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A Perfect Pocket Park

urban plaza, pocket park

This space is a great example of how to design an urban park with limited space. It rests between a twenty-eight story office tower and a fourteen-story hotel. The traffic running parallel on either side is non-stop, with sirens blasting constantly from the nearby hospital. The designer has taken an impossible environment and made it a pleasant place to pass the time outdoors.

How? I’ll list some of the thoughtful ideas incorporated into the design.

• The space is sunken below street level on one side and bounded by a skywalk and an enclosed parking lot on the other. This, along with the building facades, provides intimate enclosure as well as a buffer for street noise.

• Half of the plaza is raised, providing more enclosure for the picnic areas. The raised beds provide lots of opportunities for sitting, and the circular focal point acts as a stage for corporate events.

• The different levels restrict pedestrian traffic to workers in the office tower, even though the hotel patrons can view the plaza from their balconies. It is a very civil way to limit access. It is not uncommon to see residents in their pajamas, standing on their balconies, viewing activities below. Think Rear Window. There is a sense of relaxed community.

corporate picnic area

• Circulation patterns are very clear. Heavy traffic remains on the lower-level, paved surface. Lighter traffic is directed to the circular stage through the guiding steps, away from the shrubs. The separate pavers that encircle the stage are close enough together to make walking easy for anyone interested in the shady bench.

• A low, evergreen hedge repeats the circular pattern and gives it more visual strength and vertical height. Enclosure is a very important part of the design, providing a feeling of safe harbor from the surrounding urban mayhem. It is visually exposed, but physically enclosed. It is crucial for public spaces in urban areas to be visible at all times. The designer accomplishes this by uncovering the back of the shrub beds to the surrounding office windows. Smart! It is still possible to see over the low hedge, so police can monitor activity in the area easily.

• The vegetation has been kept simple and elegant, with a few small trees, turf grass, tree-formed Crapemyrtles, low evergreens, Hydrangeas, and Roses. Each plant species is used to its fullest potential. The Crapemyrtles are stunning year-round, even at night, as the huge building spotlights reflect off the branching structure. This was no accident. The designer obviously tested the perfect location for the multi-stem forms so they would glow in the lights.

• Extra color is added with seasonal combinations in large, circular planters in the picnic area. They, with sturdy, wide edges, provide additional seating.

• The maintenance provided for this area is top-notch! Weekly crews manicure the area, which is great, but better still is the fact they are supervised by highly-trained horticultural foremen/forewomen. The pruning that takes place is carefully coordinated to encourage up to five flushes of bloom from the Roses and several months of floral display from the Hydrangeas. The shrubs are hand-pruned with the deep-cut method to keep them dense and full. The turf grass is re-sodded on a regular basis, since there is constant pedestrian traffic.

When you design an urban plaza, make it safe and highly visible from all angles. Keep it protected from the harsh environmental noise and traffic. Design the circulation so it provides function. Restrict access without offense. Keep the vegetation simple, so time can be devoted to the highest level of maintenance. Think about how the space will be experienced from all angles and at different times of the day and night. Incorporate a place for a stage and group events. Hire highly-trained maintenance crews.

A great urban plaza is an outdoor space without compromise on quality, safety, maintenance, materials, or beauty. 

An Urban Plaza that Works