Chicago – I traveled to Chicago this week to attend a workshop put on by the American Planning Association called “Planning for Flood Resilient Communities.” I had never been to Chicago, so I was very excited to explore the city. I spent the day before the conference exploring without a real agenda (except to go on the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s boat tour), and what I found was a fantastic example of what makes public spaces work, and what makes them fail.
Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park was teeming with activity when I visited. The joy of the children- and some adults- playing in the water was infectious. Being there felt like being in an oasis in the center of a bustling city, right on Chicago’s most famous street. I was struck by the relaxed atmosphere of the park. It seemed like people went there planning to spend a significant amount of time, not just pass through on the way to check the next tourist attraction off the list. The water that people played in was very shallow and nothing interrupted the open expanse of the splashing pool so as to make it a little harder to keep an eye on kids. Long, continuous benches at either side of the pool had a democratizing, communal effect. The two waterfalls with changing pictures of faces at the narrow ends of the pool served as visual bookends. The pace of the moving faces was quite slow. They reminded me of the face in the sun in the show Teletubbies, making me think that the artist, Jaume Plensa, intended it to have a soothing effect and be a background stimulus with which even young children could engage. The sound of the waterfalls was surprisingly loud, though it wasn’t something that I really noticed at first. It serves as a buffer to the sound of nearby cars, further insulating the park from the city. Importantly, though, the view of the surrounding urban environment is never obstructed. Part of the reason the park is so popular is that it’s central to the rest of the city and doesn’t feel isolated.
Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park, by contrast, is intended to be admired at a distance. It’s an enormous French-inspired structure that spouts water in ostentatious 150 foot jets every hour. But despite the small number of people that had congregated around the fountain to take pictures, the fountain and plaza seemed barren and uninviting. A knee-high fence clearly discouraged getting too close to the structure, and the huge paved plaza on which the fountain is situated makes spending time there uncomfortable. People feel vulnerable when they’re out in the open. One of the best features of the Crown Fountain is its excellent venue for people watching, one of humans’ favorite pastimes. When people feel too vulnerable to linger, other people aren’t attracted to the location. People enjoy being with and looking at other people. I think it’s important to consider the possibilities for Buckingham Fountain in the interest of capitalizing on a great setting with plenty of tourist activity nearby. I see a lot of potential for the Buckingham Fountain given its location in a major park and its visibility both from the city and the water. It’s a beautiful historic structure made with far different expectations than the Crown Fountain, but still able to be an economic generator for its park. The city could capitalize on the fountain’s setting by breaking up the plaza with more benches, plants, or a playground. They could also provide better food options for visitors by bringing in pushcarts, food trucks, and patio seating.
If creating popular public spaces for the enjoyment of people is not enough of a motivation, I see the improvement of Buckingham Fountain as a smart economic investment. Chicago would probably see positive results by making a few inexpensive changes to Grant Park. The Crown Fountain, on the other hand, is an exceptional example of a successful public space that I hope many other cities emulate in the near future.