I recently accidentally came across an excellent public space in downtown LA while chaperoning a trip to the Fed.  Between Hope and Grand, and Olympic and 9th, there is an amazing little pocket of green that accomplishes so much in the single block it shares with FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising).  Just across from the Fed, and within a mile of LA Live and the Staples Center, Grand Hope Park manages to combine a myriad of uses and types of spaces into a place where anyone could feel welcome.  This may not seem like an amazing feat, but think about it for a minute:  how many parks and public spaces have you been to that you didn’t want to linger at?  Maybe it wasn’t designed or programmed for your uses, or it didn’t feel safe- both major issues with public spaces, especially in a city where the “eyes on the street” aren’t always easy to come by.  This park was obviously occupied by students, but it had children, elderly, office workers, and more- the question is, what separates this park from so many others?

Grand Hope Park Water Feature

According to the Cultural Landscape Foundation, it is 2.5 acres, was completed in 1993, and was designed by the famed Lawrence Halprin.  According to yours truly, there are a few reasons why this space functions so well.

Diversification of spaces – LA is a major city, with huge variety in what people want and desire in their public spaces.  This park includes a walking path, children’s play equipment, shaded and sunny benches, and grassy knolls.  Everyone has got a different perfect place to sit in a park, and they could probably find it here.

Water features – One of the many great things I’ve learned from ole’ William Whyte, its that people love water features.  In the winter (well, you know, “winter” here), people love to look at them, and in the summer they love to stick their feet in.  In a city like LA, where you really never need to turn off or drain a water feature, its an especially appealing option.  The sound and beauty of water just draws people in.

Cafes – This seems to be a much more European/NYC feature in parks, but the inclusion of periphery cafes, where people can sit on their laptop, read a book, or people watch can add a tremendous amount to a public space.  Perhaps its a density of people issue, and we’ve got that issue in LA for sure, but this park in downtown can handle it.  There is also something about people sitting on chairs, a bit higher up maybe than those on the benches or ground, sitting around there edges, that gives a public space a completed feel.  I can’t explain why I feel that way- perhaps its a sense of safety thing.

Visibility – A great public space gives people the ability to have a open view shed, which is good for 2 reasons.  First of all, safety and perception of safety is greatly impacted by a person’s ability to see whats going on around them.  There aren’t hidden areas of the park, or creepy indentations.  Not only does this give the space an open, inviting feel, but its significantly less intimidating, too.  Second, people love to people watch.  Not in a creepy way, but the thing that interests humans the most is other humans.  Think about it for a second, and you’ll know its true.

Public art – Grand Hope Park includes art from six different artists, all unique in their materials and presentation.  Related to diversity of uses, this stratification of artistic types, scales, and locations adds interest to the space in general.  Also, it has been in shown in places all over the world that public art helps to reduce crime.  This isn’t a cold hard fact, and obviously isn’t a cure for a broken neighborhood, but in many places, the inclusion of public art seems to make people understand that others care about the place.  In my own work on the Urban Art Walk in North Park, San Diego, and my research project on the art along the San Diego Harbor, I’ve seen the impact it can have.  People like visually pleasing things, and along with the plants and the water features, public art can really do the trick.

Grand Hope- Diversification of Spaces

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