Pub­lic plazas need to be friendly

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Olympic Plaza, Salt Lake City

We came upon Salt Lake City’s Olympic Plaza al­most by ac­ci­dent while wan­der­ing the Gate­way Mall, a down­town out­door shop­ping cen­tre.

The plaza is in the mid­dle of the mall with no links to the streets and no real sense of ar­rival, some­thing you would ex­pect from an Olympic Plaza.

It is ac­tu­ally a small, in­ti­mate space.

We do love the danc­ing snowflake foun­tain, which did at­tract some chil­dren to play in it. How­ever we don’t like the fact kids can’t play in the invit­ing, man-made stream com­plete with rocks and trees at the plaza’s edge.

It should have been de­signed to al­low for fam­i­lies to play in the wa­ter and climb the rocks. Good pub­lic spa­ces don’t have a long list of things you can’t do.

We don’t like the steep stairs en­ter­ing the plaza at one side. While the steps may make for good seat­ing at times, it was a huge bar­rier for young chil­dren, older peo­ple and those ar­riv­ing with strollers, bikes and wheel­chairs.

We don’t like that over­all, Salt Lake City’s Olympic Plaza feels more like a pri­vate space, which sup­ports the com­mer­cial re­tail­ers of the Gate­way Mall.

In fact, it is al­most iden­ti­cal in scale and scope to a sim­i­lar danc­ing foun­tain and man-made stream plaza in the city’s brand new City Creek Cen­tre shop­ping mall, just a few blocks away.

Town Square, St. Ge­orge, Utah

In con­trast, St. Ge­orge’s Town Square seemed to do ev­ery­thing right.

The square is right off Main Street and is vis­i­ble to pedes­tri­ans, cy­clists and driv­ers. The danc­ing wa­ter foun­tain is front and cen­tre, invit­ing peo­ple of all ages to stop, look and play.

Our visit was in late March, and al­ready the weather was nice enough for dozens of chil­dren and their fam­i­lies to en­joy the square.

I can only imag­ine how re­fresh­ing this foun­tain is in the summer when it gets re­ally hot.

We do like that not only the foun­tain (very sim­i­lar to Salt Lake’s Olympic Plaza foun­tain), but also the man-made stream just a few me­tres away can be played in and en­joyed by every­one.

We do like that there is a pic­nic area with mov­able ta­bles and chairs in the mid­dle, al­low­ing par­ents to eas­ily watch their chil­dren run from one area to the next. We do like that there are pub­lic wash­rooms in the im­me­di­ate area.

We do like that there is also a carousel in the square for fam­i­lies to en­joy. It is also priced right at $1 a ride, with kids un­der 42 inches tall get­ting to ride free. Not sure what it is about small Amer­i­can cities, but many seem to have a carousel some­where in their down­town — places like He­lena, Mis­soula, Spokane and Idaho Falls. There used to be 5,000 carousels in U.S, now there are fewer than 125. There is some­thing fun about the sound and sight of a carousel. They en­liven many ur­ban spa­ces in­clud­ing Paris, New York City and Lyon. A carousel would be a great ad­di­tion to Cal­gary’s Olympic Plaza, Devo­nian Gar­dens or the Eau Claire Plaza/wad­ing pool.

We do like that the square is an­chored on three cor­ners by a pub­lic build­ings, giv­ing it a def­i­nite sense of be­ing pub­lic. As well, two of the build­ings — the li­brary and chil­dren’s mu­seum — are very syn­er­gis­tic with the fam­ily fo­cus of the square.

We do like that the square and streets around it are home to sev­eral small pub­lic art­works. In an in­no­va­tive twist, the sculp­tures are ac­tu­ally for sale, so they are tem­po­rary rather than per­ma­nent. So rather than the city pur­chas­ing the works of art, the city of­fers up the square and streets as an out­door ex­hi­bi­tion space on a tem­po­rary ba­sis to sell their art.

There is even a price list posted at the en­trance to the square.

We do like that the square in­cludes a large rec­tan­gu­lar multi-pur­pose grass area that is used for non-pro­grammed ac­tiv­i­ties like throw­ing a ball or a Fris­bee, as well as ma­jor pro­grams like movies in the square, arts and craft fair and be­ing the “fin­ish line” for an in­ter­na­tional iron man com­pe­ti­tion.

St. Ge­orge’s Town Square was com­pleted in 2007 and de­signed by Bruce Jor­gensen, GSBS Ar­chi­tects from Salt Lake City for $4.5 mil­lion.

The last word

Dur­ing the past 10 years, Cal­gary has cre­ated dozens of pub­lic spa­ces that are nice to look at, but rarely get much use. Poppy Plaza is a good ex­am­ple. This $11-mil­lion pub­lic space is lo­cated on Memo­rial Drive right next to the Louise Bridge and the busy Bow River path­way. You would think would be a busy place. Yet I have walked, cy­cled and driven by hun­dreds of times — at var­i­ous times of day and of the week — and at most, I might see one or two peo­ple there and usu­ally they are just pass­ing through. Good pub­lic spa­ces are en­gag­ing and al­low for mul­ti­ple uses year-round — they are more than just dec­o­ra­tion.

Richard White

St. Ge­orge, Utah’s Town Square has a carousel for fam­i­lies to en­joy. It is priced right at $1 a ride, with chil­dren un­der 42 inches in height rid­ing for free.

The foun­tain in St. Ge­orge’s Town Square in Utah, sim­i­lar to the one at Salt Lake’s Olympic Plaza, has a man-made stream just a few me­tres away.

Pho­tos: Richard White

The Olympic Plaza in Salt Lake City is stuck in the mid­dle of a mall.

Town Square in St. Ge­orge, Utah, is off Main Street, which makes it quite vis­i­ble to pedes­tri­ans.

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