Place To Be
Human scale, beauty make for great space
By Walt Seifert
What makes a great place? In what we hope are the waning days of the pandemic, people are traveling more. Many are headed to major public spaces around the country and the world. Those places promote social interaction, health, happiness and a sense of wellbeing.
I’ve had the privilege of being in some of the world’s greatest spaces: St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Luxembourg Garden in Paris, Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spanish Steps in Rome, High Line in New York, French Quarter in New Orleans and Grand-Place in Brussels. Can we have great places in Sacramento?
Great places share common characteristics. They focus on people, not vehicles. Pedestrians rule. Architecture—its beauty and relationship to humanity—is essential. Such places are relatively quiet, nurturing the spirit amid grittier, sometimes less relaxed confines of nearby surroundings.
They have cafes or areas to sit and linger and socialize, people watch or contemplate. They draw tourists, but locals too. They are often near services within a dense city grid that eases access by foot.
What are the best places in Sacramento? We’ve got the American River Parkway, State Capitol, McKinley and Land parks, and Old Sac. But all lack essential aspects of great places. They are not really gathering spots with services nearby or within walking distance of other desirable destinations.
The under-the-freeway farmers market brought people together Downtown, but in a charmless setting. Shopping under the W/X freeway is not the same as gazing at the Doge’s Palace. And the quality of the market’s setting hasn’t improved with its temporary relocation to an Arden Fair parking lot next to a defunct Sears.
In 2012, the American Planning Association named Cesar Chavez Plaza and its park one of America’s Great Places. Homelessness was less of a factor then, apparently.
We’ve made improvements in Sacramento. Old Sac used to be Skid Row. The once-industrial R Street corridor was thriving before the pandemic. Midtown is vibrant and livable with a lively farmers market.
Midtown’s transformation was aided by junking three-lane, one-way streets. Those speedways were good for commuters, bad for residents. Similar changes on Freeport Boulevard and 21st Street south of Broadway enhanced livability.
Some places the city has made worse. The Historic City Cemetery, once a green oasis with an award-winning rose garden, is increasingly desolate and forsaken.
We’ve got some not-so-great places, streets that are lousy to walk, scary to bike and unpleasant to see. In my neighborhood, J Street between 56th Street to Fair Oaks Boulevard is a sterile, mini-freeway.
Bike lanes were added on J, and the intersections of J and H with Carlson Drive were improved after several bicyclist fatalities. But no sane bike rider uses the road to cross the H Street Bridge. And there’s little indication, beyond monument signs, that a university is right there.
Other places have few people out walking, biking and enjoying the surroundings. Fair Oaks Boulevard, Howe, Watt, El Camino, Arden, Marconi, Northgate and Truxel come to mind. There are others in South Sac.
I believe it’s difficult, if not impossible, to have great places that lack complete streets. Complete streets are places where pedestrians and bicyclists feel safe, comfortable and welcome.
Great places are not strip malls with uninspired architecture fronted by parking lots along six-lane streets. Fast-food outlets with drive-in windows don’t make great places. Local businesses might.
“Place making” has become a thing. We deserve to live with inviting public spaces. Celebrating what’s unique and special about where we live makes us feel good. It makes our community stronger and friendlier.
We can’t duplicate European plazas from the 15th century, but we can create places where people can revel in their surroundings. In Sacramento, we can take greater advantage of our rivers.
It can’t be done overnight, but it can be done. We’ve had enough huddling in our houses and social distancing for a lifetime.
Walt Seifert is executive director of Sacramento Trailnet, an organization devoted to promoting greenways with paved trails. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.