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9 Elements of Successful Small Parks and Plazas

Photo credit: Steve Butler.

Having access to spectacular open spaces for hiking and other recreational activities is something Washingtonians cherish, especially given our abundance of federal, state, and local parks. But most of us can only get to those areas during vacations and holidays. Having access to smaller parks, plazas, and open space during the work week and weekend is important to fill this gap.

These small gathering places (up to 5,000 square feet or so in size) serve several important functions. They provide places of respite, where people may stop and take a few minutes to refresh themselves. They attract people to the neighborhood. They create a sense of place for the community, and they serve as marketing features for local economic development efforts.

The quality of a public space is more important than its size. So, what can a community do to create an inviting public place or transform an existing plaza into a great one?

Keys to Creating an Inviting Public Place

So what are the “secret ingredients” for a successful small park or plaza? There are many opinions, so the exact answer depends on who you ask.

The Gehl Institute has created metrics (see Public Life Diversity Toolkit, Version 2.0) for testing the quality of a particular public space, based on comfort (such as invitations for “sitting,” “seeing,” and “play + recreation”), enjoyment (such as “dimensioned at a human scale” and “positive aspects of climate”), and protection (such as protection against “crime + violence” and “unpleasant sensory experiences”).

A public space’s activity level is another significant component that contributes to making it enjoyable to people. Project for Public Spaces has developed a concept called “The Power of 10+,” which states that “places thrive when users have a range of reasons to be there.”

And the American Planning Association’s Characteristics and Guidelines of Great Public Spaces breaks down successful spaces into features and elements, activities and sociability, and unique characteristics.

My own list includes the following geographic, physical, and programmatic elements:

  1. Location: Where a plaza or small park is located has a definite impact on its level of activity. Ideally, the public space should be “where the action is” - in other words, close to popular destinations, busy businesses, or attractive activities. A good location will draw people into a small park or plaza, which in term will make them feel safe and comfortable being there.
  2. Seating: Parks and plazas are great places to meet and talk, so providing benches or some other type of seating is essential.
  3. Natural Landscaping: While there may be a few examples of good public spaces without it, most successful small parks and plazas have some natural landscaping (usually deciduous trees and shrubs). It doesn’t necessarily have to be a large amount, but such greenery provides shade during warmer seasons and a resting spot or even habitat for wildlife.
  4. Urban landscape
  5. Photo credit: Steve Butler.
  6. Lighting: Sunlight and man-made lighting make a space feel more inviting, comfortable, and safe. Sunlight also provides warmth, while man-made lighting illuminates gathering places after the sun goes down. Lighting is also an important factor in creating a safe and more crime-free environment (see my recent blog post on livable and safe communities for more information).
  7. Water Features: Fountains have traditionally been a feature of parks, both big and small. In more recent times, the classic fountain has been replaced by interactive water features, which provide a pleasing sound and allow people to cool off during hot weather.
  8. Public Art: Pieces of public art can enliven a space, both aesthetically and as a conversation starter. Public art can be functional, or just fun and inviting.
  9. Play Equipment: This is important for some types of plazas, such as those that are heavily visited by children or lunchtime visitors. The presence of children is a good indicator of how welcoming a public park or plaza actually is, so having facilities that cater to them makes good sense. And recreational facilities that cater to “young at heart” adults, such as giant chess boards, ping pong tables, and foosball tables are becoming increasingly popular.
  10. Chess board in park scene
  11. Photo credit: Steve Butler.
  12. Entertainment: Scheduling a program of activities, such as a weekly farmers market or a concert series, can entice people to a public space.
  13. Food and Drink: An effective way to attract people to an area is to provide them with the opportunity to consume something edible. That’s why many small parks provide space for small businesses to sell food and beverages. The classic hot dog stand has expanded to include food trucks offering a multitude of new offerings, along with coffee carts.

Other features that are nice to have include an inviting entrance to the space, delineation of the park or plaza’s boundaries (such as short plantings, short fences, or differentiated pavement materials), protection from the elements, and adjacent buildings that provide a sense of enclosure to the public space.

Does this mean that every small plaza or park needs to have all of these elements? No, although the level of activity may drop as you remove some of those features. But I would maintain that some physical elements, such as seating and adequate lighting, are essential to making a gathering place work well.

Having a successful, active plaza or small park is what most communities strive for. Incorporating some or all of the nine elements described above will increase your chances of success.

If you have a successful public plaza in your community that you’d like me to highlight in a future blog post, please leave a comment below or contact me directly at

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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.