Monday, March 8, 2010

The People Make the Play - Activating Veterans Plaza

When speaking of open public space, architecture may provide the stage; the urban context the theater; and the economic realities frame the transactional options; but the people make the play.

Our Veterans Plaza is the only public square being built from scratch in the USA today in an urban setting. (To see a picture of it under construction - in the context of the Town Center at the corner of Fenton and Ellworth, visit and click the Silver Spring map... or click HERE.)

I am challenging my friends throughout the country to tell me differently - to tell me where else is there a public square being built. Of course there are town squares being renovated, private plazas constructed as part of major real estate development, new ‘sports complexes and parks’ in neighborhoods and suburbia… But where else in the country is a space intended to serve as a ‘public gathering place’ being built? The last one I know of – and it is totally of a different (much larger) scale – is Olympic Park in Atlanta, GA, built over 10 years ago for the 1996 Olympics.

Many of us here in Silver Spring came together last Wednesday to engage in a ‘space imagineering’ exercise. We talked about lots of spaces in our community. One of these – and our newest jewel – is Veterans Plaza.

The design and placement – urban context – of Veterans Plaza does indeed define its intended use. But, buildings, plazas, and facilities have a way of coming alive, a way of becoming a living breathing organism that evolves – yes evolves – well beyond the imagination of the planners, designers, architects, and engineers. (Remember the turf?!?) How and why this happens has much more to do with anthropology, sociology, and human behavior than the confines of the space as designed by its creators.

From the classic grace of the great European squares to the vitality of the favelas in Brazil or the impromptu gatherings to celebrate great hunts in historic Africa, space is defined as much by the people as by the place… And – dare I say – oftentimes the space is defined more by the activity than the architecture

When speaking of open public space, architecture may provide the stage; the urban context the theatre; and the economic realities frame the transactional options; but the people make the play.

It is the people that activate the space; give it its soul; define its success.

One historical constant though, is the fact that no space has ever sustained success without the collaboration and partnership of the public, private, and NGO (non-government organization) sector… (And no, I do not consider Red Square, Tehran’s Azari square, or Cuba’s Plaza of the Revolution successful public spaces… Their use has become an instrument to box in thought, to fend off protest.)

In the USA, there are many examples of failed architecture and planning, some requiring to be torn down because of their massive failure in creating space where people can be people. One of the greatest example of this is the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe in 1972 in St. Louis, MO. This was a housing project that was designed so against the instinct of human interaction that only 20 years after it was built, it was intentionally brought down. For more info visit: And, as we all know, there are countless examples of parks and opens spaces throughout the USA that sit idle as ghostly reminders of some planner's dream that have become the community's nightmare.

Human behavior is the main ingredient in creating successful urban space. Randy Shortridge created a list that is as good as any I've seen as to how to experience and observe an urban space:

[ ] Character— compelling physical characteristics establish a sense of place.

[ ] Ownership— an identifiable group has a sense of pride and responsibility for a definable space.

[ ] Authenticity— a place exhibits genuine ethos of historic or contemporary meaning or context for its users.

[ ] Accommodations—amenities are present that provide for basic human needs and desires.

[ ] Nature— water, trees and plants, and sky and sun are present, attended to, and respected.

[ ] Social and Private Space— talk, play, and special events as well as retreat and solitude are accommodated and encouraged.

His full article can be found at

Of course we have to balance this philosophical, almost academic discussion with the real life challenges of maintaining Veterans Plaza and ensuring it is welcoming to all community members. The harsh reality is that it costs real cash to operate the space, keep it clean, repair the broken bricks, change the light bulbs, plant the trees, empty the trashcans, etc.

We can certainly activate the space with community celebrations, performances, and programmed events… However, all of these will be for naught if the people that use the space do not bring the place alive with unstructured activities, happenstance conversations, and impromptu gatherings… Ultimately, it will be a partnership of the public sector, private interests, and community engagement that will define the success of Veterans Plaza… Let the fun begin!

How will YOU bring Veterans Plaza alive? Chime in with your comment! (And become a ‘follower’ of this blog so you can be alerted when others post.)


tony hausner said...

We need someone or group to make decisions as to the use of the space. There needs to be both planned and unplanned time, so people can come and just use the space spontaneously or come to relax. There needs to be a place for quiet space. Hopefully, the impact silver spring event will provide input into this process as there were many useful ideas presented there. I hope teens have significant input into this process.

Terry in Silver Spring said...

I agree with Tony's comment above. There needs to be clear and active leadership on this. Otherwise, the new plaza will end up as a place that mainly catches windblown paper, a site for skateboarding, and a place for the homeless to sit.

IamKusum said...

Reemberto, I am so excited about Veterna's Plaza and can't wait to see some sweet things happening there!!

I agree with Tony's comment on unplanned and planned time to use the space.

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