"Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”  

Jane Jacobs

The Life of Plazas

After recently starting a new job in downtown Minneapolis I noticed the plethora of public plazas available to residents, visitors, and employees. Almost every major tower has an inviting public realm leading to its primary entrance. I see a cleverly landscaped space daily from my office or when eating lunch out on the rooftop terrace. No two plazas are exactly the same, however each one has a standard set of basic amenities.

Plaza space behind the Hennepin County Courthouse that hosts a weekly farmers market.

Plaza space behind the Hennepin County Courthouse that hosts a weekly farmers market.

Plazas located in downtown Minneapolis, as well as many other major cities throughout the United States, include seating, paved surfaces, greenery, and some artwork. Investigation into some of the more popular spots include water features, such as reflection pools or small ponds. When the weather is nice, these plazas fill up during the lunch hour with crowds of people, looking to soak up a little sun during their break.

Federal Courthouse Plaza, Minneapolis, MN.

Federal Courthouse Plaza, Minneapolis, MN.

The popular plazas will appear successful to the visitor during lunch Monday through Friday, however, stop by on a weekend or evening and you will see little more than the commuter taking a shortcut through these spaces on their way out of downtown. While visiting Lincoln a few months ago I observed the same phenomenon at a new plaza downtown. We were eating dinner on a Saturday next to the empty space which served primarily as a shortcut for patrons exiting the parking garage on the other side. 

What we can gather from these examples is the use of the plaza is highly dependent on the adjacent uses. In Lincoln, the plaza was fenced off from the restaurant, prohibiting diners from expanding into the plaza to further conversations or engage with people passing through. The plaza was also fronted by a large parking garage, a use that will hardly activate the space.

Civic Plaza in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska.

Civic Plaza in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska.

In Minneapolis, as with many downtown's, the problem is not the plaza design or the kinds of uses adjacent to it, but the hours of the uses. Plenty of people fill up these spaces during the noon hour carrying meals from food trucks and nearby restaurants, but the trucks only visit during the work week and many shops are closed at night and on the weekends. Another problem is the high concentration of office spaces in the vicinity. Residential towers are located blocks away, leading to use only when the adjacent buildings are filled with employees.

Plaza in Minneapolis with seating, artwork, trees, and hardscape, but no visitors.

Plaza in Minneapolis with seating, artwork, trees, and hardscape, but no visitors.

Better location of the plazas and consideration for the uses where they are will lead to better use and productivity of the space. More mixed use towers with office and residential will lead to around the clock patrons. The lunchtime plaza can be transformed into a meeting space, hangout space, or gathering space. They can do more than provide a quick place to eat lunch or a shortcut to the next destination. They can become the destination.