Designing Public Spaces

By Elle O’Casey

Local volunteers help clean up the Riverfront Park in Spring 2016.

Local volunteers help clean up the Riverfront Park in Spring 2016.

The hot weather lately has many people running to the outdoors in search of cool breezes, shady brooks, and the calming waters of a nearby pond. As Vermonters, we are lucky to be a stone’s throw from a forest or lake. But it’s a different story for the more than 80% of Americans living in cities. It’s not always easy to find places of solitude and shade in cities where populations number in the millions. When one does find these treasured nooks of nature in a city, it is an almost sacred experience due to their relative scarcity.

When America began its march toward increased urbanization in the mid-1800s, the “Father of Landscape Architecture” Frederick Law Olmstead, fought for preserving greenspaces in cities. In 1857, he won a design competition to create Central Park in New York City. This monumental work cast a new national vision for how to treat public parks and greenspaces in urban areas. Olmstead went on to help design Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, Stanford University, Mount Royal in Montreal, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and the White House, and Washington Park. His impact continues to reverberate across our landscape today. He has been hailed as a key leader in the movement to democratize public places and parks. His sentiment can be summed up with this iconic quote, “It is one great purpose of the Park to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God’s handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month of two in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances.”

Just as Olmstead revolutionized park design in the 1800s, there is a new era of creative placemaking and design underway in our nation’s cities. Take the High Line, a 1.45 mile elevated railway bed in Manhattan, once slated for demolition, now hailed as the model for reinvigorating vacant lots and land. Used as a freight line during the mid 1900s, the railroad tracks were later abandoned and slated for demolition in 2001. A friends group came together lobbying for preservation and adaptive reuse of the neglected infrastructure. Today, this railway bed is one of the nation’s premier parks, attracting in 6 million visitors annually. The park serves as an inspiration to other cities and towns wondering how to breathe new life into run-down industrial spaces. More than 60 public space projects have credited their design to the High LIne (

The High Line and Central Park were both big endeavours involving multi-year planning processes and large stakeholder groups. There is another movement rooted in community advocacy and small-scale design that has cropped up in recent years called “parklets” or popup parks. These parks repurpose parking spaces, turning them into small public parks providing people with small areas to sit, meet with one another, or simply relax.

You may have driven by one of the better known parklets in Vermont located in Montpelier on Main Street. The park, completed in 2015, used to be the site of a building destroyed in a fire in 2003. Today, the parklet space boasts an outdoor seating area with tables and benches, sustainable landscaping, space for food trucks, a rainwater catchment system and public art.

Woodstock too has its own story of re-envisioning landscapes. The Sustainable Woodstock East End Action Group and a group of committed volunteers have worked to creatively repurpose an area of land along the riverfront, with the goal of turning what was once a neglected patch of land into a vibrant community space called “East End Park”. Please join us tonight, Thursday, August 18, at the East End Park on Maxham Meadow Way from 5:00 to 6:30pm for our monthly Green Drinks gathering to talk about the Riverfront Park. The East End Action Group will give a short presentation about ongoing improvement projects and then solicit input and ideas from the community.

Learn more at

Do Just One Thing: Get involved with a community group working to create or sustain a local public park or greenspace.

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