Living on the West Coast, I don’t often hear much about New York, except for the occasional news about a Broadway hit making its way to California. In fact, Northern California seems so starkly contrasted to New York that to compare the two in any way feels like comparing apples to oranges.
So, it surprised me when I saw that San Francisco took a bite from a green movement of the Big Apple — building a tentatively planned public plaza on one of the busiest intersections in San Francisco, much like ones found in big East Coast cities like New York. The idea sounded confusing to a West Coaster like me, at first.
That had me wondering, just what is a public plaza, exactly?
Simply put, a public plaza gives people a place to sit and hang out. It’s an open area, often filled with plants and fountains, along with other outside decor. They are mostly found in bigger cities, but a few have found their way into up-and-coming cities. For example, my hometown of Fresno has just added one to a showing center called River Park
(though it is a commercially driven thing). But, regardless of motivation, public plazas provide a space for people who otherwise feel like sardines in a can.
Back to the San Francisco story. The 17th Street Plaza Project, after two months of approval by business groups and nonprofits, took 72 hours to implement and is one of San Francisco’s newest experiments, pending a four-month trial extension based on performance. (Basically, based on praise versus complaints.)
According to Brandon Schauer, a senior practitioner from Adaptive Path blog
, the movement may just last, as long as businesses keep seeing a rise in sales.
Cities are, in fact, slow moving when it comes to providing plazas. Realizing the earning potential of lingering patrons, the corporate world has moved pretty quickly to give pedestrians less traffic to deal with and more space to breathe.
Starbucks, for example, seized the opportunity to give people a daytime hangout in early 2008 as a way to pick up plummeting sales.
According to the New York Project for Public Spaces newsletter
, Starbucks saw a 619% increase at the thousands of stores that installed plazas. A search reveals that such a study hasn’t been held (yet) in Fresno, but, from observation, and based on the two Starbucks stores that continue to thrive in the same River Park shopping center during a recession, I can say this: Public plazas are good for business!
In the same vain that public spaces seem to be good for everyone, I’d like to bring up that independent coffee stores saw their sales triple with public plazas in the city, too. Now that is a refreshing statistic! It’s good to see San Francisco tentatively try out this temporary plaza. Now let’s see if they can commit.