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January 14, 2014

Enliven Public Spaces in 5 Easy Steps

Common sense advice for improving your favorite place

Max Musicant is founder of the Musicant Group in Minneapolis, which works with communities, non-profit groups and businesses to “transform mere public spaces into vibrant places for people”. His website offers this useful advice for anyone who wants to improve a gathering spot in their neighborhood.

1) Maximize flexibility: Successful places are able to be used by the young and old, from day to night, in a variety of ways. Does your space offer things to do and see all day to all users?

2) Have many things to do in the space at once: Similar to the point above, are there a diversity of things to do? If one person wants to sit in the sun, the other in the shade – are they able to? Are there things to eat, see, play?

3) Provide movable chairs and tables: If you only do one thing for a space, put in movable chairs and tables. They allow for maximum flexibility, accommodating parties from 1 to 100. They facilitate conversation, unlike fixed benches. They allow for people to sit, look, and be where they want, when they want.

4) Focus on what happens between 2 and 12 feet: People’s sight lines are generally from the knee to a few feet above their head. Focus your energies on this spectrum. What does that mean? Less resources and attention spent on fancy pavers and 20+ foot lighting fixtures. More on eye level: hanging flower baskets, greenery, and programming that facilitate interesting pedestrian life.

5) Embrace Desire Lines: We have all seen them before in our favorite parks and public spaces: those dirt paths diverging from the paved surfaces. Instead of waging a never-ending battle of fencing these areas off, replanting them, and having them revert to dirt paths, embrace the people’s desire! Desire lines tell you where people really want to go. Instead of re-planting grass, consider paving these informal paths. A powerful case study I draw on is from a college campus that reseeded its main quad. Instead of guessing where people would walk across it, they just let the desire lines develop and then created paved paths over them. This is a powerful metaphor for all placemaking: really listen to the people, and then give them what they want.

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