It’s a safe bet that when you walk into Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, you’ll be awed by its grand proportions and its hive-like activity. You’ll want both to speed up to join the busy fray and to find a perch to observe it. Under its 96-foot-tall vaulted ceilings are shops and architecture that invite you to linger unless, of course, your train is calling.
Places like Union Station exude a palpable energy, while others possess a more subtle magic. Whatever the quality that makes for a magical public space, everybody wants it—every urban renewal committee, every city planner, every commercial developer who sits down to design a shopping mall. And they also want the recognition of the American Planning Association, which just announced the best of the best in its list of 10 Great Public Spaces.
America boasts tons of amazing spots, of course, so what was the APA looking for? The 10 winners are used by everyone—visitors and residents alike—and strongly reflect (or even in some way, define) the distinctiveness of their surrounding community. It’s a free-ranging jumble of sites—some focused on commerce, others on recreation; some are refuges from urban density, while others provide opportunities to gather the community. Says the APA’s site, “They are places where people want to be.”
It’s this last point that makes them especially attractive to travelers. Winners were open-air markets, urban parks, plazas, beaches, railroad stations, and waterfront areas—indeed, all places travelers want to experience.
Take Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon. Known as “Portland’s Living Room,” it happily plays host to many concerts, rallies, speeches, and art installations. Of course, that was the plan when it was designed in 1984; there’s easy access from all surrounding streets, large spaces for gathering, and smaller areas to break away from the crowds.
The West Side Market in Cleveland, Ohio, also received a nod from the APA. Almost 100 years old, the market offers meat, produce, pastry, and seafood vendors selling their products to shoppers, diners, and restaurant kitchens under a herringbone-brick vaulted ceiling. It’s an important gathering place for city residents, and a can’t-miss spot for visitors.
From New York City to Charleston and Santa Monica to Prescott, Arizona, every corner of America has something to brag about. So go for a stroll through the American Planning Association’s 2008 list of 10 great public spaces.