Like basically any project anywhere, public space improvements depend on well-structured budgets. Without the money to activate a space, any plan, no matter how savvy, will flounder. After the fun of pop-up workshops, photo roundups, and user analyses is over, it’s time to hunker over a desk for some serious number crunching.
Which is what I’ve been up to for the past few days. With just one week left at Project for Public Spaces—unbelievable!—I’ve been busy compiling cost estimates for my main projects, namely the Stanford Public Spaces and Balboa Park in San Diego. That way, I can send off the final recommendations before I depart in a weeks’ time!
The trial-and-error task of cost estimating takes patience, good communication skills, and a creative dose of exterior (as opposed to interior) design. Or, as I’ve come to think of it, a willingness to play “dress-up” to some of the country’s most iconic public spaces, which is actually quite fun.
An excerpt of the cost estimates for Herrin Lawn.
But first, a word about funding. PPS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose funding comes from a variety of sources including private donations, grants and, recently, a first-ever corporate partnership with Southwest Airlines. However, the majority of projects are directly commissioned by municipalities or private entities such as Harvard University’s Common Spaces Project who set an upper budget limit for the public space activation. They also cover the cost of PPS’s site visits, workshops, and other incidentals. As expected, this can either afford flexibility or parsimony in just how “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” our recommendations become.
The Power of 10 bubble diagram I made for Herrin Lawn at Stanford demonstrates how successful spaces should have at least 10 different zones or activities to engage all visitors.
In the case of Herrin Lawn at Stanford, the initial activation plan is benchmarked at $20,000—which isn’t a whole lot considering the size of the space and the vast potential for improvement. Before costs even came into play, however, I spent the past few weeks breaking the space into a Power of 10 diagram, which denotes major zones of energy/activity. This will serve as a conceptual plan to guide the rest of the activation. I also identified issues and opportunities for the site and then devised overall recommendations accordingly. PPS has a massive database of benchmark images from great public spaces around the world which are used as inspiration for current projects. It’s always entertaining to take a virtual trip to the streets of Paris or Perth.
Benchmark images for improvements at Herrin Lawn include scenes from the Paris Plage and Bryant Park.
When selecting amenities, cost is an obvious factor, as are basic principles of color and style. However, the job is much more intricate than simply admiring pretty pictures of furniture and contacting manufacturers’ representatives.
Will these chairs bring a space to life? Do these colors create synchronous harmony or do they distract from the historic buildings which frame them? Are these tables designed for the comfort of people or the pursuit of image?
These are some of the many questions I’ve asked myself from my desk in New York while my mind is focused somewhere under the California sun. Put together, it’s these little considerations that attract or deter people. And a great public space should always attract, which means that no detail should be spared in a conscientious plan. The hard part, then, lies in humanizing the cells of a spreadsheet or the accompanying numbers and envisioning a place of beauty, functionality and spirit.
Picking out a color scheme for the Fermob chairs which will appear in Balboa Park.
Of course, staying in budget is always beneficial, but sometimes an amenity (say, the colorful mini ottomans pictured below) are just too eccentrically cool to resist. And that’s how the future of public space evolves!
Don’t you just want to hop around on these colorful seats all day?!
Check back next week for my final reflections on my summer in New York City!