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American Society of Landscape Architects


May 2008 Issue

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

The Activation of Union Square: A Designer.s Perspective 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 public space.

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