Great Communities Need Great Places

Ken Boone

October 07, 2020

This article was originally published in the Kansas Government Journal.

Great Places engage us, they delight us. Great Places encourage us to have fun or explore. Some encourage us to think and contemplate. Great Places embrace us as individuals or as small groups or teeming masses. They can foster introspection, or collective display and raucous interaction. 

A great place can be anywhere, in any town of any size. They can be in a downtown district, community park, a small tucked away corner, a main street, an urban plaza, or any endless number of areas, districts, streets, sites, or spaces that are special, different, and resonate with a community.

And while it is a certainty that our natural world and its vistas and viewsheds of mountains, deep forests, shade-dappled meandering rivers, deep blue holes in the ocean, and burning sunsets over the Konza Prairie are majestic and awe inspiring places, and certainly Great Places, our focus is on our built environment. The world that most of us inhabit every day.

Who doesn’t need a little greatness every day?

So, what is a great place? It’s a simple question with a complex answer. A huge number of factors make up the great places we all know, from the broadest brush strokes to the finest detail. Purpose, use, scale, experience, discovery, fun, materials, views, space, history, spirit, attitude, climate, etc. You get the picture. But Great Places have one common denominator – people. A Great Place is activated by people. A Great Place invites people in, as individuals or in groups, and encourages them to be human.

Sar-Ko-Par Trails Park in Lenexa, Kansas.

Great Places can be big, filled with activity and energy, and easy to identify. If you have been to Bill Snyder Family Stadium on a Saturday night in October, or Arrowhead Stadium on a Sunday afternoon, you know the feeling. Filled with people and united in their fandom, both at the tailgates and in the stadium, it is truly a spectacle of the highest experience and elevates parking lots and a stadium to a Great Place. This is repeated in venues throughout towns and cities across the country. Whether it’s high school fields or gyms, college stadiums or fieldhouses, or professional stadiums and colosseums, the infusion of people in these venues transforms them into Great Places.

Central Park and Bryant Park in New York City, The Country Club Plaza during Christmas in Kansas City, Mass Street in Lawrence on a Saturday night, Aggieville in Manhattan on Fake Patty’s Day or after a Wildcat win, and even The Strip in Las Vegas. All these places are activated by throngs of people enjoying the environment surrounding them, some thoughtfully and painstakingly designed, some organically grown through time and change. These are just a few easy examples. There are many, many more that can be named. What are your top five big, bold Great Places?

Some Great Places can be less raucous, but no less great. Loose Park in Kansas City on any sunny weekend day is a place of great activity and joy. People are picnicking on blankets, playing frisbee, reading, walking the miles of walks and paths, or strolling the picturesque rose garden. It is a beautiful, thoughtful, and expansive place that is accommodating for almost any activity. It even once was the muse of environmental artists Christo and Jeane-Claude when all the walks were covered with golden fabric. It remains a vibrant and important Great Place. What are the places in your community that people are drawn to, time and time again?

Some Great Places are hidden gems, just waiting to be discovered. Just off North Broadway and West 5th Street in downtown Pittsburg, Kansas, Europe Park is waiting for you to discover it. Nestled between two multi-story buildings in a small and narrow space, Europe Park is a moment of calm along a busy downtown street. A waterfall at the back of the space provides some ambient soothing water sound. Ample seating and shade provide for a comfortable pause on a hot day.  It is a surprising and welcome little jewel.

There are many places like this in our communities. Small, humble, special places. And many that are larger or in between. Embrace them, protect them, cultivate them.

And when it is time to develop or redevelop the places in your community, identify what can be done to elevate them to Great Places. So, what should you consider when developing such critical spaces in our communities? I asked a group of Olsson’s senior landscape architects about Great Spaces and here is what they said is critical to consider, or what makes a great space to them:

From Jennifer Seacrest:

“To me, what makes a Great Space is that it gives people a sense of discovery; provides a variety in experiences, scale, and engagement in that it includes features to accommodate a multitude of purposes for use; has choregraphed landscape, a tailored green solution that includes four season interest; is designed with great consideration of elements and micro-climatic conditions such as sun, shade, wind, and winter use; it embraces topography and grade changes (and if they’re not present, introduce them); and it's all about the view – framed views and or screening of landscapes and people.”

From Korey Schulz:  

“Before I design a great place, I ask myself, ‘Why will people come to the space?’ It’s not just for the space we create, but they will come for shopping, living, working, exercise, and entertainment. Next, I ask, ‘How will people use this space?’ I determine if it will be a passive or active space – will people stay for five minutes or five hours. Then I consider what materials will be used. What should the feel of the space be – a hardscape or softscape? I also think about the adjacent spaces and if people are looking at the space or traveling by it quickly. Finally, I find out if the space has a history, and if we’re building on the history or starting new.”

The Legends at Village West in Kansas City, Kansas.

From Cody Peratt:  

“A Great Space needs to be adaptable, versatile, and timeless. When we design a Great Space, we want it to be one that can transform over the years and be as relevant on day one as it will be 50 years down the road.”

From Darren Varner:

“First and foremost, it must work. A few things I think our problem-solving skills need to concentrate on are: One, it should feel comfortable – someplace you would take your family to, recommend, and either take or meet up with friends. It should feel safe, well maintained, have plenty of things to do for a diversity of ages, and produce smiling, happy people. Second, it should be easily accessible for people, cars, bikes, other forms of transit, and be connected to adjacent sites, trails, etc. Third, it should be known as a must-visit place in the community. It should be rooted into the community and have local flair or history. Fourth, the first version doesn’t have to be the last version. A place with great bones can adapt over time, allowing for experimentation or new trends. Timeless doesn't always mean static. And finally, if function and aesthetics are evenly handled, it should be hard to tell which stakeholder (the user, the client, or the design world) was most satisfied. Although I always would lean toward the user.” 

You already know what Great Places exist in your community. Embrace them. Nurture them. Protect them. Curate and cultivate them as important in your community. And when new development calls, or you are embarking on the next transformational redevelopment project, develop your vision, look to your community for support, and look for a professional to help guide you through the process of developing your next Great Place.

Ken Boone is vice president of Ochsner Hare & Hare, the Olsson Studio. The studio helps clients realize their vision in developing Great Places in their communities through community and neighborhood planning and redevelopment, parks and recreation, urban and regional planning, land planning, real estate development planning, and landscape architectural design. Reach Ken at kboone@olsson.com and learn more about Olsson at www.olsson.com

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