Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Market for Design

By Ariel
It is ironic that at the same time the City of Philadelphia is facing considerable constraints on the choices it can make regarding its budget, Philadelphia as a whole has quite a few choices regarding the creation of public spaces in and around the city. The Center City District is advocating the rehabilitation of Dilworth Plaza and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation is hosting a design competition to redo Pier 11.

When projects such as these are criticized it is often on the basis of issues related to site lines, the nature of the preservation of historic elements and other design specific criteria. And well they should. However more basic questions undergirding public (and private) investment in these spaces need to be asked first. This is not to say that Dilworth Plaza and the concourse beneath it do not call out for attention, or that creating a visionary civic space on the Delaware has the ability to be the catalyst for change on the waterfront. Rather it means that the nature of those interventions depends on a variety of issues that are not so much in the realm of design criticism but relate more to market forces and economics, the bugaboo of urban design.

An illustrative point might be Philadelphia’s failed pedestrian thoroughfare experiment along Chestnut Street. In 1976 the city spent over $7 million dollars to create a pedestrian thoroughfare that stretched from 6th to 18th Street, blocking Chestnut Street to all but bus traffic. The failure of businesses and the migration of activity one block south to Walnut Street are all blamed on this street closure. The lesson Philadelphia learned was that street closures are a bad idea. It’s a shame, because street closures, and the pedestrianization of public spaces are wonderful urban amenities. The thing is that they need to be more targeted; not simply smaller (and able to grow with demand) but they need to be appropriate to the retail mix of the street, and yes, they need to accommodate parking as well. All of which is to say that one needs to approach street closures (and all other public spaces) with a bit of an economic eye towards demand and need.

The redesign of Dilworth Plaza features too prominent features, a lawn and walkable fountain. The basic supposition is that if you build it, “it” being a lovely patch of grass to picnic for lunch, they will come. However Love Park has for years remained an underutilized space for workers lunches and I suspect Dilworth Plaza is not the right location for Bryant Park-like; placing a respite oriented picnic spot in such a highly (foot) trafficked area would discourage workers looking for a break. I’d argue that investing similar amounts of money in redoing Love Park, increasing green space, and sidewalk accessibility, would provide a much more popular amenity for workers.

And therein lies the rub, because there is no way so much money will be spent on re-doing Love park, while Dilworth Plaza, sitting atop train station (and not a parking lot) it has a few more constituencies and is eligible for all sorts of federal transit dollars. Big projects and public spaces are designed according to the impetus of the big players building them, and not the market forces demanding them.

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