Today, the south side of Old Georgetown Road between Rockville Pike and Executive Boulevard is home to car dealerships, a piano store, and huge parking lots. One day, it could be the Civic Green, a 2-acre square that the White Flint Sector Plan dubs “White Flint’s central public place.” To learn make this space successful, we should look at other great public spaces.
A “focal point of community life”
There are a number of new parks proposed by the White Flint Sector Plan, ranging from intimate neighborhood squares to a large recreational park. The Civic Green, however, will be different. While most Montgomery County parks are meant for soccer games and nature hikes, this one will become a “focal point of community life,” according to the plan.
It would accommodate both public events, like festivals and concerts, along with informal gatherings and recreation. County planners suggest that it might be “anchored” by a public building, like the library in Rockville Town Square or the Silver Spring Civic Building at Veterans Plaza.
The Civic Green is arguably one of the most important development sites in Montgomery County. It’s on top of the White Flint Metro Station and at the intersection of two major streets, giving it a lot of visibility. It’s next to the Bethesda North Conference Center, which hosts events that draw people from around the region. And it’s also sandwiched between the massive Pike + Rose and North Bethesda Center developments, meaning there will be lots of residents, shoppers and workers nearby.
On top of that, the Civic Green will be bigger than Rockville Town Square and Silver Spring’s Veterans Plaza combined. Thus, the Civic Green has to make a big statement to all of the people who will pass by and through it. For the Civic Green to be a real destination, it has to have a unique character, interesting programming, and enough of a critical mass of people and activity around to keep it lively. Three spaces around the United States that show how to do those things right.
Pioneer Courthouse Square shows importance of programming
Dubbed “Portland’s living room,” this former parking lot in downtown Portland is one of the city’s most-loved public spaces. Completed in 1984 and designed by architect Will Martin, Pioneer Courthouse Square consists of a giant curved amphitheatre, creating a nice, enclosed space that works equally well for big events or small gatherings. The square also contains fountains and public art for visual interest in addition to a coffee shop on an elevated terrace, which lets visitors survey the action from up high.
It’s also one of the first public spaces in the United States that was specifically designed for programming, with built-in infrastructure for concerts and other events. The square’s online calendar shows a wide variety of scheduled activities, ranging from political rallies to a festival of funny cat videos.
Grand Park illustrates benefits of flexibility
Until last year, this four-block park at the heart of downtown Los Angeles was a dead, lonely space. Today, the so-called “Park for Everyone” has helped revitalize the surrounding neighborhood while connecting the major institutions around it, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall and City Hall. The Los Angeles Music Center, which sits at the park’s north end, has taken an active role in organizing musical and cultural events in the space.
However, what really makes it exciting is the park’s flexibility. Landscape architects Rios Clementi Hale divided it into several smaller lawns, plazas and fountains, giving visitors space to do their own thing. When I visited last fall, I saw everything from picnics to yoga. The park is filled with bright pink chairs and tables, which are light enough to move around as you see fit but just heavy enough to discourage theft.
Check out this slideshow of Grand Park and other parks in downtown Los Angeles.
Rittenhouse Square demonstrates need for surrounding density
However, programming and flexibility aren’t enough to make a successful space. You also need people, and lots of them.
One of my favorite parks ever is Rittenhouse Square, located in Center City Philadelphia, which I visited often when I used to live there. Unlike Pioneer Courthouse Square and Grand Park, Rittenhouse is over 300 years old, established as part of William Penn’s original city plan in the 17th century. The Project for Public Spaces named it one of the world’s best public squares.
Rittenhouse doesn’t have a lot of scheduled events, but it is surrounded by high-rise apartments, offices, hotels and shops. As a result, people have lots of different reasons to go there. My friend who lives four blocks away walks her dog there, but others might stop for a break from shopping, or to have a picnic, or to watch the street performers who often play there. Rittenhouse is a big green space, but the buildings that frame it create the feeling of a big outdoor room.
The Civic Green has the potential to become one of White Flint and Montgomery County’s beloved gathering places. It won’t be easy, but by learning from other great public spaces, we can create something that everyone will be proud of.