safe zone

Flexible open space hard wired for change. by Chris Reed

Harvard Plaza, designed for programming throughout all 4 seasons | Image ©2018 Mike Belleme

Harvard Plaza, designed for programming throughout all 4 seasons | Image ©2018 Mike Belleme

Taking a cue from systems ecology, open space design must include flexibility and adaptability.

Times Square in New York. Discovery Green in Houston. The Arch Grounds in St. Louis. It’s clear, cities and urban spaces have been rediscovered over the past three decades as places of social and cultural vitality that draw residents and visitors alike. Leaders have understood the economic potential of these efforts, in terms of spending by visitors, the economic development of surrounding areas, and the competitive value that can be claimed for cities. And, the public spaces themselves have been put to work, through programming, to generate revenue—especially important in an era in which government resources for open space creation, upkeep and management are dwindling. 

But none of this explains why people want to be there in the first place—or what we can do through design to conceive and shape these spaces to remain vital over the long-term. I would argue for an approach to the design and programming of public spaces that allows for evolution—designing for diversity, flexibility, adaptability, and open-endedness. This is an approach that allows for various intensities of use and activity to be played out across daily, seasonal, and annual, environmental, economic, or other long-term cycles.   

Complex adaptive systems ecology tells us that healthy ecosystems are characterized by dynamic change over time. An ecosystem’s ability to adapt to new conditions or inputs (water, climate, disturbance, etc.) while maintaining its core structures and mechanisms is what ultimately ensures success and vitality. It’s not such a leap to apply these same principles to public spaces. Flexibility and adaptability allow for public spaces to change to accommodate different events and activities, and even adapt to new circumstances (physical, hydrological, programmatic, political, etc.). These qualities encourage appropriation of many flavors, for activities that might be planned and others that might be spontaneous or invented. And they do so in ways that appeal to people’s innate curiosity—their willingness and ability to explore new forms, spaces and situations on their own terms, without prescribed ideas.

People are incredibly inventive when given the opportunity, or the prompt. Much playground design recently has morphed from prescribed activities on single-use pieces of equipment to more exploratory and open-ended play environments that encourage improvisation and free, creative play. We explored ideas of open-endedness and free and creative play in a garden installation called Safe Zone at the International Garden Festival in Grand-Métis, Quebec. A simple, undulating topography of poured-in-place, bouncy rubber surfacing was the prompt, and people were invited in to do what they would. Kids quickly made up running and jumping games, but eventually adults were lured in. Wary visitors were encouraged to remove their shoes and socks to experience the sponginess of the surface directly on their bare feet and toes. And people opened up, exploring, moving about; finding comfortable perches to sit on and slightly secluded depressions to hide out in.


Flexibility and open-endedness are ideas not completely foreign to the study and design of public space and cities. William Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is exemplary in calling out the ways in which people can adapt to public spaces—even those less accommodating. Whyte’s studies of human behavior, and specifically of the ways in which people gathered on the North Front Ledge outside of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York, highlighted human behavioral adaptations to this space and its environment. He studied and mapped the evolving relationships of people’s positions on the plaza to changing sunlight, to work and lunch and commuting schedules, and to each other—noting how folks would use the space differently over the course of the day.

More recently, and at a larger scale, urban projects like OMA’s proposal for Yokohama Masterplan show how the programming of an entire district might result in dramatically different characters and combinations of activities over the course of the day and night—if an appropriate combination of facilities and public spaces is provided. Both examples point to a need to build in flexibility, redundancy, and the ability to change and adapt—whether we are talking about the ways in which people engage with public space, or the ways in which public spaces and districts can be set up to ensure a liveliness throughout the day and year.

Designing for Flexibility

Harvard Plaza, establishes a vibrant community in a space previously rendered lifeless by a lack of accommodation for anything but passing through. In contrast, the new space plays on people’s inexhaustible craving for discovery, for physical and sensorial experiences, for social interaction of many sorts; it is flexible and is set up—equipped—to be programmed and re-programmed easily. These same principles of diversity, flexibility, and adaptability that inform the space as a whole, are also addressed at the scale of the human body, in the dual seating elements incorporated. Custom-designed wood benches are shaped to accommodate different bodies in different ways, and give options for how people choose to sit—cross-legged, upright, slouchy, lounging—alone or in groups, on laps, cuddling, outright lying down, or if you’re a kid active play.

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The Plaza’s embedded flexibility and diversity allows it to assume different personalities—equally compelling when throbbing with activity or when small groups are quietly studying or moving through. It is intentionally designed to accommodate multiple time-scales, multiple audiences, multiple voices, and multiple agendas. It allows for fitting out and appropriation in many ways, anticipates many uses but leaves open more possibilities. In all these ways, it embodies the richest ideals of what public space can be—a simple platform for the playing out of various social lives: dynamic, evolving, open-ended.

Dynamic Programming

Healthy organisms and ecosystems adapt to changes in their environment, shifting strategy as circumstances evolve around them.  Healthy social spaces can learn and adapt, too. Ongoing design and management practices become key agents in the success of these spaces. Too often, programming is left to groups or organizations who apply generic toolkits to projects, deploying standard interventions (furniture, games, etc.), adjusted only in color or combination to a new place. In other cases, advisors or clients go too far in filling up spaces every moment of the day. Too much programming can be as problematic as too little—open spaces should accommodate a full range of uses and people, including quieter moments that are more about passive enjoyment, or open possibilities for unscripted events.  I say this recognizing the fact that we cannot dictate what is too much or too little, that in some ways the flexibility inherent in the spatial designs allows for someone else to decide this—that it is, in fact, a sign of success and health that many different inputs and impressions are possible here.

In creating spaces that are inherently flexible, built to morph if you will, designers must find ways to hardwire for change and provide ample opportunity for a space to be explored and lived on its own terms. This I would argue, infuses public space with vitality, energy and ultimately—longevity. Healthy ecosystems in my mind, are open systems.

Chris Reed is the Founding Director of Stoss Landscape Urbanism and is Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. This article was adapted from an essay in Staging Urban Landscapes by Canon Ivers.