Milwaukee’s public spaces—parks, plaza, streets and sidewalks—will get intensive use and scrutiny during the Democratic National Convention in July 2020. This public realm is a complex network that knits together a city and influences—intentionally or not—the impressions and feelings of people traversing it. Next year’s convention offers an opportunity to focus on improving, and perhaps expanding, Milwaukee’s public realm. Wise investments could pay off long after visiting throngs depart.
It’s a truism that “all great cities have great public spaces.” Milwaukee boasts some exemplary ones—a lakefront with contiguous parks, the RiverWalk, new Milwaukee River Greenway and Oak Leaf Trail. Nonetheless, numerous public spaces in the heart of Milwaukee brim with vitality mostly during special events and otherwise lack luster. What renowned urbanist-architect Jan Gehl calls a “global renaissance in public spaces” has raised the bar for what people now expect from urban public realms. As urban designer Francis Tibbalds wrote in Making People-Friendly Towns, “A good environment and an attractive public realm are not just created by professional specialists—architects, town planners, engineers, landscape architects and so on—or even just by the patrons of those professionals. They are created and maintained by the love and care of the people who live and work in a town or city.”
Individuals, nonprofit organizations, business-improvement districts, government officials and other professionals all can initiate public-space improvements. Many approaches and tools can help enhance the quality and value of public commons. Here are some potential initiatives.
More Reasons and Ways for People to Gather
The Manhattan, N.Y.-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS) focuses on the human experience within places. PPS developed a concept called The Power of 10+ because “places thrive when users have a range of reasons (10+) to be there. These might include a place to sit, playgrounds to enjoy, art to touch, music to hear, food to eat, history to experience and people to meet. Ideally, some…activities will be unique to that particular place, reflecting the culture and history of the surrounding community. Local residents who use this space most regularly will be the best source of ideas for which uses will work best.”
Thus, it’s crucial to have at least 10 ongoing options for using a public space, not just during markets or special events. Layering of activities ensures that no single type of use or user dominates a space. Parks in many cities now offer wide-ranging free daily programming, year-round. Downtown Milwaukee—BID #21 and others are working to increase activity options in several public spaces.
Create More Comfort and Options
As residents, workers and visitors move through a city, the public realm impacts their experiences more than the facades of buildings. As Milwaukee landscape architect and educator Jennifer Current says, “it’s also sidewalks, streets and public-transit options that make a city welcoming or not, not just parks and plazas.” Current, who lives near Downtown and regularly walks or bikes places with her family, recommends more and better seating. “People of all ages and abilities need places to pause, rest, have lunch outdoors, look at art, watch what’s going on—or to just be,” she continues. “Ideally, give people options through a range of street furniture, such as seating with and without backs, options in sun and in shade, pieces that are fixed and pieces that are moveable.”
She notes that, except in bus shelters and Northwestern Mutual’s plaza, there is little seating along Wisconsin Avenue, Downtown’s main thoroughfare. Current says she often hears concerns that furniture encourages homeless people and skateboarders to hang around, “However, nonexistent furniture essentially excludes all users. Having spaces that attract more people, and more ‘eyes on the street,’ is one of the best ways to promote both vibrancy and safety in the public realm.” A “public-space audit” can be used to evaluate the comfort, visibility, sociability and image of specific public places, their accessibility, including by foot or transit, connections to surroundings and uses and activities.
Pursue the Process of Placemaking
According to the PPS website, “As both an overarching idea and a hands-on approach for improving a neighborhood, city, or region, placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community…placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm…to maximize shared value…[It] facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.”
MKE United, a joint project of the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC), Milwaukee Urban League, Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) Milwaukee, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the City of Milwaukee is working to bridge connections between Downtown and adjacent neighborhoods in coordination with a community-driven vision, according to MKE United project director Tony Panciera.
“Among other things, this vision supports the importance of fostering and creating new inter-cultural and inter-geographical connections across Milwaukee, including via public spaces,” Panciera says. “Pursuing placemaking can create more opportunity for people of different backgrounds and cultures to meet and break down racial, ethnic and cultural barriers.” MKE United is focused on developing a 10-year action agenda to make Milwaukee a more just and inclusive city.
The University of Wisconsin-Extension offers educational and planning assistance related to placemaking and community development. Retired Extension educator Steven Grabow, now an adviser for Design Wisconsin—an Extension placemaking program—says “communities throughout Wisconsin are now using principles of placemaking to inform and inspire visioning ideas about what their community and public places could be in the future.”
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