Making great places

Successful places enrich our communities. Which ingredients make them shine?

We’re in the midst of an era of rediscovery when it comes to our cities. Great places are instrumental in this awakening. They are the destinations in our cities and our towns that excite us, that continue to attract visitors and locals alike. They are the high points in our urban fabric. These places are magnetic and they’re often the metropolitan places we’re most proud of.

At VOA, we have created influential public places. Some have even become icons. Navy Pier in Chicago is the most visited destination in Illinois. It’s an internationally-know venue, famed for its access to a remarkable lakefront while in a thriving urban place.

Today, we are in the midst of exciting opportunities to renew our commitment to public spaces. Currently, we are working on a comprehensive plan for mixed-use public space in Orlando, FL and a publicly accessible space for the Chicago Cubs in Chicago, in addition to major projects in China.


Recently while traveling I was struck by one such great place, one that encapsulates not only the characteristics of great public space but also retains the historic roots of the city; Reading Terminal Market   in Philadelphia.

Reading Terminal preserves the architecture and function of a historic building dating from 1889 as a farmers market in Philadelphia. It fosters interaction between members of a diverse population. It strengthens a link between our rural and urban communities. It’s financially sustainable. To sum it up, it’s a great looking, vibrant public place with a genuine purpose. Naturally, it attracts hungry locals and tourists alike.

Increasingly, cities desire places as successful as Reading Terminal, but the magic something that makes for great places isn’t easily reproducible. Reading Terminal had me wondering, what exactly makes a great place? Considering great places requires us to consider architecture and design in a wider context.

The Project for Public Spaces has evaluated and charted thousands of public places around the world. The PPS has found that to be successful, these great places generally share the following four qualities: “they are accessible; people are engaged in activities there; the space is comfortable and has a good image; and finally, it is a sociable place: one where people meet each other and take people when they come to visit.”

Access and linkages
How does the place connect to its surroundings? Is it easy to reach via public transportation, bicycle, on foot? Does it have parking? How visible is it? Can it accommodate traffic moving through it?

Comfort and Image
Does the place invite us in? Does it feel safe, clean? Does it offer us places to sit? Does the place
invite photography?

Activities and uses
What type of activities take place in the space? When can it be used? How does it weather the seasons? Is it open to a broad demographic? Does everyone feel welcome?

Does it bring people together? Does it foster chance or regular and organized meetings? Is this a place to bring visiting family and friends? Is this a place where people will make memories together?

These are some key questions to ask of a potential great place. But they don’t quite describe what makes the place great. I tend to think that some unique architectural character is required, be it historic, modern or contemporary, that takes places like Chicago’s Millennium Park to the next level. These places not only work, they become a dramatic backdrop for experiencing the city, energizing and activating the areas around it. They’re both main attractions and good neighbors. And often they’re one of a kind. When they’re truly great, they tell a story about our own history. Reading Terminal Market had its roots in the city’s Butchers’ and Farmers’ and Franklin Markets and taps into the Philadelphia’s history of public markets dating back to 1693. Navy Pier has changed as Chicago has changed, with identities ranging from a cargo facility to a commercial pier to a Naval training center. Over time, the Pier’s role tells a story about the people of Chicago and the region.

We need great places like these now more than ever.

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