According to public space planner Ethan Kent, Chapel Street in New Haven is a major success story.
Speaking to about 40 audience members at the Yale School of Architecture Thursday, Kent, manager of the Project for Public Spaces, described the steps his organization took in making the space more accessible to New Haven residents in the early 1980s, including collaborating with business owners in the area on small projects such as improving the paving. In the talk, he presented his organization’s unique approach to planning user-friendly public spaces.
“We don’t have many places where we can experience our communities and become more sensitive towards our environment,” Kent said. “It’s hard to create a space that will attract people.”
PPS is a nonprofit organization focusing on creating and maintaining public places around which communities can develop.
Kent said a lot of newly built, impressive-looking architectural constructions tend be less inviting. Drawing from a number of recent examples, particularly the Milwaukee Art Museum, Kent said certain buildings create an intimidating environment. He said that such settings narrow the range of possible public spaces that can be created around them.
“They are an insult to the cultural life of the city,” he said. “They are beautiful but useless buildings.”
Successful public places are the ones that offer a variety of uses and activities, encourage social interaction and provide comfort and easy access to other popular areas, he said. In order to create such spaces, he said, planners should emphasize a design that allows for flexibility, ensures that the presence of vehicles is limited and provides various in-site attractions as well as links to other exciting destinations.
Kent said a problematic planning process, usually when it is “crisis-driven and politically initiated,” causes developers to fail to create the desired spaces. Faulty planning processes rely only on professionals or experts and do not involve members of the community, he said. As a result, planners make static designs, which lead to a less successful use of space.
The approach of PPS is radically different, Kent said. He said its more successful building projects begin with a thorough evaluation of the site in order to develop a vision which represents the set of desirable uses and activities. This procedure is not completed solely by professionals but instead strongly encourages the involvement of community members.
“You’re creating a place, not a design,” Kent said.
Alice Warren ’06 said she found Kent’s perspective on architecture interesting.
“It was great. It got me thinking about architecture in more practical terms as opposed to aesthetic ones,” she said.
The talk was presented by undergraduate architecture forum Ink and Vellum and the Yale Planners Network. Leo Stevens ’05, co-president of Ink and Vellum, said the talk is part of a lecture series meant to educate students on specific areas of architecture.
“We try to link it to coursework that we’re doing,” Stevens said. “We bring the graduate and the undergraduate architecture programs together.”
Stevens is a staff photographer for the Yale Daily News.