I was alerted this morning to some interesting news coming out of New York.   It seems the acclaimed plaza of the Jacob Javits Federal Building in NYC is about to undergo a transformation – from a design by one internationally-known landscape architect (Martha Schwartz) to a new design by another internationally-known landscape architect (Michael Van Valkenberg).  You can read some info here…

This news raises some questions in my mind about the attention to the design of outdoor spaces in dear old Downtown Denver.  The fact that the current design is being scrapped is surprising – not surprising, however, is that the new space is being designed by an equally-iconic landscape architect as the previous and in a forum that is highly-public.  Given the context, history, and high profile of the plaza and a demanding public, “high design” is a must.  In my visits to New York, I’ve made it a point to visit the Javits plaza on more than one occassion, primarily because it is an iconic, photo-worthy space.  I’ve also made a point to visit the myriad of pocket parks, public squares, building plazas, and city parks scattered throughout Manhattan and the neighboring boroughs – because they are, in themselves, destinations.  And because the public understands not only the value of open space but also the value of dialogue about the quality of open spaces.


current javits plaza design

When I think about Denver, though, it seems that open space as destination is mostly missing from our vocabulary. Where is that ethic of design-expectation in Denver’s parks and plazas?  Where are our high-profile public spaces that demand public dialogue?  Off the top of my head I can think of three – the 16th Street Mall, Skyline Park, and Civic Center Park… each of which is a heritage project around which public dialogue is primarily focused on preservation issues.  Where is the groundswell to provide new spaces of varied size and character in our urban environments, or to improve those inoccuous spaces that exist today?

We live in a city that receives upwards of 300 days of sunshine every year.  As Coloradoans, we give tremendous value to the opportunities that the outdoors give us to walk, to stroll, to recreate.  But it seems to me that our high expectations for great open spaces generally fall as building height or density rise.

As a community, we have fairly active dialogue about architecture – and as public expectations have risen in recent years around the value of “good” architecture, “good” architecture has followed.  It’s time now for those public expectations to extend to outdoor spaces.  If we want Downtown Denver residents, employees and visitors to enjoy our city, we should be giving them enjoyable places to experience what is arguably the best aspect of our city – the Colorado outdoors.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Downtown Denver Partnership’s Leadership Program tackled this issue last year (you can find the final report on their website).