Placemaking transforms city parks into unique spaces to gather

Brian Smith is a Senior Economic Development Coordinator for the City of Durham who led the redesign of the City’s Black Wall Street Gardens greenspace.


Public urban spaces, unlike the premise of Field of Dreams, stubbornly do not subscribe to the philosophy of “build it and they will come.” Instead, they must begin with the end in mind: how the residents want to use that space. While the space’s design elements must be thoughtfully designed, even beautiful, at its core the space should also be…simple.

In Durham, we put this idea to the test. Through an innovative program called IdeaStarter, City employees were given the opportunity to pitch simple solutions to issues for our residents, with the highest rated solutions awarded prototype funding through the City’s Office of Performance and Innovation (OPI). I submitted a pitch because I observed that, while many of the  outdoor public spaces in Durham were located in populated, pedestrian-friendly areas, many of them were underutilized and often empty. As Durham rapidly urbanizes, and once-empty buildings downtown are populated, I knew that there would be a greater need for public gathering spaces. My winning idea was to test new ways for the City to better activate and populate our outdoor public spaces through the addition of new, movable tables and chairs in a one-acre space colloquially known as Black Wall Street Gardens. I picked this as a test site because it lacked quality seating options: many of the seats were fixed at static, haphazard intervals that inhibited natural conversations, and didn’t allow for people to “personalize” the space according to their needs.

Almost instantly after the new movable tables and chairs were installed, we saw an increase in both the quantity and variety of people using the space, as well as the amount of time they spent there. Residents naturally began moving the tables and chairs around wherever they liked, whether to find shade, soak in the sun, or make room for more people to join their gatherings. With the help of the Office of Performance and Innovation, we evaluated the results of the prototype and discovered the following:

Movement: The movable seats fulfilled their purpose…they moved! Every day, the seats are found throughout the space. Allowing for movement meant that people are able to utilize the park throughout the year; in summer many of the tables and chairs are found underneath large shade trees, and in fall and winter, the chairs move to the more open, sunny spaces.

Security: Local officials were initially concerned that the tables and chairs would be stolen by residents if they were not fixed to the ground, but after two years and no additional security, all of the tables and chairs remain.

New Users: The movable seating increased the variety of people that spend time in the space. The former fixed chairs, when they were used at all, mostly only served as a place for brief lunches. Now, the tables and chairs are used by guests of nearby eating establishments who want to dine al fresco, parents with children, buskers, couples, and groups of people working. The lithe qualities of the chair naturally makes people feel more relaxed; as such they spend more time sitting than with the previous fixed, backless seating.

But the impact of the movable chairs has moved beyond Black Wall Street Gardens to influence other City ventures. Six months after movable chairs first appeared in Durham,  the City replaced 9 fixed table/bench combination seats in another civic space, CCB Plaza, with movable furniture. After the pilot, the City also began using additional types of movable seating, namely swings, in Black Wall Street Gardens.

The small investment by the Office of Performance and Innovation has been so well-received that it has inspired further investment, this time from a private citizen who donated over $10,000 for more seating in the park. Due to the pilot’s success, the City has also expanded its dedication to beautifying Black Wall Street Gardens by purchasing new lights, trees and furniture for the space, and dedicating over $50,000 for the creation of new public art in the park’s central square.

By all accounts, then, the project has proved to be a success, and has left the city with key takeaways that we, and others, can apply to the design of public urban spaces:

Start small: Cities across the world are embracing the idea of “lighter, quicker, cheaper” in public space design. In Durham, our investment of approximately $3,000 in the tables and chairs used for the test has led to a multiple of that investment from private citizens and other city departments. This placemaking “test kit” can be used in other spaces throughout the city to prototype the impact of movable furniture. New York City’s Plazas Program also uses a test kit to create and repurpose spaces into community-oriented social gathering sites in downtown and neighborhoods.

Trust, don’t fear, residents: To build trust with the community, we must first extend trust. As Booker T. Washington once said, “Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know that you trust him.” We were fortunate that none of the movable tables and chairs were stolen during the pilot; the investment showed residents that they can be trusted, and as such, the residents take better care of the furnishings. This precedent is well observed with public art as well; walls with murals are much less likely to be marked by graffiti than those they have no art present. When trust happens at a City level, residents are inspired to take greater ownership and pride of their neighborhood space.

Build flexible spaces: If there is one thing that planners of public spaces can count on, it is that people will find uses for them that the organizers never imagined. It is therefore imperative to design spaces with maximum flexibility so that people can choose how they want to use their civic space. The movable chairs in Durham are flexible to the needs of residents—some for reading, others for feeding the homeless, and others still to observe the passing of a parade.  

The yearning to gather is a fundamental human desire, and parks and greenspaces that facilitate this are essential to the health of a vibrant, growing city. The benefits of creating social public spaces are many—whether they provide small joys like giving residents new places to sit and relax or they provide larger opportunities like encouraging community building. Small areas of placemaking allow cities to reinforce themselves as authentically unique places to gather, to share and meet, and to experience one of life’s most enjoyable luxuries, the Italian mantra of “dolce far niente”: the sweetness of doing nothing.