It’s a bit dispiriting, as a Washingtonian, to listen to a lecture on great public squares. 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. And the pieties of Washington urban design thinking, entrenched and seemingly inviolable, are all about views, vistas and open sight lines.
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.
Good God, it’s enough to make a girl cry. The Project for Public Spaces has a handy list of the world’s greatest public squares. In D.C., I would say that the newly spruced-up McPherson Square comes closest to those ideals, with concerts and drumming groups in the warmer months, and a respectable lunch traffic. Dupont Circle, of course, is crowded almost all of the time, and makes for a cozy interior space. Columbia Heights plaza, with its wonderfully interactive central fountain and nighttime lighting, is growing into one of the best hangout spots in the city.
But others are dead zones: Franklin Square and Mt. Vernon Square are unkempt and unwelcoming. Freedom Plaza is a desert, and Pershing Park a swampy thicket. Lafayette Park feels securitized and touristy, the National Mall more like an African savannah than your back yard. It’s hard to even imagine a world where they could take on the character of London’s Picadilly Circus or Rome’s Piazza Navona, with their liveliness and 24-hour sensibility.
As I see it, there are a few structural limitations on D.C.’s public squares.
1. I can’t say it enough: A CITY THAT DOES NOT OWN ITS PARKS WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO MAKE THEM GREAT PLACES. It’s nice that the National Park Service got some stimulus money to fix up McPherson Square, and will be embarking on a Mall makeover. But they’re not wired to do urban planning, and haven’t been particularly good at working with D.C.’s own agencies to get it done. (The Office of Planning has a whole vision for remaking Mt. Vernon Square, for example, but the NPS is still the biggest X factor). In fact, NPS rules explicitly prohibit the kinds of things that make public squares attractive, like food vending by anyone other than concession monopolies. Step one: Give the District its parks.
2. Even if the District owned its own parks, though, many of them aren’t well set up to be people places. The most common characteristic of successful squares is the feeling of closeness—as Kennicott quotes Robert Gatje, boundaries that don’t allow space to “leak out.” Think about it: D.C.’s squares and circles are surrounded by moats. Wide, heavily trafficked roads that are noisy and difficult to cross. No cafes open directly onto these squares, allowing sidewalk seating to spill into the central space. No churches use them as a staging ground. Cut off from the rest of the streetscape, they become vacuums.
3. There’s too much green space for any one to feel special. Weird, I know, but think about it: The kinds of major attractions that could enliven a central square are all stuck down on the Mall, which tends to feel alienating for D.C. residents (it belongs to the Nation, not so much us). Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center, by contrast, are some of the only places in midtown Manhattan to go and read a magazine or meet a friend outside.
4. Downtown is still not seen as a multi-use zone. Although more people have moved downtown over the last decade, as a result of conscious planning decisions to force developers to build housing as well as office space, it still hasn’t reached the point where enough people want to hang out in downtown squares on nights and weekends (the bigger ones, with inadequate lighting and D.C.’s lingering reputation for crime, even feel dangerous after dark). Most of the time, the only planned activity in Franklin Square is an outdoor soup kitchen. Urban parks belong to homeless people too, of course, but in D.C. it’s created a separation, rather than coexistence.
How to improve our public squares? In part, I think it’ll become easier as D.C. evolves into a more organic and less federally dominated city. In the mean time, we need some serious, coordinated planning efforts—which have already begun in Mt. Vernon Square, with the involvement of surrounding property owners and plans to create a management entity that would focus exclusively on that place. The Bryant Park Conservancy is an obvious model here, and there are organizations that think alot about how to bring parks to life. Just look at Jazz in the Sculpture Garden, which is packed every Friday night in the summer; why not make our other spaces fit for such activities?
It’s true, D.C.’s squares were designed as the city’s parlour room, not its den. But we can do the best with what we’ve got.