It is no secret that successful cities are also green cities. By green, we are referring to the physical “greenprint,” or the physical green infrastructure of the city. This includes tree-lined boulevards, large regional or central parks, and smaller, neighborhood-scale pocket parks.
The idea of a small neighborhood green space is not new. This type of design has an extensive background, and is often integrated into the Italian “piazza," or public square. It has several variations as both a large urban center with commercial activity, or as a small green area between buildings for a recreational break from the encompassing concrete jungle. It's found in nearly every classical town including Milan, a commercial and former industrial heart of Italy.
The square has sadly been forgotten in urban planning, as large tracts of land in the United States have usually ignored this design. This is in part due to the fact of lower population density and expansive structure of suburban development, but also an apparent fundamental lack of understanding about the purpose and function of such places. In response, New Urbanism makes a specific point of including this landscape architecture in order to form more complete communities.
William Whyte also examined this topic in depth in “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces,” a book and short film released in 1980. He performed meticulous analyses of social use and interaction in various places across the United States, from Paley Park in New York to Mechanic’s-Market Plaza in San Francisco. Unsurprising to urbanists, the best-used places provided seating, food, and nature-oriented elements; but most importantly, a comfortable habitat in a tumultuous city environment.
These minute but influential spaces are a defining factor for livability. So why aren’t more contemporary places designed for this requirement? A more local approach to addressing community needs could help transform sterile areas into vibrant – and public - social neighborhoods.
Instead of adapting a park to fit in the city, how would you change your local fabric to accommodate, in the words of Whyte, small urban spaces?
Credits: Photographs by Maxwell Vidaver. Data linked to sources.