Town Square Initiative: Washington, D.C.
Carolyn Sponza in Planning & Urban Design, Reimagining Cities, Reimagining Cities, The Town Square Initiative, Town Square, Urban Planning

Image © Gensler

The Town Square Initiative is a yearlong volunteer effort in which Gensler designers set out to unearth and re-imagine unexpected open space in cities around the globe. All 43 Gensler offices were invited to participate in the conceptual project, in which we challenged our designers to identify open space in the city and re-imagine it as a town square.

If we mapped each local project completed by Gensler D.C. in the office’s 30-year history—from law firms and commercial office buildings to institutional developments and master plans—the constellation of work would stretch across most of the city. But rarely as designers are we given the opportunity to interrogate the lines between our projects, the commonality of the urban realm that binds our work together.

Luckily for us, Gensler’s Town Square Initiative provided an excellent occasion for the D.C. team to think holistically about the design challenges facing our nation’s capital and to formulate a design brief that would identify and address some of the city’s essential spatial problems. In addition, D.C. has issues of image and use—there is a real disconnect within the city between the perception as America’s town square (formally known as “Washington, D.C.”) and its day-to-day existence as a town square for residents (informally known as “the District”).

Washington, D.C., is known for its easily imaged and well connected street grid. What’s less realized is that this grid disintegrates along the city’s southern borders, where it collides with the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. This separation may have worked historically for an isolated capital city, but it doesn’t work in the hyper-networked world of today, where D.C. acts as the hub of a vital metropolitan region. While the city has a number of water-facing communities, the D.C. team decided to focus on improving connections along the edge of the historic Georgetown neighborhood.

Image © Gensler

The variety of solutions that the D.C. team crafted to respond to this problem was wide. One member proposed a new pedestrian bridge across the Potomac River, extending the axis of Wisconsin Avenue to Roosevelt Island. Another proposed a landform spanning the existing Thompson Boathouse site, preserving boating functions while straightening the physical kink that provides an inconvenient detour between Georgetown and the Monumental Core. A connection that skirted under the Key Bridge’s monumental arches was charted, one that would both provide enhanced appreciation of the structure and separate pedestrian traffic from the dangerous vehicular turnoff onto the Whitehurst Freeway. Linking these connection interventions together was a program called “paddle share”—a point-to-point boat-sharing program similar to car sharing—that could provide a more equitable way to cross the water while dodging the luxury craft anchored in the Potomac. While many of these solutions may seem far-fetched, others may contain a glimpse of reality.

None of Washington’s most iconic locations are “perfect” in a physical sense. The green space at Dupont Circle is often surrounded by waves of traffic; parts of Rock Creek Park are difficult to reach with public transit. Today, none of these places would be constructed from scratch as part of an idealized utopian city; rather, each has been made wonderful by a series of happy accidents that marked their ascent as popular city spaces.

In a similar manner, our projects along the Georgetown waterfront provided a layer of additive urbanism, improving upon infrastructure already in place. Much of D.C.’s urban fabric is already built out, with few large parcels available for development. By layering onto familiar social and physical structures, we have the ability to improve the daily experiences of residents in significant ways, along familiar routes.

Learn more about Gensler's Town Square Initiative by visiting our Pinterest page and stay tuned for more blog posts from our various global offices about the integral role town squares will play in the future of urban planning and design.

Image © Gensler

Carolyn Sponza is an Associate in the D.C. office and co-regional practice area leader for Planning + Urban Design. Interested in all things urban, Carolyn’s 15-year career spans strategic planning, master planning, and architecture projects. She recently published a short guide to pop-up design entitled Conceptualizing Temporary Uses. For more questions about this, or Washington, D.C.’s Town Square proposal, Carolyn can be reached at
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