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3 Ways to Make Your Public Plaza More Successful

Vacouver's Esther Short Park, photo credit of Steve Butler

Public plazas can play an important role for a community. They often serve as a symbol for a community’s identity and can act as a city or town’s “living room,” where people gather for special events and everyday social interaction. Public plazas can also be an economic catalyst that attracts visitors and new businesses to a community. I wrote a blog post in 2016 about nine elements that contribute to making a public space work well.

In this blog post, I want to highlight three characteristics that will make your public gathering space more successful, characteristics that address the plaza location, its access to nearby buildings, and public programming within the plaza.

1: Be Thoughtful About the Plaza Location

Ideally, you want your plaza to be located “where the action is,” such as in your downtown or a neighborhood commercial center. A public gathering place that is situated in an isolated, out-of-sight location is less likely to be successful.

It is also helpful to have your plaza situated next, or adjacent to, land uses/businesses that attract people. Examples include:

Pedestrian-Oriented Retail (or other businesses that appeal to a lot of people), such as:

  • Eating and drinking establishments, such as restaurants, coffee shops, and brewpubs; and
  • Small-scale retail.

Buildings Used by Large Numbers of People, such as

  • Libraries
  • Community Centers
  • Administrative Centers (e.g., City Hall)

When locating a new civic building, think about whether locating it next to an existing public gathering place would help “activate” the space and result in greater usage by the public. Conversely, it may be more feasible to incorporate an active plaza into the site design of a new civic use. A good location will draw people into a small park or plaza, which in turn will make them feel comfortable being there and want to use it on a regular basis.

2: Encourage Visual and Physical Connections with Adjacent “Active Use” Buildings 

Having a public plaza be visible from nearby “active use” buildings’ windows will increase a plaza’s appeal, because an outdoor space will feel safer if it can be seen by people sitting in an adjacent restaurant or working in a nearby business. This “eyes on the street” condition allows for natural surveillance of a public gathering space, which increases the perceived and actual safety of that space.  Having the entrances of adjacent, pedestrian-friendly businesses open onto a plaza can help increase foot traffic activity through the area.


Vacouver's Esther Short Park, photo credit of Steve Butler

If the adjacent buildings don’t have windows or doorways opening onto your public gathering place, then encourage the addition of physical structures or activities that will attract people, such as an outdoor seating area related to an adjacent restaurant or coffee shop. Another option may be to encourage a small food/beverage stand to locate within your public plaza, or a mobile food cart to operate in the right-of-way next to the plaza.

3: Program Your Public Space   

Another way to make a plaza lively and attractive to people is to provide a program of different activities within it. Programmed events and activities will draw people to a public space. If you are interested in increasing the use of a public gathering place, you should consider establishing a regular series of activities, including but not limited to:

  • Music and theatrical performances;
  • Outdoor movie nights;
  • Major cultural and holiday celebrations;
  • A farmers market; and
  • The list goes on…

Washougal’s Reflection Plaza: A Case Study

Washougal’s Reflection Plaza embodies the three principles described above by:

  • Being located “where the action is” (in the center of Washougal’s downtown);
  • Having some “active use” businesses in close proximity to the plaza; and
  • Being actively programmed throughout the calendar year.

Washougal's Reflection Plaza, photo credit of Michele Loftus, City of Washougal

Reflection Plaza also has good seating, an iconic feature (a tower), landscaping (trees and other plantings), and public art.

The City of Washougal has long considered a downtown park to be a linchpin for making its central business district inviting to residents and visitors alike. In 1991, the city purchased a centrally located set of properties (consisting of a gas station and some apartments) for what was called Reflection Park. The city then started to develop this area using with pavers and added a pavilion and a small stage.

In 2006, after lots of planning and public input, Washougal took a big step by issuing $5.06 million in limited tax general obligation (LTGO) bonds for a major downtown revitalization project. A major focus of the project was on enhancing what is now called Reflection Plaza and turning it into a central gathering place for the city’s downtown. Washougal’s recent Town Center planning process also focused on the importance of Reflection Plaza.

With regards to adjacent buildings, a mixed-use development called Washougal Town Square is located across from Reflection Plaza, providing plenty of opportunities for both natural surveillance as well as easy access to the plaza for anyone frequenting the development’s businesses.  A concept for another mixed-use development on a site across the street from the Plaza is currently under consideration.

With respect to programming, Reflection Plaza is the prime location for numerous events and community celebrations that occur throughout the year, including the Pumpkin Harvest Festival and Pirates in the Plaza.

Questions? Comments?

If you have thoughts about this blog post, please comment below or email me. If you have questions about this or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772.

Author's note: I want to thank Dave Scott, Washougal City Administrator, for insight and information that contributed to this blog post.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Steve Butler

About Steve Butler

Steve joined MRSC in February 2015. He has been involved in most aspects of community planning for over 30 years, both in the public and private sectors. He received a B.A. from St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) and a M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Steve has served as president of statewide planning associations in both Washington and Maine, and was elected to the American Institute of Certified Planner’s College of Fellows in 2008.