The Wharf Recreation Pier with public swings and the slope that children climb. Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Ever since the opening of Phase I in October 2017, people have been flocking to The Wharf to visit its restaurants, historic fish market, boardwalk, and piers. The “Recreation Pier” there illustrates how despite designers' best-laid plans, people will use a space in the way that they want—not necessarily how it was intended.

One of the most popular places for people to hang out is on the public swings on the Recreation Pier. They're one of the first things you see when entering the Wharf through 7th Street. Almost every time I have been to the wharf, the swings have been continuously occupied. One time there was even a line.

However, the swings could have never been there. When all the different pier elements were undergoing review, an assessor suggested cutting the number of items planned, including the swings.

“There was no precedent for it, and it didn’t make a lot of sense,” says Robin Lollar from Michael Vergason Landscape Architects of the swings. Lollar was project manager at the time. “To be honest, there was also a lot of internal doubt within our office, but now they are a magnet for anyone who goes there.”

The swings weren't the only thing that confounded designers.

Designers nixed a kids climbing wall—now kids climb the wall anyway

Another element on the Recreation Pier that defied its fate is the sloped wall structure that acts as a transition from the upper deck/lookout to East Potomac Park to the lower deck where people can access kayaks, launch paddleboards, or even bring their own boats.

Here you can see both the swings and part of the slope that could have had handholds. Image by Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons.

The stretch was supposed to be a transition to fill the gap between both levels and to hide the view right below the pier. The upper level is roughly 13.5 feet above the Potomac River’s flood plain, and the lower level is at six feet.

But the parties involved in the project had a problem with the unusable space that would leave them with. So they proposed building a traverse wall with handholds meant for children to easily climb. Early in the construction phase, the idea gets dropped due to safety and suitability concerns, among others. Mainly, its height made it a liability for children to use.

Climbing wall handholds by Michael Fawcett licensed under Creative Commons.

However, after the construction was finalized and people were allowed in, the children started climbing around the unrealized traverse wall. Today, they frequently run up the shallow portion of the slope and slide down the steeper section, despite the uncomfortable feeling of sliding on wood.

The people who use the space are the ones who really shape it

Architects and planners design public spaces and sometimes people use them the way they intend—but often they don't. The people who actually use the space are the ones who end up molding it and bring it to life.

Portugal offers an example of designers embracing this reality.

In order for Praça de Batalha plaza to get the foot traffic it needed to succeed, designers in Porto decided to give the power to visitors and residents to use it as they wished. They added chairs that weren't bolted to the ground but were still heavy enough to deter theft and vandalism. People move them around to get different views and to use them in various ways.

Praça de Batalha plaza in Porto, Portugal. Image by Ricky Angueira used with permission.

Praça de Batalha plaza in Porto, Portugal. Image by Ricky Angueira used with permission.

A local example where we see people using the space in their own way is Freedom Plaza in downtown DC. Every time I have walked past it, rain or shine, experienced and amateur skaters were there practicing their skills in the open space. Despite the scarcity of urban furniture, the space has found unintended success as a skating hub.

Image by Randall Myers licensed under Creative Commons.

Without people, any space—no matter how meticulously planned—is a dead space. Ultimately, by simply using the built environment in the way that they want and need, everyday people end up being the ones who really shape public space.

Rita Abou Samra wants to live in an equitable and sustainable world where all seven billion people are happy. When she is not hopelessly and tirelessly devising plans to make that happen, she is a polyglot urban planner from Beirut. Rita is also a fan of food, fitness, learning, and her dog, Chewy.