Think of your favorite public space. It could be the park near your childhood home. It might be the waterfront promenade where you run, or walk, or ride your bike at sunset. Perhaps it’s a busy downtown street. Now consider: what is it about this particular space that makes you happy? That makes you feel safe, comfortable, welcome, at home? It is likely that your favorite place was consciously designed to attract you to it, to keep you engaged with dynamic activities and programming, and to maximize social interaction: in essence, to create a cohesive sense of place.
One of my favorite places in the small town of Carrboro that I now call home is the outdoor grounds at Weaver Street Market, a community owned grocery store. The space sits at the intersection of East Weaver Street and North Greensboro Street, and covers roughly 30,000 square feet of land. The site functions primarily as a place for patrons of the market to eat and drink, but the site has a multitude of other uses and is open to anyone, and is, as such, a truly public, open space.
I spend a lot of time in the space and enjoy its consistent vibrancy, but I recently set out to analyze why it works so well. Looking particularly for conscious design elements and social interactions, I spent a few hours walking around, sitting in, sketching, and photographing the space. What follows is a brief overview of my findings.
The public space outside Weaver Street Market functions as the epicenter of the town. Its location at a central intersection as well as its proximity to varied retail and commercial activity and services brings a variety of residents into the space. However, the success of the space is that it encourages people to stay for hours on end instead of merely passing through.
A number of well-designed features of the space contribute to this comfortable and welcoming environment. The first is that it is primarily designed to encourage people to sit. The abundance of different types of seating options (benches, picnic tables, and small tables) and the shade and rain cover mean that the space offers places for anyone at virtually any time to sit and read, do work, meet friends, have a meal or a drink, or just people watch. It is also a space that encourages play: there is art to look at, trees to climb, and open space in which to run around, or dance, or play music.
The space is also dominated by natural elements, materials, and textures: greens and browns, tree planters and grass, red brick facades and walkways, and wooden tables. These features make the space feel somewhat like a natural ‘sanctuary,’ and noise from the nearby intersection is softened by tree cover along its edge.
But design features are not enough. Weaver Street offers free wifi, garbage disposal (including recycling), restrooms open to the public, and night time lighting, all of which allow people to remain in the space for long periods of time. In addition, the space is easily accessed from all directions and by all modes of transit, with a multitude of places to park a bicycle or car.
Weaver Street Market, like many of our favorite spaces, is actively designed to bring people together for extended periods of time. For this reason, it goes beyond existing as a neutral space and becomes a vibrant, dynamic, and truly public place.
About the Author: Mia is our Managing Editor of Online Content here at Angles, and is a second year master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC. She grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, where she first developed an interest in urbanism and the complexities of urban development in emerging cities. Mia lived in New York City for two years, researching occupational and environmental health. Her research focuses on planning for public space and urban design, and implementing placemaking strategies in the developing world. Mia’s lifelong dream is to write a children’s book.