Last week, I had a chance to walk around Veterans’ Plaza, the new small urban park that replaced The Turf at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring. I saw an array of benches, trees, unprogrammed space, and an amphitheater. Because of its simple layout and effective amenities, it will be even more successful than its celebrated predecessor.
Just like The Turf, Veterans’ Plaza has all the right ingredients for a successful urban park. When one enters the park from the corner, there is a row of simple benches that are parallel to each other.
The new park has young trees that provide valuable shade. The orientation of the benches contributes to the social atmosphere of the park. The benches accommodate larger groups since they are long and face each other. They are also big enough so that strangers don’t feel awkward sitting on the same bench.
Short public benches often end up being occupied by one person because strangers feel apprehensive about sitting close to someone they don’t intend conversing with. Fewer people end up using the park. The whole park suffers since there are fewer eyes on the street.
The southwestern corner of Veterans Plaza has an amphitheater that will double as an ice skating rink during winter:
The photo was taken in the evening during a free outdoor concert. The corner of Ellsworth and Fenton is in the background. The steps provide the audience seating for the concert.
When designing good urban places, architects and advocates often use the term “sense of place.” On a city street, sense of place refers to the positive feeling a pedestrian gets from being in a defined human-scale space. The space is delineated by consistent rows of buildings that come up to the sidewalk (or just behind the sidewalk in the L’Enfant City).
A small urban park’s sense of place is bolstered by its clear boundaries with the rest of the urban fabric and the consistent row of buildings that are visible across the street. Veterans’ Plaza has an excellent sense of place. The amphitheater takes advantage of the topography and has a retaining wall behind it. The new Silver Spring Civic Center provides a clear human-scaled boundary on the east side of the park. The shops across Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive provide a similar effect as the buildings surrounding McPherson Square.
Veterans’ Plaza has received some minor criticism. Montgomery County Planning Director Rollin Stanley said:
“The new space will, by virtue of its location and the attraction of the shops on Ellsworth, be successful. Already, crowds are gathering to see the programmed events. All that’s missing is the spontaneity, the creative interpretation of the space that the turf generated. Frankly put, it is over designed.
When I was walking around, I observed that the layout of the park was accommodating to both concert-goers and regular social interaction. The park’s internal space had some temporary overprogramming. The temporary stage and tables made sense in the context of an organized free concert. Without the temporary tables and stage, I can see the otherwise unprogrammed space providing a good canvas for spontaneous social interaction. The designers of Veterans’ Plaza embraced the primary lesson of The Turf: less is more. I was skeptical that the new park would be as successful as The Turf. I was concerned that the designers would overdesign the public space and try too hard to inflict their “vision” of how people should use public space. Rollin Stanley is correct that the most successful small urban parks tend to have ample unprogrammed space. They’re centers for informal social gatherings. While The Turf was a celebrated urban park, it is not the only template.
I take my hat off to Montgomery County for the success of the design of Veterans’ Plaza in downtown Silver Spring. The Turf was not an easy act to follow and it was far from inevitable that its successor would be as much of a civic asset. I have said many times over the past two years that we need to learn from the mistakes of the recent past while embracing the successes that were cast aside and forgotten in the same time frame. The designers of Veterans’ Plaza ignored the temptation to make it a monument to their own greatness like a starchitect would. Instead, it serves as a monument to the vitality of Silver Spring.