In a post last week I mentioned the Project for Public Space’s comparison between “design-centered spaces” and “place-centered spaces.” The idea is that design-centered spaces have a “look-but-don’t” touch atmosphere, while placed-centered spaces are inclusive and self-sustaining.
Though the original post doesn’t explicitly say it, I’ve noticed that many design-centered spaces seem to have a stunning quality in pictures; they often look really, really good, but then don’t actually get much use when they’re finally built.
Place-centered spaces, on the other hand, may be less flashy but are nevertheless well-used.
The Provo Library grounds may be one of the best local examples of this phenomenon, providing numerous examples of things to avoid in future projects.
Housed in the marvelously restored Brigham Young Academy building — which the community is rightly proud of — there are few comparably photogenic spots in the city. The grounds also do some things well. For example, most library parking is either off to the side of the structure or underground. That’s a vastly superior arrangement than having parking in front of the building, as could have easily been the case with less careful restoration.
Rather than parking, the library is preceded by a large grassy area. It looks pretty and is immaculately maintained, but ultimately doesn’t get much actual use.
Occasionally people do show up — to take wedding pictures, to meet up before heading inside — but my observations suggest that those encounters are brief and nine times out of 10 the lawn is empty or close to it.
And that makes sense. There is no real seating, few trash cans, and not much shade. Those omissions discourage leisure use and the noise from University Ave only makes it more unpleasant to actually experience the space.
All of these factors create a “look but don’t touch” area. That status was even briefly institutionalized earlier this year when the library was fenced off from 4th of July revelers. The decision to fence the area was prompted by excessive rowdiness in 2011, but if the space had been better designed and programmed it wouldn’t have lent itself so easily to that rowdiness in the first place.
Because the space continues to remain empty most of the time I envision it either, A) requiring considerable resources to police and maintain, or B) degenerating into the worst kind of derelict park. None of this makes sense because with more usage, the ongoing financial investment in the space — which I support — would simply benefit more people. In other words, there would be more bang for the taxpayers’ buck.
In many ways Provo is still celebrating the restoration of the library that finished in 2001. I join in that celebration and I’m thankful that the building wasn’t razed like other city landmarks. But after more than a decade it’s time to recognize that the space around the library could serve as so much more than the backdrop for pretty pictures.