What is a City Green? Commission Defines Open Space

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Thursday April 17, 2014

Open space, as defined in the Open Space Committee report, “encompasses both undeveloped land--including natural and scenic resource areas and working farm and forest land--and developed land--including park and recreation areas and civic gathering spaces.” Breaking it down further, these four categories include: resource conservation areas, working lands, parks and recreation, and civic space.In December, the Planning Commission decided to separate the discussion of what is considered private open space and public open space, each of which will play a part in the future city center and the city as a whole.

The Commission’s most recent April 8 meeting addressed public open spaces and the characteristics that would define what this means. Prior to this discussion, the Planning Commission requested that staff look into all useful tools that could be used to create public open spaces.Before jumping into a list of questions provided by staff regarding public open space characteristics, Paul Conner, director of Planning and Zoning, briefly reviewed open spaces that were already available--i.e. Jaycee Park and Dumont Park, the latter of which the city has put out Requests for Proposals for the long-term planning of the wooded property near City Center.

Conner also discussed the possibilities of using stormwater and general wetland areas to the public’s advantage by making them more interactive. Using Market Street’s stormwater treatment concept as an example, Conner displayed a map created by Whole Systems Design, LLC showing a few ponds, pedestrian walkway, a bridge, and a stage area. 

Next, commissioners launched into the seven-questions exercise, first asking what they believe to be the primary function(s) of the public open space.
“I think it’s anything that brings people together, be it playground, be it a space where you can have Easter egg hunts or live music or anything that is a public amenity” Commissioner Tracey Harrington said.

Also important, public open space should be designed for multi-purpose use, Commissioner Bernie Gagnon said.

With these characteristics in mind, Commissioner Sophie Quest strongly suggested that all activities should be facing inwards toward civic buildings. She used Burlington City Hall as an example of what to avoid since the side facing toward City Hall Park does not generate much activity, she said. To repair that fact, the City of Burlington is looking into working with Ri Ra Irish Pub to offer outdoor seating on the City Hall Park side to create a greater community-feel, Conner said.

Looking at this from a financial perspective, developer and Form Based Code Committee member Gene Beaudoin suggested providing a financial analysis explaining how much development it would take to support a $3 million city green.Other questions included the following:

Should the space be accessory or adjacent to the planned civic buildings? 
To this, commissioners were unanimously in agreement.

Should the open space be adjacent to a street that can be closed for event purposes?

The question evolved from local example, Burlington’s Saint Paul St. In addition to car traffic, the space is used for the farmer’s market and other closed-off events. Commissioners noted the flexibility the structure would offer but that its level of importance would depend on factors such as open space size. This fed into another question regarding multi-use:

To what extent can/should the city look to maximize the “multi-purpose” potential for land as open space?

Commissioners agreed that the city should look into maximizing the multi-purpose potential for land as open space, for example, using a space as a skating rink in the winter and a farmer’s market in the summer. 

What other open spaces are in the City Center pedestrian shed? What purposes do they already serve, or will they serve in the future? What gaps are there? Should new spaces be affiliated with these ones?

How hard is it to find a swing seat down on the Burlington waterfront? The early bird gets the worm on those amenities, resident Rosanne Greco said,suggesting that South Burlington could benefit from adding more places to sit and watch, chess boards to pass the time, etc. Louisos agreed and said that some of this appeal will be met with the amenity area in the Market St. development.

Resident Sarah Dopp that mentioned having a path going up toward Williston Rd. and having paths feeding down into open spaces within city center would be beneficial. 

The consultant hired to develop the Open Space Report with the Open Space Committee has gathered research which provides that the size of a public open space should be relative to the buildings around it. Is this a good standard to go by?Gagnon expressed uncertainty. It is difficult to say given that what is yet to be built is unknown in height. 

Sometimes, having a smaller space could work better than a large space, Conner said, providing examples of cities and towns with beautiful city green spaces, noting, however, that they are too large. If it is too large and appears empty, it does not feel as welcoming, he said. 

So, is there appropriate size? 

Staff writes: 

“Our research to date suggests that a central open space should be large enough to serve its intended functions (for civic, recreation and market/festival space, stormwater retention, climate moderation) but small enough to provide more intimate outdoor gathering and seating space–to function as one or more outdoor ‘rooms.’ The size of the green or square should also reflect the elevation of facing building fronts (e.g., 1 to 2 feet in width for every foot in building height).”

“Model FBC standards suggest a central square or green should be no smaller than ½ acre and no larger than 5 acres. Central greens in Vermont range in size from 1.2 acres (Waterbury Village) to 5 acres or more (St. Albans, Shelburne), and are typically bordered by civic buildings that also offer public facilities. Burlington City Park behind City Hall is 1.7 acres, with direct pedestrian access to Church Street Marketplace (a linear public plaza). Shelburne’s larger village green (about 5.2 acres) includes civic buildings.”

“It depends on the ultimate size and use,” Harrington said. “A lot of it depends on the planning of that space.”

Gagnon suggested perhaps setting a minimum size and/or dictating it based on the master plan of the area and the buildings surrounding it; he also suggested taking a closer look at public input.

How would you define the characteristics of public open space? Learn more by reading the Open Space Committee report at www.sburl.com, observing desirable traits found in other open spaces in different cities and towns, or attending an upcoming Planning Commission meeting (the next will be Tuesday, April 22).

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent