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May 15, 2014

A New Generation of Great Public Spaces in Places You'd Least Expect

Community commons arise in places once dominated roads, railyards and parking spaces

The last place in the world you might think of looking for inspiration on spirited community togtherness is Detroit, a city still suffering from racial divisions and stark economic disinvestment.

Yet downtown Detroit is home to one of the world’s top public squares. Campus Martius--a charming 2.5-acre park created in the middle of busy Woodward Avenue to celebrate the city’s 300th birthday--hosts gardens, concerts, ice skating, a café, an alluring fountain, an historic war memorial, lawns and lots of chairs for people to hang out.

Some questioned why civic leaders raised $25 million for a fancy square when the city faces so many heartbreaking problems. But Campus Martius panned out as a great investment-- more than $500 million has gone into development on neighboring properties, which helped spark a downtown revival. The software firm Compuware brought 4000 employees in from the suburbs to a new headquarters right across the street. And more importantly, it's a commons where people from all over city can come together in a setting that makes them proud of Detroit's possibilities.

Ciites crave more spots where we can gather as friends, neighbors or citizens, where we can enjoy ourselves and strengthen community ties. But how do you do that in communities that are largely built up?

Look no farther than crowded New York City, where a series of wildly popular public plazas have been created by closing a lane of traffic here and there on Broadway and other streets around town. Or take a cue from equally crowded San Francisco, where on-street parking spaces have been transformed into dozens of parklets for neighbors to enjoy. These ideas are being widely adopted in other cities around the globe.

San Francisco also tore down the Embarcadero Freeway in 1991 to reconnect the city to its waterfront, liberating public space and sparking a development boom. Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, Portland, Oregon and Seoul, Korea also benefit from new neighborhoods and parks after highways were torn down and the space given back to public.

New public spaces can be created out of roads even when you can’t reclaim the pavement. One of the most romantic spots in New York, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with its famous view of the Manhattan skyline, sits on a deck atop the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Chicago built the acclaimed Millenium Park atop a railyard. Seattle, Dallas and Duluth have covered stretches of freeways with green “land bridges” to reconnect neighborhoods. Oslo buried a busy highway in a tunnel to open up the harborfront, which is now one of the city’s beloved destinations. Madrid recently covered many sections of its ring road to develop parks, trails and housing.

Adapted from 27 Bright Ideas We Should Steal From the Rest of the World, a report on best practices by Jay Walljasper published by the McKnight Foundation of Minnesota