What Makes a Public Space Truly Great?

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Aspen, Colorado's pedestrian mall is one of 5 exceptional public spaces featured on the American Planning Association's 2018 Great Places in America list. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Every year since 2007, the nonprofit American Planners Association (APA) — motto: "Making Great Communities Happen" — has showcased the best and the brightest neighborhoods, streets and public spaces from an urban planning perspective via its annual Great Places in America list.

The contributing factors that help to define a "great place" are varied and abundant: accessibility, authenticity, functionality, economic opportunity, architecture, historic preservation and so on. But ultimately, what makes a neighborhood, street or public space — three elements defined as "essential components of all communities" by the APA — so superlatively great is a unique ability to bolster and enrich a community while uniting people from all walks of life. Great places inspire.

"Our Great Places in America designees highlight the many facets that make up planning — from community engagement, quality of character and economic development," Cynthia Bowen, president of APA and Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners, explains in a press release. "These neighborhoods, streets and public spaces illustrate how a community coming together creates lasting value."

Looking back at previous Great Place designees, the APA casts an impressively large net, covering all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

Sure, some world famous no-brainers have received props in the past: New York City's Central Park, San Francisco's Chinatown, Pike Place Market in Seattle, Olvera Street in Los Angeles and Miami Beach's fabled Ocean Drive are among them. But what's most fascinating are the lesser-known examples of urban planning at its finest such as Haddon Avenue in Collingswood, New Jersey; Bienville Square in Mobile, Alabama; downtown Mason City, Iowa and Lake Mirror Park in Lakeland, Florida. (I was delighted to find that a public space where I spent a ton of time as a kid, Point Defiance Park in Tacoma, Washington, made the cut in 2011.)

This year's 15 designees — five streets, five neighborhoods and five parks/public spaces — skew towards low-key gems that aren't global tourism hotspots. These are places that you might not be aware of or appreciate unless you live or have spent time in the city or town in which they're located. In other words, these aren't Central Parks. But for the communities they serve, they're just as vital.

Here's a look at the five most remarkable parks and public spaces of 2018 as selected by the APA. Below that, you'll find a list of the APA's picks for the most esteemed streets and neighborhoods of year as well as an interactive map for discovering past designees. You never know ... there might be a slice of American greatness in your own backyard.

The Plaza — Orange, California

The Plaza, Orange, California
Surrounded by a wealth of historic architecture and a lively sidewalk scene, the Orange Plaza is somewhat of an anomaly in car-centric and new Orange County, California. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Described as "one of the oldest and most intact historic districts in Southern California," the city of Orange (aka "Plaza City") was developed in the late 1800s around a spacious, palm tree-studded central plaza complete with a grand fountain serving as its mood-setting centerpiece. Flanked by a historic commercial district that, against all odds, maintains much of the same walkable, small town vibe that it did decades ago, the Plaza acts as a community "living room" that provides "providing a comfortable and friendly environment for a morning stroll, lunch time breaks, or enjoying patch of grass on a sunny day."

Defining features and characteristics of this lush patch of SoCal green space include proximity to a bounty of carefully preserved commercial and residential buildings (a rarity in this part of California), a "highly intact sidewalk network" that connects seamlessly to adjacent neighborhoods, decent public transit options and a packed roster of annual celebrations and events that attract both locals and Californians from further afield.

Aspen Pedestrian Mall — Aspen, Colorado

Aspen Mall, Aspen Colorado
Segments of four streets running through the heart of America's most storied ski resort town have been shuttered to traffic and given way to a charming pedestrian zone. (Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr)

Aspen: Come for the world-class skiing, stay for a most excellent pedestrian mall. Based on an idea first hatched in the late 1950s but not made permanent until 1976 after a hard-fought struggle, the Aspen Pedestrian Mall is a car-free wonderland located in the heart of the mining camp-turned-ski resort's historic — and increasingly upscale — downtown core. An inviting place for locals and visitors alike to shop, drink, dine and unwind amidst a spectacular mountain backdrop, the APA describes the 144,214 square foot Aspen Pedestrian Mall as a "pedestrian refuge, a social gathering place, a Colorado cultural icon, and much more." (A significant overhaul of the pedestrian zone is slated to begin work in 2020.)

Defining features and characteristics of Aspen's most beloved gathering place include public art installations, a fire pit, buskers, annual festivals and the presence of repurposed antique paver bricks from St. Louis that "define the boundaries and create a visual distinction between areas reserved for walking and those for driving."

Mill River Park — Stamford, Connecticut

Mill River Park, Stamford, CT
Mill River Park is an ambitious urban renewal project that's yielded a leafy new spot for folks in Fairfield County, Connecticut, to relax and partake in outdoor activities. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A relatively new addition to Connecticut's third largest city, the 12-acre-and-growing Mill River Park was created in 2013 on the banks of the once neglected waterway from which it gets its name. Like other major efforts to transform forsaken urban parcels into public spaces, the completion of Mill River Park, which involved the planting of 400 new trees in its first phase, was a long-time coming. And community members are largely to thank for making it all happen. Today, this once avoidable riverfront area is a "vibrant civic space that is accessible to neighborhoods areas and provides a needed green space in the economic hub of Stamford" writes the APA.

Defining features and characteristics of the park include full ADA accessibility and close proximity to public transportation options, a chock-full calendar of free-to-the-public events, environmental stewardship programming and a wide range of amenities and attractions including a carousel, soon-to-open ice rink and fountain and a playground that "encourages healthy and active forms of recreation."

Public Square — Cleveland

Public Square, Cleveland
Long underused and severed by traffic, Cleveland's Public Square has been treated to a makeover from the same firm responsible for the High Line in New York City. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Cleveland's 10-acre Public Square was once more or less a full square — a bustling civic space in the heart of downtown. But for most of its existence, two major roads have sliced the city's central plaza into four quadrants that functioned as isolated — and not very pedestrian-friendly — islands. Following a dramatic redesign overseen by landscape architect James Corner, the Public Square is now a "single, cohesive public park with vehicle access restricted to buses, intended for use throughout the year with a range of programs and events." As the APA writes, "the new Public Square creates a space that is inviting and flexible, and landscape creates a soft colorful space that invites people in and encourages them to stay."

Defining features and characteristics of this classic Cleveland space include curb extensions for pedestrian safety, bike racks, an innovative stormwater management system and amenities such as an ice rink, public lawn and large amphitheater that hosts a variety of gatherings. Free public Wi-Fi is a more recent addition. One of the reinvented plaza's defining features is a butterfly-shaped pedestrian path that "connects the four corners of the square, knitting it together and providing paths and sightlines that encourage strolling and lingering."

Marcum Park — Hamilton, Ohio

Marcum Park, Hamilton, Ohio
Marcum Park has revitalized the down-and-out downtown area of Hamilton, an industrial city located just north of Cincinnati along the banks of the Great Miami River. (Photo: Ohio Redevelopment Project/Flickr)

Breathing new life into a gritty Rust Belt burg in need of a community-strengthening pick-me-up, the 6-acre Marcum Park in downtown Hamilton, Ohio, makes good new use of old hospital grounds that could have easily been paved over into a parking lot or left to rot as a brownfield site. (The city suffered an economic blow when the hospital in question, Mercy Hospital, closed in 2006.) Located within walking distance to one of Hamilton's most underserved neighborhoods, the riverside park and its crowd-drawing concert venue, the RiversEdge Amphitheater, serve as a grassy "central gathering place" where "the health and well-being of the community" are top priorities. Since its opening, the park has helped spur local economic development and created greater access to the Greater Miami River Recreational Trail.

Defining characteristics and features of this community-transforming urban park born from a public-private partnership include a wide range of festivals and events that take place throughout the year, energy efficient lighting elements and a sundry list of recreational options and "high-quality" amenities. The overall revitalization project has received numerous awards and accolades including a Smart Growth Award from the Environmental Protection Agency.

2018 Great Neighborhoods

Canalway Cultural District — Lowell, Massachusetts; Village of Shelburne Falls — Shelburne and Buckland, Massachusetts; Guthrie Historic District — Guthrie, Oklahoma; Historic Downtown Georgetown — Georgetown, Texas; Ghent — Norfolk, Virginia

2018 Great Streets

Cushman Street — Fairbanks, Alaska; East Cross Street —Ypsilanti, Michigan; Fayetteville Street —Raleigh, North Carolina; West Magnolia Avenue — Fort Worth, Texas; State Street — Bristol, Tennessee/Bristol, Virginia

A People's Choice designee will be announced on Nov. 7.