Working towards better Public Spaces

When most people think about the idea of “Public Space” they will often immediately think of parks and public squares. While parks like Touro Park, Queen Anne Square and Washington Square serve an important role as visual punctuation to the buildings, the vast majority of open public spaces are the streets, medians and sidewalks, which are often neglected from design consideration.

Streets are not just the routes by which vehicles make their way around the city. They are the connective tissue that holds the city together visually. Similarly, sidewalks are not just the space between the road and the building lots. They are the frame which sets up the beauty and historic character of the structures that they border–like the picture frame around a painting. In the past the majority of streetscapes have been treated in a purely pragmatic way. Now there are many efforts to focus more attention and do more to utilize this neglected resource.

The Newport Tree, Park & Open Space Partnership, a consortium of four entities  funded by a grant from the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, is looking to develop an Open Space Master Plan on Newport’s behalf. Last summer they hosted a program at the Jane Pickens Event Center with a professional charrette the next day to look at how open space is utilized elsewhere and then to focus in on how it could be better used here in Newport. From this starting point, the group is looking to deliver for the city’s benefit, a big picture of how open spaces can be coordinated to enhance function, financial well-being, environmental sustainability and beauty of our parks and public spaces.

Another group working to protect an important public streetscape resource is the Historic Lighting Taskforce. This group was formed at the request of the City Council to advise the city on the present condition and future for historic lighting, and has been meeting regularly for about six months. Thanks to the support of the Preservation Society of Newport County in careful coordination with City of Newport staff, the location and condition of existing fixtures has been documented and good ideas of how to maintain and potentially expand these lovely icons of our historic community are well underway.

In the summertime the historic light fixtures along Bellevue and Washington Square have been decorated with beautiful and colorful hanging baskets of flowers. This program was the idea of Newport in Bloom, which was begun in 1982 by Jean West and Ineko Stephan. Many believe incorrectly that this program is paid for solely by the city, which contributes only $1500 per year. The cost to plant, hang and water these baskets almost every day is about $165 per season for a total cost of nearly $30,000 each year so 95% of the funding comes from contributions. Please help make this program possible by sending a gift to “Newport in Bloom” at PO Box 773, Newport RI 02840. To help raise the funds for the program Newport in Bloom will also be holding a sale on May 9th at the Elks Club from 9am to noon where they will be selling annuals, perennials and hanging baskets people can use in their own homes and gardens. You can then enter your home into their annual garden competition and awards will be presented at an event on August 19th at the Newport Casino.

Whether studying the open space throughout the city of Newport, working to preserve and improve the historic light fixtures which help give character to the streets or raising money so these light fixtures can be decorated with hanging flowers each summer, there are many in the community who are striving to make our streets and sidewalks wonderful, safe and beautiful places for us to walk, shop and enjoy. It is hoped that many will join them in supporting these efforts!

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, LEED AP, is an historian, urban planner, educator and practicing architect living and working at A4 Architecture in Newport. He is serving on the Historic Lighting Taskforce and the Washington Square Advisory Commission.