking for new products, discovering environmentally responsible ways to extract resources, finding efficiencies in manufacturing – we need to be creative.” The economic benefit is not the only reason why cities should invest in arts and culture though. “Both public and private investments in the arts is for the inherent value of culture: life-enhancing, entertaining, defining of our personal and national identities”, says England’s Arts Council chief Peter Bazalgette.Echoing the sentiment of Amanda Burden, the former director of New York Department of City Planning: “A good public space is a like a good party. If it’s successful people will want to stay.”
1. Access & Linkage: Accessibility is one of the key factors in a successful public space. An ideal public space should be easy to locate, convenient via public transportation, and have purposeful paths that lead to entrances and exits. A successful place must not be isolated or disconnected from other high traffic areas in order to generate high pedestrian traffic. Questions to consider: Does the space have an entrance fee? Is it accessible for people with special needs? Is it located in an area of high pedestrian traffic, and have separated paths for bikers and pedestrians? As for linkage, is the space located closely to other buildings such as libraries, shops or restaurants?
Quartier des Spectacles covers an area of 1 km² in the heart of donwtown Montreal. With over ten bars, fifty restaurants, three cinemas, seventeen performance halls and forty-one exhibit spaces, there’s no shortage of entertainment or foot traffic here. There are no fees to visit the nine public spaces in the Quartier, and with more than forty festivals and events taking place year round, all of the activities are free to the public. The Quartier is pedestrian friendly, and easy to access via public transportation with three metro stations, ten bus lines, nine BIXI stations and seven indoor parking lots in the surrounding area.
2. Sociability: A place is only as successful as the degree of sociability. As public spaces are intrinsically tied to community, one must be able to socialize freely in the space, which helps people strengthen their roots with their community and the people around them. Questions to consider: Is there a good balance of gender, age and social groups in the space? Is the space welcoming? Do you take pride in having this space in your community?
Quartier des Spectacles offers activities year round that are inclusive to all genders, ages and cultural backgrounds. The spaces are open, there are no fees to participate in the public activities, and during festivals, the spaces are illuminated with light installations, projections and street stalls. Festivals, like the Montreal Highlights Festival, opens up opportunities for artists from within the province and abroad to submit their art to be displayed at the festival. Having an event that attracts over a million people each year, is something Quebecers certainly take pride in.
3. Uses and activities: While a well designed public space alone can inspire people to congregate, and use the space, planned activities, especially if it’s initiated by the city, play a huge role in determining how entertaining and fun a city can be, which of course boosts tourism, both domestically and internationally. Questions to consider: What type of activity is it? How will the activity use the space wisely? Is it taking advantage of the resources around the space?
As mentioned previously, the Quartier offers a variety of activities for all ages year round. The activities are planned around the architecture of the nine public spaces, such as large scale interactive video installations that project onto various spaces throughout Quartier des Spectacles. For example, during Luminotherapie 2015, Fascinoscope was projected onto the walls of neighboring buildings just outside of St. Laurent metro station—a location that is both easy to access and open to the public.
4. Comfort and Image: Don’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a public space based on its appearance. Comfort means being able to sit in the shade away from the sun, spacious seating for privacy, or grassy areas for picnics. Questions to consider: Is there adequate seating space? Do you feel safe visiting the space? Is it clean?
Quartier des Spectacles is designed especially for people to use all nine spaces. There are a plethora of outdoor seating options including benches, grassy areas, on the word renowned musical swings, or the outdoor steps at Places des festivals. More than thirty public spaces in the quartier are illuminated with their signature lighting characteristics, the spaces are clean, and well maintained providing a feeling of safety at night.
Project for Public Spaces created this useful diagram tool to help people assess what makes a place great.
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