With so much attention focused on bells and whistles and whether or not Portland Avenue should be closed through the park, when it comes to the debate about Downtown East Commons, perhaps quite literally we can’t see the forest for the trees. Playgrounds, restaurants, gardens, terraces, and even water features are all well and good, but what about the countless visitors to the park who simply want to stroll in, maybe find a bench, or just pass through? Past coverage has estimated that, for the park to be successful, 1 to 2 million people must visit per year, and it is reasonable to estimate that a large percentage of those aren’t necessarily there for a specific reason like a movie, a meal, a playground or tailgating. Therefore, the “commons” needs access from every corner, which will not only encourage more people to visit for these specific reasons, but all those casual users who are indeed just passing through. The paths and access of Downtown East Commons must acknowledge the context of the surrounding neighborhood.
Think about all the times you have visited a park in a dense, urban, downtown-like setting.Were you there for a specific use, more casually to find a bench or people-watch, or even just passing through because it is a nice diversion?No matter how you started your journey, you likely entered the park on foot, right? And probably from an intersection at the corner of the park, right?
After giving this some thought, I realized more often than not that I visit an urban park for a casual stroll rather than specific event, and having a direct path to enter the park at the corner or nearest street sure helps invite me in, much less get me out the other side. This will hold true for Downtown East Commons; nearly all visitors (including those coming from the skyway) will arrive on foot from across a street and at a corner, so providing direct access in to and across the “commons” from all corners will encourage more visits, both specific and casual.
For example, consider another “commons,” Cambridge Common in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Look at the paths through the park; nearly all line up with streets and sidewalks that access the park. Cambridge Common exists within the context of its surrounding neighborhood. Approach the park from any direction, cross in to the park and you are met with a shortcut path to just about any intersection on the other side. It is simple, elegant and encourages park usage. Getting from the Sheraton Commander hotel to the Harvard campus or dinner near Harvard Square offers a pleasant but direct path through Cambridge Common. To get from Mason Street on the west to Cambridge Street on the east; straight line. Appian Way to the north end of the park; same thing. The park doesn’t have to be a destination in and of itself, it can be a pleasant diversion to simply pass through. I’ve visited Cambridge several times in the past couple years, and in all my visits Cambridge Commons itself was my actual destination only once. However, I estimate that three-quarters of my journeys to and from my hotel included passing through the park, because it was a pleasant option but also because there was a direct, convenient route to get where I needed. A simple X-shaped path from corner to corner of the park goes a long way, and we can’t forget this as we design our “commons.”
Look around at other downtown parks or squares surrounded by a lot of urban density (i.e., people). Washington Square Park in New York City has access from the many streets that intersect it.
Across the pond, Soho Square in London twists the X-shape in to a cross but still provides direct access from the surrounding grid.
Across the river in St. Paul, both downtown parks have the simple X-shaped access. Rice Park has access from all corners, and at 1.6 acres isn’t that much less than the largest block of Downtown East Commons (2.4 acres).
Mears Park has a classic X-shape set of paths but also a stage, winding trail and stream. It invites people from all directions to pass through or stay and linger.
Maybe the most appropriate example is Folger Park in Washington D.C., because it is two parks bisected by a road (gasp!), but each has access from every corner. This isn’t rocket science. As with St. Paul, often the solution is a simple X-shaped set of access paths, elegant and inviting to the actual people who use and love these parks.
Hargreaves Associates should overlay a simple X-shaped set of paths through each block of the “commons,” welcoming people to the park but also encouraging others to pass through. Want to get from City Hall to the stadium? The Mill District to the Armory? Either light rail station to Wells Fargo? HCMC, new apartments and retail, future land uses we haven’t thought of? Providing direct access from all corners will make the “commons” more welcoming for all. Not every visitor will be there for a specific event or activity, but whatever the reason, better access from the corners helps all visitors access and enjoy the park. It is important to point out this is true whether or not Portland Avenue passes through the park; embrace the grid and pedestrians can approach from any direction, going anywhere, and they can either pass through or stay and linger.
Some of those in favor of closing Portland Avenue have used the slogan “one park not two.” I’d rather have two well-designed parks than none. Hargreaves has so far taken public input and created four concepts, presented last week (scroll down and link to the 37 MB presentation), which include very sensible ideas like a playground, restaurant, and space for events. Whether we/they choose the “contrast,” “connect” or “unite” concept, and whether or not Portland is closed, we must put more emphasis on the context of the surrounding Downtown East neighborhood and how people will actually get to and enter, much less use, the park. Access from every corner is critical and can be achieved while still accommodating all proposed uses within. Doing so can increase the number of visitors, both specific and casual passers-by, and create a more welcoming and accessible park for all. A “commons”, if you will.
This was crossposted at Joe Urban.