The Activation of Union Square: A Designer’s Perspective
Exactly how well is San Francisco’s downtown square working
as a “people magnet”? One of its designers decided to find out.
By Michael Fotheringham, ASLA
C/O M.D. Fotheringham Landscape Architects
Union Square was rebuilt to revitalize a tired design and to
improve its function and usefulness for San Francisco. To determine whether the
new design by myself and April Philips, ASLA, was successful, I decided to
track the public’s new level of use for the place. One year after the reopening
of the square in 2002, my staff engaged in a survey to document levels and
patterns of use.
The research of W. H. Whyte and Christopher Alexander has
resonated with me over the years, and recent interests in social interaction
and user behavior have prompted me to do postactivation analyses for some of
our projects. At Union Square, I wanted to investigate a method of verifying
the activation of public space, based on a theory that activation of public
space is dependent upon probability of use, rather than other motivating
factors, such as design style, comfort features, or events.
My research model was based on techniques promoted by Clare
Cooper Marcus, Carolyn Francis, Mark Francis, FASLA, Roger Barker, William H.
Whyte, and Louise Mozingo. I chose to simply record actual use, rather than
undertake a survey that would have yielded qualitative data about users’
choices or preferences.
Initially we calculated a probability factor that yields a
number of anticipated users who might visit Union Square. This estimate is
referred to as the baseline level of use—an estimate of the number of users who
might be available to visit a public space—and it is derived from a ratio of
individual open space allocation to accessible open space area in a given
public space, expressed in square feet. The baseline is unique to each public
space within a given city. The individual open space allocation is unique to
each city. The variable is the area of accessible open space within a given
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