May 12, 2016: Making a “space” a “place”: they don’t just happen

Belmont Citizen-Herald: May 12, 2016

People were telling stories recently on the “You know you’re from Belmont” Facebook page about Cushing Square’s old Friendly’s Restaurant.  I remember –it must have been 20 or so years ago—how we would walk with our young daughter up to buy ice cream at the outside window right after dinner, and then sit on the steps of the SS Pierce Building to eat our treat.  Just a set of concrete steps, a stoplight, and a big busy intersection.

What made that such a pleasant experience? With Spring upon us, it’s fun to ponder what makes a “space” a “place.”  They don’t just happen.

“Great public spaces,” says the Project for Public Spaces, “are where celebrations are held, social and economic exchanges take place, friends run into each other, and cultures mix.”  Successful spaces, PPS continues, have four key qualities. They are accessible; people are engaged in activities; the space is comfortable; and it is a sociable place, “one where people meet each other and take people when they come to visit.”

The American Planning Association agrees, saying that “great public spaces help promote social interaction and a sense of community.” Examples, the APA says, include spaces such as plazas, town squares, marketplaces and public greens.

More is necessary than simply having an open area.  According to PPS, “activities are the basic building blocks of a place. Having something to do gives people a reason to come to a place – and return.” “When there is nothing to do,” PPS continues, “a space will be empty, and that generally means that something is wrong.”

Activities should be judged, PPS says, by whether people of different ages are using the space; whether the space is used throughout the day; and by whether both singles and people in groups are using it.  Activities, PPS emphasizes, can be as simple as reading, playing chess, and sitting down to rest. Ah, now I understand those Cushing Square steps we used for our ice cream cone eating.

Does Belmont have any great public spaces?  The Belmont Center Green is at the top of my list.  Folks consistently buy their ice cream at Ranc’s, or their slice of pizza at Gregory’s, and settle down for a chat under a tree or on a bench.  Sure, it’s a mess today, but the construction will finish. While it’s better at night, without the traffic buzzing by, it’s still a pleasant spot in the middle of town.

To me, the plaza along Common Street in front of Kitchen on Common has always held unfulfilled promise as a great public space.  Adding some communal patio tables, greenery, and a place to purchase a glass of wine or lemonade, combined with a snack from Westcott Mercantile or a Vicki Lee’s sandwich, would seem to lend itself to a reasonably constant stream of games of Go and chess.  It’s not up to the town, however, to make that conversion, except perhaps lending some expertise to the small business owners there.

I miss that old Friendly’s Restaurant.  And I miss eating ice cream on those concrete steps overlooking Cushing Square.  Little did I know at the time that I was experiencing what makes a great public space. Having conversations with people as they wandered by (it helped having a precocious toddler); spending time with the family; watching the neighborhood go by.

While the town, in its capacity as a town, cannot create great public places, it could help facilitate them. In promoting quality of life, Belmont could do worse than by devoting some of its planning staff time to identifying locations in town that could be promoted as public places.