Clifton Plaza an early success, improvements needed

Clifton Plaza took the place of the former Bender Optical building along Ludlow Avenue in the heart of Clifton’s vibrant neighborhood business district.  Early on in its concept people were concerned whether more open space was needed, or whether more businesses and people were needed in that central location.  After seeing the results of a recently completed streetscaping project in combination with the new Clifton Plaza, it now appears that additional public space was very much in demand.

The new public space created along Telford Avenue added simple, yet functional, park benches along with a new community board for event postings and other random information.  It took slightly longer to complete the new Clifton Plaza across the street, but the impact appears to be equally strong if early use is any indication.

The problem is not the creation of the new public space, but rather the design of it.  The primary design flaw of Clifton Plaza is the fixed seating.  Seating is extraordinarily important when it comes to public space design, and this type of seating design is straight out of the urban design playbook of two to three decades ago.  Since that time several studies have indicated that users prefer movable seating options where they can assert their control over the space.  This might mean the slight adjustment of a chair as one prepares to sit, or it might mean wholesale change to avoid or seek out sunlight.

“The possibility of choice is as important as the exercise of it.  If you know you can move if you want to, you feel more comfortable staying put,” explained William H. Whyte in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.  “This is why, perhaps, people so often move a chair a few inches this way and that before sitting in it, with the chair ending up about where it was in the first place.  The moves are functional, however.  They are a declaration of autonomy, to oneself, and rather satisfying.”

Whyte goes on to discuss how fixed seating is often awkward in public spaces as there is often much space around them as is the case at the new Clifton Plaza.

“The designer is saying, now you sit right here and you sit there.  People balk.  In some instances, the wrench the seats from their moorings,” Whyte continued.  “Where there is a choice between fixed seats and other kinds of sitting, it is the other that people choose.”

Beyond user preferance, fixed seating allows for a less functional space.  When planners redesigned Fountain Square, non-fixed seating in part helped to create a more open and flexible space better suited for the many events that attract thousands of people to the public space every week.

What works for Clifton Plaza is its large open area towards the back that will allow for flexible programming.  A simple fix could be made by removing these fixed seating options and replacing them with non-fixed alternatives.  This would create a more welcoming public space that encourages users to stay longer and take ownership of the space in a truly dynamic way.

  • There’s no shade back there, either. There are trees towards the front but the back end is just a big blank area of pavement. Think hot. Seems like there would be room for a decent size bike rack, too, maybe over on the west side. I guess there is a small rack across the street.
    It does seem to be getting some use, tho, which is good.

  • Dan

    It’s a nice feature in Clifton, but I think they could definitely use some more shade and I think the fixed seating is very limiting. Should have done some seating similar to fountain square.

    Otherwise a great project and nice addition to Clifton.

  • Very, very interesting article, thank you so much. I hadn’t even considered this concept before, to be honest. But on the Square, it’s so nice to have the little tables where you can drag another chair over, sit closer to or farther from the music, etc– hadn’t thought about the difference in planning!

  • Tracy

    While I agree that fixed seating isn’t ideal, it’s kind of the practical reality of unmaintained/unprogrammed “public” spaces (Clifton Plaza is actually private property).

    Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent to maintain and program fountain square through DCI Ambassadors, extra policing, and 3CDC. At night when it is closed, there are still people cleaning and washing the square. I just think it’s a little different.

    I actually think the seating is preferable to the public benches across the street on Telford, which is just kind of awkward.

  • Chris

    The use of “fixed” seating should probably be considered a safety issue. The difference between Fountain Square and the plaza on Ludlow is the amount of traffic passing by throughout the entire day. Fountain Square is much more monitored at all hours of the day. If there were moveable tables and chairs in the Clifton Plaza, I could imagine theft of those items. My issues that I saw in the plaza were the different tiered levels at the south end of the plaza. Maybe add some actual benches along the sides parallel with the adjacent buildings. As for the shade, it’ll come. The trees are very small and were just planted. Give them time to grow and allow the canopy to expand. I am pretty confident shade and the type of tree to plant went into great consideration during the planning stages. Over all, this is a GREAT addition and will be used extremely well. This might spark the interest in maybe another park/plaza location south of UC’s main campus. Perhaps on the empty field between Calhoun and McMillian? Here’s to progress.

  • Chris:

    I think you’re right that the fixed seating was probably chosen as a security measure. But if that’s obvious to you and I, don’t you think it’s probably also noticeable to others passing by the space and using it?

    The problem with this tactic of defensing spaces/places is that the tactic often has a negative impact on the space/place itself. For example, you could potentially reduce crime in a given area by positioning riot police on every street corner, but at the same time, you would scare away many law abiding citizens. There is a balance, and I’m not sure many were confident about the non-fixed seating on Fountain Square prior to its existence, but it has worked out very well. At the very least, use non-fixed seating and them lock them up at night just like restaurants do with their outdoor seating.

  • Just to add another potential option to the fixed/movable furniture conundrum, check out this silly idea — it’s pop-up street furniture!

  • Randy:

    Thanks so much for your critique of the new Clifton Plaza and I agree with the spirit of your assessment. The plaza design team worked closely with the community group charged with the overall vision of the plaza and the issue of seating was at the forefront. When we proposed movable seating, there was a strong concern that this seating would “move away” over time. With no budget for replacement or staff to store the chairs (unlike 3CDC and the New York Public Library) guest would have gone from movable seating to no seating.

    In fact, the budget was so tight that any seating, fixed or otherwise, was on the chopping block. The seating currently installed on the plaza was made possible by the generosity of and anonymous donor. That’s a great example of what can happen when a community comes together.

    See you on the plaza!

  • Jason:

    That’s completely understandable, and I remember when early on that financing was a concern.

    Whyte’s own studies did show that fixed seating was not necessarily a death wish for a public space, and that as long as the design of said seating is done correctly (height, depth, support) that it could work. From what I’ve seen, and from the usage of the space, it appears as though that specific design portion was able to accomplish just that.

    There must be some sort of low-cost solution to this issue of non-fixed seating “moving away” over time. Might be something to look into down the road, but I just have to believe that there is a solution out there somewhere.

  • Fixed seating was not an option for Clifton Plaza. The space is controlled by a neighborhood LLC, not the Park Board or 3CDC. The cost to staff the Plaza or replace stolen items would be cost-prohibitive. Community councils and business associations only have so much money to front.

    I actually enjoy the fixed seating, and I’ve seen people make great use out of all types available in the Plaza. Keep in mind that it’s a brand new semi-public space. Trees will grow over time. The space will evolve as it grows into the community. Many plazas don’t have a ton of shading. But I believe that Clifton Plaza is a small enough space that a large portion will still be in use, even when the sun is high. In terms of peak usage, I’d say more people come by after work hours, when the Plaza is already shaded from the sun by neighboring buildings and other features.

    So, I think it’s a bit too hasty to criticize the space, as it relates to Whyte’s theories of public space. We’ve only seen about 90 days of actual use! Let’s judge by the number of users, and check back after the season.

  • I’d like to reply to Tracy’s comment above. Although she says that the Telford Street seating is awkward, each evening I see all the benches taken by visitors and residents. If that’s not high demand, I don’t know what is. It’s definitely a great people-watching location.

  • Christian:

    You are right that the new public spaces created have been incredibly well used so far, and that is why I mentioned that they have been an early success. With that said, Fountain Square was successful prior to its renovation, but that did not mean it couldn’t improve.

    I think the fears of losing non-fixed seating and public furniture is greatly over exaggerated, but even as such, I think that the seating could be locked up at night to prevent such theft…thus eliminating the cost of replacing the furniture.

  • I don’t think the fear of stolen items is just limited to evening and overnight hours. People will steal just about any durable item. Fountain Square doesn’t have that issue, because there are so many eyes on the space (as well as police, ambassadors, and other security staff). The old Fountain Square had problems with theft, and the difference is a significant difference in the volume of users and staff.

    Heck, I had a bag of soil stolen from a community garden site in broad daylight. I think a chair in a plaza (next to a parking lot, at that) would be an even greater grab.