Greater Greater Washington

DC does have some great public spaces, as do the suburbs

There are lots of great public spaces in the DC area, but they can come in unexpected places. Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott, laments DC's lack of public squares, like Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia:


Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square. Photo by the author.
We have none, of course. Washington is a city of avenues and streets, coming together in circles that do not function well as public spaces. Our grand ceremonial spaces, such as the Mall, are too large to be great public squares. Few if any of our downtown parks demonstrate any of the liveliness of a public square ...

There is a tremendous concomitant cultural loss to the city. Life in a square is both public and bounded, freewheeling and safe. Sip an espresso in an Italian square, and you have a sense of being both indoors and outdoors at the same time, in public, but not overwhelmed by the madness of the city. There's a good reason why a glass of wine in the late afternoon at an outdoor table with a good view of the light bustle of daily life is one of the finest pleasures of city life.

Given the opportunity to meet friends that way, to delay the return home and enjoy the late afternoon sunlight, people will take it. But in Washington, there is always a rush to get home.

Kennicott makes some great points, and National Park Service control as well as several other factors throw up some real barriers to fixing DC's less successful public spaces.

However, he's not getting the whole story. There are indeed a number of public squares in DC that fail to live up to their potential, like Franklin Park or Farragut Square. But there are many great public spaces that do all of the things Kennicott talks about.

Dupont Circle is an obvious example that he seems to brush aside. Sure, a circle doesn't make a great public square, but anyone who knows their shapes can tell you that! Isn't Dupont Circle "freewheeling?" Don't people meet there, eat there, and while away the hours there?

There are even more places in DC that sound exactly like what Kennicott wants, like 7th Street SE outside of Eastern Market or 7th Street NW in Gallery Place. Neither of them are squares, but they're still great public spaces that draw lots of people.

The new plaza at 14th Street and Park Road in Columbia Heights has everything he talks about. There's a fountain in the middle for cooling off, tables and chairs for leisurely outdoor dining, and buildings on all four sides that make the space into an "outdoor room." It's a new space, but a promising one. I wouldn't be surprised if it did become one of DC's great urban squares in the future.

Columbia Heights Plaza
The new plaza in Columbia Heights. Photo by the author.

Even more significant, meanwhile, are the public and semi-public spaces that are being created in the suburbs. If you want to see and be seen in Maryland or Virginia, you go to the Market Common in Clarendon, Reston Town Center, Rockville Town Square, Washingtonian Center in Gaithersburg, Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring, or even the fountain outside of Barnes and Noble in downtown Bethesda. These spaces are all fairly new, and most of them are part of planned developments, meaning that people sometimes call them "fake" or "sterile."

Looking Towards City Place
Market stalls in Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring.

Yet these spaces are all well-used, the result of good urban design, a mix of uses, and enough density to fill them with people. They lend the communities they're located in a "sense of place" and help build a local culture by hosting everything from concerts to protests. They may not be in DC proper, but they help to create the street life that Kennicott wants to see here.

Sometimes, we try to use other places as a measure for DC's greatness. Certainly I do the same while living in Philadelphia, whose Rittenhouse Square is one of the great public spaces in America, if not the world. We don't have a Rittenhouse in the DC area, but our region's able to create some spectacular urban places of its own. You just have to know where to look for them.

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Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 

Comments

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The public spaces that we have downtown are overcrowded with homeless folks and that drives the rest of the public away from them. They need to clean them up and create a place for homeless people to stay. Unfortunately, they want to be near where everyone else is so that they can panhandle for change. It is unfortunate, since places like McPhearson Square, Franklin Square and other parks would be really nice. They need to take care of them like they do in Europe.

by Fran on Jan 7, 2011 12:40 pm • linkreport

What about the area around 7th St NW around the Navy Memorial?

by Steve S. on Jan 7, 2011 12:53 pm • linkreport

Every few years someone writes an article like Kennicott's, and I find them uniformly obnoxious and dishonest. While obviously there is much room for improvement among Washington's public squares, two facts ruin every piece like this that I've ever seen.

1. Dupont Circle is as good or better than Rittenhouse Square, Bryant Park, or any of them. To ignore it is intellectually criminal.

2. Have these writers ever been to any other city in America? The best of other cities are lucky to have the same problems we do, while most can't even claim to be in the same ballpark. Yeah, Rittenhouse is nice in Philly, but the other 3 main center city squares there are just as underused as half of DC's. And while New York's parks are generally pretty good, they don't have nearly enough of them for the population density (especially as compared to DC). Boston and San Francisco have a couple of decent squares, but not many. Chicago doesn't have a single one; Millennium Park is interesting but a quite different animal. Water Tower Place being probably the closest.

You could count on one hand the number of American cities that have urban public spaces comparable to Washington's. Yes we can do better, but to suggest that we're behind the rest of the country is just wrong.

by BeyondDC on Jan 7, 2011 2:06 pm • linkreport

It's quite nice to see Colombia Height's plaza being defended--when I read Kennicott's article, I was surprised he didn't mention it. It was one of the major draws to the area, especially during the summertime. Sticky Fingers coffee, a good book, musicians practicing, and adorable children playing in the fountain? Count me in.

by K on Jan 7, 2011 2:14 pm • linkreport

None of the space you've mentioned come anywhere near to the type of dynamism which occurs in a real, honest-to-God public square. The Dupont Circles, Columbia Heights, Civic Plazas, and Eastern Markets of the area are poor substitutes. Each of them is bounded in some way by a vehicular street and none of them convey the unique sense of being inside while outside which Kennicott mentions. If you're bringing up the uses of Civic Plaza or Columbia Heights, you might as well bring up how we use empty surface parking lots in this area. It's just not the same.

by Eric on Jan 7, 2011 2:20 pm • linkreport

Market Square in Old Town Alexandria is worth touting. The history there is great, and the Farmer’s Market held there every Saturday morning is one of the oldest in the country. With the flag there, you get patriotic pride. Other events are held there like the Bike To Work. The water fountain offers its refreshing vibe in the summer.

by Jay on Jan 7, 2011 2:22 pm • linkreport

I agree with Eric -- none of the DC spots mentioned have that "outside inside" protected feeling of the great urban squares and plazas of the world. The only thing that approximates it is Lamont Park in Mt. Pleasant during the Farmer's Market. There's something very nice and urban about the confluence of Mt. Pleasant St. and Lamont park - a good mix of bustle and business, but still pedestrian-dominated.

by M on Jan 7, 2011 2:26 pm • linkreport

Oh, and Meridian Hill Park on nice weekend afternoons is is also a very nice urban space. If they allowed a little retail (a coffee kiosk, some food, maybe even a little outdoor patio bar in the summers?) it would be GREAT!

by M on Jan 7, 2011 2:29 pm • linkreport

"the Dupont Circles, Columbia Heights, Civic Plazas, and Eastern Markets of the area are poor substitutes. Each of them is bounded in some way by a vehicular street"

May I point out that so is Rittenhouse Square? From any direction, you have to cross a busy street to get to it. Washington has some wonderful public urban spaces, and I think Kennicott's piece is daft. Dupont Circle, Farragut Square, McPherson Square, Lafayette Square, Franklin Square, Rawlins Park, Meridian Hill Park. It's true that most of the circles don't work very well in this regard, like Scott, Thomas, and Washington Circles. But in addition to Dupont, there is the oasis of urban loveliness that is Logan Circle.

by Herschel on Jan 7, 2011 2:44 pm • linkreport

If you want to compare DC's squares to Europe then you can legitimately claim we are lacking. But if the comparison is any other city in the US, then any DC-pessimism is nothing but a case of "the grass is always greener."

by BeyondDC on Jan 7, 2011 2:57 pm • linkreport

Dan Reed is really talking about placemaking, and vital places that aren't necessarily "great public squares." I've never been to Washingtonian Center, but I have been to Silver Spring. The latter isn't a great public square, but it functions reasonably well, and could even function better, had they tried to do some great stuff.

WRT the points of Dan M. and others, you're conflating great public squares and great places. They aren't necessarily the same, and Kennicott wasn't arguing for vital places like the Columbia Heights thing, but for the kinds of spaces that Gatje was speaking about.

WRT DC, someone mentioned McPherson Square, Franklin Square among others. They aren't great public spaces but they are public spaces. They aren't great because they don't connect and integrate and people don't use them.

Dupont Circle works because it is enclosed, although at a height higher than Gatje prefers, and because there is commerce there--even if people can't buy stuff in the circle, they can get stuff nearby and eat in the park, etc.

Dupont Circle's success is a lesson for the failure of many similar spaces across the city including Washington Circle, Thomas Circle, Grant Circle, and Sherman Circle.

Don't be so defensive. Focus on what works and what doesn't and use the lessons to be more successful elsewhere.

Maybe NYC doesn't have the space per capita that we do, but they have so many more vital spaces than we do, including Bryant Park, Madison Square Park, Times Square, spaces along Broadway, etc.

Let's admit that and try to do better here.

All that matters in the end is if the spaces function as great as they can possibly do so _for us_ here in DC. I think we can safely say that for the most part, they do not.

by Richard Layman on Jan 7, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

>Don't be so defensive. Focus on what works and what doesn't and use the lessons to be more successful elsewhere.

Impossible if simple pessimism makes us blind to our successes as well.

by BeyondDC on Jan 7, 2011 3:35 pm • linkreport

I agree with Richard. We can do so much more.

DC has some great potential spaces, but far too many of them under-perform relative to that potential.

by Alex B. on Jan 7, 2011 3:35 pm • linkreport

"May I point out that so is Rittenhouse Square? From any direction, you have to cross a busy street to get to it."

But those streets are all narrow, one-way streets, not all that busy, and the Square is so big that it dominates them. Nothing at all like the traffic surrounding Dupont Circle. Rittenhouse Sq. is also much bigger (and more beautiful) and invites meandering, whereas you can only really sit in or pass through Dupont Cir. I think the taller buildings immediately surrounding Rittenhouse also lend to a cozier enclosed feeling too.

by M on Jan 7, 2011 3:58 pm • linkreport

I think the fact that we have to mention the suburbs at all indicates that Kennicott is on point. I love Dupont, and I shop at Columbia Heights every Saturday, but in general DC doesn't have the kind of spaces Gatje describes. In general the US doesn't have them, period. We built our cities for cars.

There's a dozen places in Rome I'd rather sit and have a glass of wine over anywhere in DC. That doesn't make DC a bad place.

by jcm on Jan 7, 2011 4:02 pm • linkreport

@jcm

Given that the D.C. area has six million people, and D.C. six hundred thousand, it's worthwhile to consider the suburbs alongside the city in any sort of measure of public amenities. If nine-tenths of the region has to travel into the city to enjoy a good public space, than clearly that's a shortcoming, isn't it?

@Eric

"If you're bringing up the uses of Civic Plaza or Columbia Heights, you might as well bring up how we use empty surface parking lots in this area. It's just not the same."

But Veterans Plaza and the plaza in Columbia Heights AREN'T surface parking lots. They're dedicated public spaces for people. That's the point.

by dan reed! on Jan 7, 2011 4:37 pm • linkreport

@dan reed! But Kennicott wasn't talking about the DC area. He was talking about Washington, DC. Reston and Gaithersburg might be wonderful, but they aren't DC. I think it's great that they're there and people are enjoying them, but the aren't germane to the argument you're taking issue with.

by jcm on Jan 7, 2011 4:54 pm • linkreport

Richard: What the hell are you talking about when you say people don't use McPherson and Franklin Squares? Go look at them in Google street view. They're full of people using them.

I will be the first to admit that Washington doesn't have a Place de Vosges, and that we have room for improvement of our public squares. But Kennicott's "we have none, of course" is just plain idiotic.

by Herschel on Jan 7, 2011 5:14 pm • linkreport

My experience with Franklin Square and McPherson Square and their utilization is that they suck. For most of the past 20 years, McPherson Square has been overrun by the homeless. For most of the past 20 years, Franklin Square has been relatively empty. That being said, Franklin Square is a reasonably attractive space.

No one mentioned Pershing Square. Good thing. It's much much worse.

Not part of this discussion, but neighborhood squares that work, are Lincoln Park and Stanton Park.

Not part of this discussion, but neighborhood squares that are failures, are Eastern Market Square and Seward Square.

Dan R -- in my statement above on Silver Spring, I downplayed more than I intended the positive impact of the closing of Ellsworth Ave. (for the most part), combined with the little public space there, along with Veterans Park.

That these spaces are highly used is great and says something both about the need and the value of management. By comparison the area of "public space" around the Discovery Building sucks. Another lesson is present in that...

by Richard Layman on Jan 7, 2011 5:22 pm • linkreport

S***, again I am unclear. I think that the high utilization of those aligned spaces along Ellsworth aren't necessarily an indicator that they are great spaces--although they have gotten the form right--as much as they are about the demand and need for such space, and the few alternatives that exist for such spaces, especially in Silver Spring and Bethesda. E.g., look at the minimal amount of public space in and around Bethesda Row but it's high utilization. Again, it isn't super well done, but it's there and highly used.

by Richard Layman on Jan 7, 2011 5:24 pm • linkreport

I agree that Veterans Plaza & Ellsworth could be much better. It'd be nice if there was more residential in the area and it wasn't bounded on one side by a seven-story parking garage. (I also wish there weren't so many prohibitions on using the space, like banning alcohol - meant to prevent public drunkenness, but preempts having a glass of wine there as well.)

If you haven't already, check out Rockville Town Square. It has the right proportions, feeling of enclosure, and the surrounding streets slow cars down to make it a pedestrian-dominant space. The only downside is that the space is overdesigned - a bandshell, a grassy patch, in addition to a paved area and outdoor seating - which can make it feel very cluttered.

by dan reed! on Jan 7, 2011 5:29 pm • linkreport

Good point about Rockville Town Center. I've been around there a couple times, but didn't really have a chance to consider the space.

by Richard Layman on Jan 7, 2011 6:31 pm • linkreport

@Herschel: I never argued Rittenhouse Square is a great public square--you're confusing my point with someone else who brought it up. I would include Rittenhouse Square with the Dupont Circles because it still isn't what Kennicott is talking about (I went to college in Philly so I do know what we're talking about here). Many US cities are lacking in the great public square arena. We need only look south on our own continent to Mexico and many great South American cities to see what we're missing.

@dan reed: I understand your appreciation for dedicated pedestrian SPACES in general, but the types of spaces Kennicott is describing function completely differently from Civic Plaza in Silver Spring or the plaza area in Columbia Heights. My point in comparison to parking lots is that they function closer ot how we sometimes use empty parking lots in the city (the Fenton Street Market is a shining example) than to the great public squares of the world. Don't get me wrong, these are all valuable public spaces, but in terms of public squares they fall very, very short. Surrounded by buildings on all sides, no streets or vehicular traffic, flanked by cafes, restaurants, promenades, bars, fountains, and colonnades--these are the hallmarks of a public square. If you have ever been to one in Rome or Barcelona or Prague, you will know what I'm talking about. The funny thing is that I have complained about exactly what Kennicott is talking about on more than one occasion. I miss sitting in the public squares of Europe a lot of the time when I think about the absolute waste of space that most NPS parks and squares really are. And when I think of public squares, I don't think of Dupont Circle or Rittenhouse Square or McPherson Square--they are parks.

In essence, it seems that the only way we seem to be able to activate our public spaces in the area to the level of European and Latin American squares is to actually coordinate organized activities within them. Great public squares don't need that. They are already embedded organically with life through the use of said restaurants, cafes, fountains, and bars. Yes, you find some of these aspects in our parks and civic plazas, but altogether they do not come close to the potential they could have if they were modeled differently.

by Eric on Jan 7, 2011 7:16 pm • linkreport

Another model for a 'public square' that seems much easier to implement and very successful in other American cities is the pedestrian street. It doesn't require building anything new, just closing off a road to vehicular traffic. I miss Lincoln Road on Miami Beach everyday. I know there was a movement to close 17th street to cars. Throw some benches and fountains in the road, let the restaurants expand seating into the street, you have a great public space. Nice way to take back the infrastructure we already have built in DC.

by Rick on Jan 7, 2011 9:14 pm • linkreport

It's very hard for pedestrian only spaces to work in the US. You need massive numbers of pedestrians. Lincoln Road has many advantages compared to DC. One of the only spaces I'd feel comfortable pedestrianizing right now would be the two blocks between 7th and 9th Streets on F Street NW, in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. About a month ago I got a pre-publication copy of an article by David Feehan on the topic, submitted to the Journal of Town and City Management, it lays out very specific parameters for success, based on many failed pedestrian malls.

by Richard Layman on Jan 7, 2011 9:57 pm • linkreport

@eric: Forgive me, I misunderstood what you were saying, and I see now that it wasn't Kennicott but Dan Reed's commentary that suggested that Rittenhouse Square is a great public square. I agree completely that Rittenhouse Square like Farragut Square is a park, not a square such as you find in Rome or Barcelona or Paris. But there are no such squares in the United States generally, and none either in many old-world cities, such as London or Munich, unless there are places in those cities I'm forgetting (and I'm not forgetting Marienplatz, which isn't much better than Pershing Park as a square). I'm not persuaded that you can invent them where they don't already exist. You certainly can't just create a pedestrian zone and expect it to turn into a piazza.

by Herschel on Jan 7, 2011 10:45 pm • linkreport

I notice that nobody has brought up the late Silver Spring Turf, which was so crowded that nobody ever went there, and local businesses were outraged that everyone was loitering rather than buying things.

by Squalish on Jan 8, 2011 4:27 pm • linkreport

I wouldn't put too much weight behind Phil Kennicott's analysis of public space or for that matter architecture. While his general observations of the functioning of DC's cirlces is accurate, he won't stoop to look under his nose at the excellent public spaces Dan so cogently describes, much as if a building isn't sheathed in glass, it is somehow illegitimate in our modern culture.

The avenue intersections L'Enfant envisioned where from a pre-automibile era, much like the brilliant 1906 video of San Francisco's Market Street shows people lingering in a busy horse infested street. That being said, now with automobiles, sefensible space (literally) is esential in making an activated public space that is directly engaged with adjacent retail, unlike DuPont Circle, which while excellent public space, is divorced from out door cafe culture.

by Thayer-D on Jan 10, 2011 11:21 am • linkreport

One of the only spaces I'd feel comfortable pedestrianizing right now would be the two blocks between 7th and 9th Streets on F Street NW, in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

They already tried that and it didn't work.

by Juanita de Talmas on Jan 10, 2011 3:56 pm • linkreport

Plaza Mejor in Madrid.

by Vicente Fox on Jan 10, 2011 3:58 pm • linkreport

Funny--no one mentioned the national mall itself.

Let me recap a few of its better characteristics: it's huge (it does dominate everything around it), you can jog around it or play kick ball on it; it's surrounded on all sides by tons of culture--art, science, botany, history, you name it; it's free; it has a carousel; I can walk there from my house; it is metro accessible by not one, but TWO, metro stations (more if you loosen up the boundaries); you can protest or support anything you want there; it is full of hidden spaces and surprises.

but I will give you this--the food sucks.

by B. Pate on Jan 10, 2011 11:52 pm • linkreport

I agree with Rick on the benefits of pedestrian streets. One area that approaches this is the Mt. Pleasant triangle that M mentions. It's not pedestrian-only (despite moves in that direction), but it is pedestrian dominated, and there has been discussion about expanding the sidewalks. Unfortunately, the Lamont Park itself is rather small and devoid of green space (I'd prefer even the artificial green used in the Columbia Heights plaza). I think the potential is there, but DC should do much more with its public spaces.

by DCster on Jan 11, 2011 11:07 am • linkreport

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