A Discussion on the Public Realm: A Landscape Architect’s Perspective - Part 1

The value of the public realm to a great city should not be taken for granted. When we think of great public spaces in a city, we are often drawn to the iconic large parks. And when citizens think of their needs for green space, it is often channeled into their ideas of gardens, sports fields or playgrounds. Without a doubt, every great city has their share of well known and loved parks. But there are aspects of the public realm that should not be discounted even though they seem less glamorous or obvious.

So, what is the public realm? I would define it as the realm that belongs to the public as a whole, in which we carry out our every day tasks and errands. It includes streets, pathways, corridors, parks, publicly accessible open spaces, and built elements that are accessible to everyone regardless of ownership. These are really places where vehicles may be able to traverse, but the pedestrian rules.

In Charleston, we can all immediately name the great parks we are familiar with. White Point Gardens, Marion Square, Hampton Park and Waterfront Park are jewels of greenspace for the city. But so often a lot of the social life of the city happens on its streets. King Street is a great shopping street with its narrow right of way, many shops and well defined edges. I meet friends, colleagues or clients along this street almost every time I walk it. It has such great value. Upper King street has become a thriving area as well, with restaurants that incorporate outdoor seating, and great little side streets that offer more gracious sidewalks. This allows for gathering nodes such as fountains, benches for seating shaded by trees and civic buildings that open up onto plazas that act as impromptu spots to eat lunch or sit with a cup of coffee and take in the bustle of the city. These less defined spaces are where everyone in the community is welcome and people have the opportunity to mingle and meet and feel a greater connection to the city as a whole. This is where children walk to and from school every day, business people take lunch, tourists sightsee and citizens conduct errands.

A sidewalk, a plaza, a bench or a small fountain may seem like ordinary things, but with the right attention to design, these spaces and elements elevate the life of a city from ho-hum to lively. Charleston’s Mayor Riley and design professionals at the City have done a superb job of giving attention to these aspects of the city in the lower peninsula and filling in the small holes in the urban fabric to bring a richness that the community can enjoy. In the future, we will have the opportunity to take these aspects of design into areas such as the upper peninsula, and the suburbs of West Ashley to allow for the continued development that is already happening here to bring richness to those areas as well. In addition, there is opportunity to add a greater element of sustainability to our design standards. Thankfully the city has already begun to think of these areas as a whole and are prepared to be proactive instead of reactive. As a Landscape Architect, it is exciting to consider the opportunity to be a part of the future of this area as it grows. With each new project or renovation, a small part of the public realm is mended and improved for the entire community. High standards for design and continued thoughtful consideration given to details of this new public realm are sure to increase the vitality and enjoyment for all citizens.

In part two of this discussion on the public realm, we will get into a few of the specific details for design: Corridors, plazas, parks, and complete streets.