Streetsblog will be on vacation on Monday, September 1. Enjoy your Labor Day!
There are few pedestrian spaces in Chicago that evoke the feeling of an old European city as well as Kempf Plaza (perhaps better known as Giddings Plaza) in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.
Now that city, advocacy groups, neighborhood organizations, and individuals call for more public plazas throughout the city, it would be instructive to examine the history and design features that make some of the city’s existing public spaces successful. Kempf Plaza is often cited as an example to emulate. The plaza is a result of history and good design, 36 years in the making.
The area around the Lincoln Square neighborhood was settled as early as 1836, before Chicago was incorporated. The establishment of a streetcar line along Lincoln Avenue in 1872, and subsequently the parallel Ravenswood elevated line in 1907, spurred more intensive development, especially as immigrants from places like Germany streamed into the North Side. Beginning in 1949, the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce began promoting itself as a commercial district, but it wasn’t until 1978 that a more European flair was sought for the neighborhood, in order to help a cluster of businesses struggling amidst the city’s then-declining economic fortunes. Any visitor today can attest that the area has a distinctly European feeling, including several Bavarian-style facades and painted murals of old European towns.
Just closing half a block to residential traffic, and removing a few parking spaces, doesn’t suffice as a recipe for a successful public space. Several other public spaces, including some in Chicago, suffer a lack of vitality and are missing key elements necessary for a successful public place. What makes Kempf Plaza different?
Danish architect Jan Gehl written has several books related to the urban design of outdoor spaces. One of his books, Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space, is a thorough rundown of what makes a quality public space. Giddings Plaza qualifies as a third place, one that is neither home nor work, and is a space for optional activities, as opposed to necessary activities like errands or commuting. Optional activities, Gehl writes, “take place only when exterior conditions are favorable.” What are some exterior conditions that make this a great place?