Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Nashville Civic Design Center Shows "The Social Life Of Small Urban Spaces"

Last night I attended the NCDC's showing of "The Social Life Of Small Urban Spaces," a local documentary shot during the late 1970s in New York City showing what aspects of public spaces attract people and those that do not. As dated as the movie might appear, it seemed very relevant in underscoring that the primary problem of small public spaces (like small fountain plazas and greens in Downtown areas) is underuse, rather than overuse. If developers are going to attract people to public spaces, they have to build in certain aspects, like lots of "edges" in large empty spaces, places to sit and seats that can be moved around, areas open and oriented to the street rather than cut off by fences, planters or trees, areas compressed to a scale that brings people together, natural attractors like water, sufficient light, and trees, and amenities like food and book vendors.

One of the more fascinating conclusions of the researchers, supported through the use of time lapse photography and data-collectors recording head-counts, was the idea that people in public spaces seem to have an "instinctive feel" for what makes a proper capacity or a critical mass, and they seem to enter, stay, and exit accordingly. Researchers demonstrated that in one popular city plaza during the heavily trafficked lunch hours, while the degree of turnover of people was high, the number of people occupying the space never really increased above or decreased below about 19 or 20 for a significant amount of time. That may be an uncanny capacity instinct, unless researchers failed to factor out the more socialized habits of "regulars" (those people who return to public spaces like clockwork).

Given the projected growth of Downtown residents from 4,000 to 10,000 over the next few years, the NCDC announced the creation of a task force to study Downtown's small public spaces to get a feel for use of the few that exist. Organizers of last night's event said that they could not come up with many examples in Downtown beyond the small park across from the Downtown Public Library, which tends to be occupied mostly by homeless people. But in just walking out of the NCDC and going about a block to my car I was able to identify the small green plaza at the foot of the BellSouth "Batman" Building that seemed to have some of the important aspects mentioned in the film. There are probably a few such spaces around Downtown waiting to be found, but the research that this task force is going to do is nonetheless important for Downtown's growing residential community.

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