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Transforming public space and enjoying the journey

Who doesn’t love to hang out in the good weather and people watch?  That’s something I love doing when I travel and I’m always envious of cities that have great public spaces where people naturally gather.  Place where you can grab a bench, pull up a chair or find a seat in an adjacent café.  Europe is great for those kinds of experiences as is New York City.

I often attribute that to the compactness of those spaces that are often centrally located, or centrally located within a specific neighbourhood, and that thrive because those spaces came in existence long before car culture became the norm.  The human experience is paramount and that is what makes the most successful public spaces great.  They are designed for people and foster a sense of place and belonging first and foremost.

In recent times, that phenomenon has emerged as a science and is various referred to as placemaking, creative placemaking or city building.  The term “creative placemaking” was coined by Artscape Inc. that is based in Toronto and is defined as “an evolving field of practice that intentionally leverages the power of the arts, culture and creativity to serve a community’s interest while driving a broader agenda for change, growth and transformation in a way that also builds character and quality of place.”

What once happened more organically has now been codified and another group that has been pursuing this kind of work is the organization Projects for Public Spaces that is based in New York.  Through their work, they have identified four qualities that make for great public spaces that include the following elements:

  • it should be accessible;
  • it should be comfortable and have a good image;
  • people should be able to engage in an array of activities; and
  • it should be sociable.

Project for Public Spaces infographic

When all these elements are at play, great public spaces are created where people want to come together and where people want to spend time when they visit a new city.

Often cities will explore ways to create great public spaces through experiments that Project for Public Spaces refers to as the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” model. This approach is also sometimes referred to as tactical urbanism, pop-up projects, or D.I.Y. urbanism and offer opportunities to test ways to bring energy and life to a community through designs that start out as something temporary before being transformed into something more permanent.

One of the best examples of this kind of work was the transformation of Times Square in New York City where major thoroughfares were blocked off and lawn chairs were set up to encourage people to take ownership of the space.  Following a series of different experiments, Time Square was eventually transformed into 2.5 acres of pedestrian-only space that has taken over what was once one of the world’s busiest intersections.  And an interesting side-note is that that transformation was designed by Snohetta, the same architectural firm that designed the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts here in Kingston.

Lawn chairs in Times Square

Speaking of Kingston, we’re fortunate to have and enjoy such a vibrant downtown and that is especially true during the summer months.  There’s definitely a buzz in the air most days and people are attracted by the many things to be found in and around Kingston City Hall in particular.  Events are always popular but the potential also exists to experiment with ways to make the spaces in around City Hall that much more attractive, appealing and sociable on an on-going basis.

That is the purpose behind the pilot project Ontario Street: a vibrant spaces project that is intended to explore and experiment with ways to make the downtown as appealing and attractive as possible for the people who live here as well as for the increasing number of people who are visiting.  There’s a lot to work with already so it’s an interesting challenge to see what more can be done to transform the space even more.

Earlier this summer our colleagues in the Recreation & Leisure Services department experimented with programming Ontario Street between Market and Brock Streets through a diverse range of recreational program.  This month, the Culture Services department is doing the same but by transforming Ontario Street into a hub of artistic, heritage and cultural activity between August 9 and 11.  The weekend will feature a wide range of programs that include installations, visual arts, theatre, and literary workshops, a mural jam, public art and cultural heritage talks, music, and more.

Ontario Street dancing

In addition to the programming being offered, other elements have been added as well including furniture, seating, tables, greenery and shade.  This opportunity is being used to explore and evaluate how people interact with the space on their own and through programming with an eye to transforming this stretch of Ontario Street into a pedestrian-friendly, welcoming and creative space for Kingston in more permanent ways.

You can find out all of the details about Ontario Street: A Vibrant Spaces Project through the City of Kingston website here and we look forward to seeing you there and hearing what you have to say to help inform what might be possible in the future.

Colin Wiginton
Colin Wiginton
Cultural director
Find out more about Colin.