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Town Square Initiative: Denver

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.

In the glorified age of Do-It-Yourself-Everything (I will place direct blame on guilty pleasures such as HGTV and Pinterest, for starters), designers’ roles continue to evolve and change in ways that often seem less about building and more about the leverage and application of logic and creativity that design thinking entails.

At first, this idea posed a great challenge for Denver regarding what type of public space our relatively young, growing city needed. Who doesn’t want to build a new monument to their city, Anish Kapoor-style, or find an existing, historic infrastructure project waiting to be reinvented? We did. We really did. Initially, this felt like a unique opportunity to construct a major public project that reflected the glory of the city we live in and are passionate about.

But then we didn’t.

A group of idealists willing to look at how things really were and are, we realized that the original town square was not a successful public space due to its monumentality or design, but rather, an empty space bordered on four sides by retail and residential housing. The town square was a flat, simple, rectangular area in which people gathered to connect, talk, and most important, share news (before the advent of smartphones or iPads, that is).

“Authentic” European town squares (picture a big piazza in Italy, or an understated square in Spain) were necessitated and created by the residents of a city. Often in a central location, the concept of activated public space was less about space and more about peoples’ inherent desire to gather, socialize, observe, and seek the entertainment and spectacle only the presence and folly of other people could provide.

Image © Gensler

While much has changed, our team would argue that less has changed than we might have initially thought. While physical communities have in many ways been replaced with virtual communities (and vacant lots have become prime parking opportunities), we now gather on Twitter, Foursquare, and Facebook to connect and share news. We are still creating content in an empty space, bordered by a framework or platform that allows us to come and go as we please, or to sit and stay awhile.

The transition from physical to virtual space might be inevitable, but our team then asked another question: So when, where, and why do we gather in person? What types of spaces incite people to close their laptops, switch off Netflix, and engage in face-to-face conversation?

The answer always came back to the notion of compelling programming strategies.

Image © Gensler

Every Wednesday in Denver in the spring and summer, several hundred bike enthusiasts put on tutus, gorilla costumes, strange hats, and skinny jeans to cruise through the main thoroughfares of the city. Ending in City Park, the city’s largest green space, the riders circle around a central fountain, ending in a resounding battle cry best described as a dated MGMT or M83 song. For a half an hour each Wednesday, City Park (often empty except for a few couples strolling and a lot of angry geese) becomes a temporary town square and an important public space that facilitates a specific community’s interests and infectious exhibitionism.

Therefore, our design for a town square aims to create an accessible, plausible design strategy rather than a monument. Our design strategy can best be described as a “Do-It-Yourself” Town Square. In recognizing that the city no longer needs archaic monuments but, rather, ephemeral ways for people to activate the in-between spaces that at any moment could become a town square, the concept of communities initiating and creating their own temporary town squares matches Denver’s entrepreneurial and independent spirit.

In creating a more ephemeral town square, whether the person is a community organizer or invested resident with an idea for an event or program that would incite people to gather, the user is ultimately someone with a vision and impetus to create an event or program within their community or a desired location that best accommodates their town square program. This is tied into the idea of “tactical urbanism”—an emerging practice in which people create small urban interventions in their community that are unsolicited but usually for the greater good.

In order to do this, we designed a simple, easy-to-follow process:

Image © Gensler

Step 1: Review the baseline criteria outlined by Gensler Denver for what each temporary town square might have. Ideas of accessibility, flexibility, and mobility in design and use are critical to creating a space that is functional but also easy to construct, deconstruct, and relocate.

Step 2: Demystify the process and steps it takes to create temporary programming and semi-enclosed space. Why not make bureaucracy and logistics fun? A replicable framework in the form of a choose-your-own adventure flow chart helps people test their ideas and resources for a potential town square.

Step 3: Once a site is selected by a community organizer, invested resident, or other interested party, the next step would be to engage a team to document their site (i.e., an empty public space in their town or community with easy access and unrestricted use,), its context, and its community-specific needs in order to understand the scale and potentials for a functional town square event.

Step 4: After site analysis, a program for a specific event is chosen, and key players are engaged, the next step would be to develop a simple design/build strategy that will functionally support the event’s needs and anticipated attendance. Simple and locally sourced materials thought of as a “kit-of-parts” are recommended to facilitate this process.

Step 5: After working through the logistics of permitting, date, and time, construct and celebrate. Activate. Enliven. Give people the chance to connect in the spaces that have previously been empty, blighted, or underutilized in meaningful, if fleeting, ways.

Image © Gensler

In conclusion, as a large percentage of our time is dedicated to interacting virtually, in-person interaction will become more critical. In turn, public spaces that can facilitate ephemeral connections and community are vital.

Let’s stop thinking about space as static and physically complex and begin to think about it as what it’s always been: a fleeting sense of place and experience that fluctuates based on need and programming. Public physical space must be redefined with the adaptability and agility of virtual space, paired with high-level strategic design thinking and a sense of unlimited possibility.

Beth Mosenthal was trained first as a painter and art/architecture critic in Washington, D.C. and Italy and later earned a Master's degree in Architecture in Upstate New York/London. Beth's love for writing, art, design, and travel has given her a unique approach to creating layered, thoughtful architectural design that balances attention to detail with a strong emphasis on the preliminary development of a strong concept, gesture, and story that helps inform each project. She now works an architectural designer in Gensler's Denver office. Contact her at Beth_Mosenthal@gensler.com.

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