Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Some questions for the Bathers Beach upgrade

The other day my wife and I enjoyed a lazy afternoon hanging out at the Esplanade. We found a good bunch of grass and kicked back with our ebooks. We elso engaged in one of our favourite past times - people watching.

With the dog days of summer over, my wife even managed to coax me out of the shade and out into the revitalising sun. 

Our route home took us past the Bathers Beach upgrade and, of course, the dustbowl.

Black asphalt part of an elaborate stunt?

As I enjoy the odd fantasy novel, I have been secretly hoping that the whole project was an elaborate stunt by the City of Fremantle. Much in the same way that a child will ask for a pony to soften a parent up for a budgie, I envisioned Council surprising locals by declaring that the black asphalt and windswept dustbowl was intended to show us how not to make places welcoming, before showing us a grassy, pleasant area ideal for having a fish and chip picnic at sunset.

I clung to this fantasy because Council has talked about using placemaking to create more vibrant places. We've even had placemaker extraordinaire David Engwicht visit so many times that I hoped that his message may have been acted on in some small way by the City. But alas, there was no media release and it doesn't appear that there are any moves afoot to rectify the damage.

I'm disappointed that there doesn't appear to be any other criteria for judging the success of this project other than its ability to interpret heritage. The sunk cost fallacy (click here for my post on this topic) tells us that, having invested a lot of time, energy and money, people find it extremely hard to abandon their plans and make new ones. To me, this doesn't feel right. I don't think that the best outcome for Bathers Beach can be achieved by looking at the dustbowl and the black asphalt through rose coloured glasses.

Bathers Beach designed as a place to be looked at but not touched?

William H. Whyte once said, “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people – what is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” With this in mind, Project for Public Spaces, a leading non-profit placemaking organisation, has published a little article on why places fail (click here). 

The dustbowl
I reckon that it's time for some placemaking common sense to be applied to this project. For me, this article seems like a good place to start. 

Some questions to ask to avoid a failed place

Without further ado, here are some useful questions (based on this article) that Council and its officers may want to ask when the project comes to its slow but eventual conclusion.

Are there places to sit?

A welcoming place is a comfortable place. Place des Vosges in Paris which was featured recently by the consultants working on Kings Square offers a mix of simple seating solutions - grass and benches.

At the conclusion of this project, the question should not be how many people are sitting at the boardwalk - no one I've heard has disputed that it does the job - but what are the other options that are being provided by the space and are they comfortable? A follow up question could be whether or not the place offers up excuses for people to find somewhere else to linger.

It is a given that people will sit at the boardwalk. I'd hate to think that Council is relying on using the figures from this single aspect of this two million dollar project to try to argue the success of the rest.

Where are the gathering points?

According to Project for Public Spaces, a failed place is one that does not include features that people want or need. Bubba's backyard (click here for my post introducing Bubba's backyard) is a fine example of a place that combines varying elements to create different gathering points.

Believe it or not, one of the most popular gathering points at Place des Vosges is the sandpit.
The sandpit as a popular gathering point at Place des Vosges
Some more popular gathering points within this popular plaza are the water feature and statue. 

IKEA's Perth store makes use of gathering points in their eating area to reinforce that they want people to linger longer. Their gathering points are based around kids. They have set up a little play feature and a sitting area that plays movies. These gathering points attract people like lights attract moths.

In assessing this project, an appropriate question is to ask whether or not the heritage interpretation features are friendly to people of all ages, including kids? Going beyond heritage interpretation, the question should really be does this place attract kids? A follow-up question could be what else is being provided to attract people?

Are there any dysfunctional features?

For me, the black asphalt strip and the dustbowl are features that don't serve a particular use, apart from the frankly ridiculous notion that, when seen from the air, they suggest a continuation of the grid system.

Even allowing for the dubious theory that this is in some way desirable, I'll never appreciate why anyone could have ever thought that a strip of black asphalt could be anything other than dysfunctional for people at ground level. Ditto the dustbowl.

As demonstrated by the sandpit at Place Vosges, good features encourage activity to occur around them. So the question for the project is what types of activity are encouraged to occur around the area's features?

Does the place include paths that people don't want to go?

According to Project for Public Spaces, paths that lead to nowhere are useless. As the project is yet to be finalised and with the plans for the project being difficult to source from the City's website, we'll have to wait and see on this one.

At its conclusion, a good question will be whether or not any path pulls people along them in an intuitive way. A follow-up question could be whether or not they allow peole to stop and relax.

Is the place dominated by vehicles?

When my wife and I first walked past the strip of black asphalt my wife genuinely thought that it was a new carpark. Since that initial sighting, I was informed that the black asphalt is intended to represent the continuation of the West End's traditional grid road layout...wait for it...when seen from the air.

New carpark?
I find it interesting that even in a place where there will be no cars, the City has bent over backwards and spent two million dollars to create the impression of vehicles.


I'd like to see these questions asked prior to the 2012/2013 budget being finalised. Hopefully the sunken cost fallacy won't apply and some placemaking common sense will be applied.

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