A Discussion on the Public Realm: A Landscape Architect’s Perspective - Part 2

In this further discussion on the Public Realm, we will focus on great streets and how they add to the life of a city. You will find great streets all over the world and they each share common characteristics that contribute to their success. Every great street will function well for vehicles, transit and pedestrians and will have a comfortable sense of scale between the buildings, sidewalks and streets. I would add, that part of a streets ability to function for pedestrians includes an environmental component, so we can add green infrastructure to the list. A system of street networks within a city that consider all of these elements as part of their design will add to, not detract from, the life of a city.

Lets look more closely at one remarkable street in Charleston, King Street. What characteristics make it such a thriving part of the city? Obviously the variety of uses in the buildings make it attractive. The restaurants, shops, businesses and residences create a vibrant place. However, without the public infrastructure, that is ‘the street’, it could simply be another strip mall. The narrow driving lanes and edges defined by two to five story buildings create a feeling of enclosure without being clausterphobic. The passable sidewalk sheltered from passing vehicles by on street parking, make the pedestrian feel safe. The use of quality material such as bluestone sidewalks, granite curbs, and brick crosswalks provide a sense of human scale. Site furnishings such as street lights, benches and bike racks create a comfortable and inviting space for pedestrians. With the addition of street trees, the space feels complete.

King Street

While we do not want to replicate King Street in every area of the city, per se, it will be beneficial to utilize similar features and characteristics. For example, Morrison Drive in the Upper Peninsula offers a lot of potential, especially considering all of the redevelopment of existing buildings and new building that is occurring. Currently, this street has some positives like street trees, sidewalks and striped bike lanes, but the lack of safe pedestrian crossings, limited on street parking and significant lack of lighting and site furnishings leaves a lot of room for improvement. By utilizing the large Right of Way, we could potentially see designated transit lanes, protected bike lanes, increased parallel parking, bioswale/raingardens and improved sidewalks and pedestrian crossings. Adding a vegetated median and making safe crosswalks could greatly improve the safety and aesthetics. Already, improvements have been made in areas like Half Mile North and 960 Morrison Drive as these areas have been redeveloped.

Existing Morrison Drive

The following diagrams illustrate the above ideas to create a ‘Complete Street’ on Morrison Drive. Although not every street in the Upper Peninsula will include all of these elements, many of these elements such as sidewalks, crosswalk improvements, street trees and bioswales can be incorporated to greatly improve the public realm in this area. Depending on the size of the street, scale of the buildings and predominate uses, these elements can be incorporated appropriately.

Once a functioning and pleasing street network is established, attention should be paid to the public plazas and green space in this area. Every redeveloped corner offers an opportunity to include small elements such as interesting paving and seating elements or possibly public art. These small moves taken together have a big impact on the feeling of the public realm. A few well planned parks can meet the needs of the existing and future residents as the area transitions from a predominantly service/light industrial area with a few apartments and single family homes, to a hub of activity with new residential properties, office, restaurant, and service uses.