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New Awards Honor Public Places That Unite America : Sights: L.A. Public Library makes the list but Manhattan's Washington Square does not. Selections kindle debate on what makes a place people-friendly.

August 13, 1995|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER; Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

What makes a public space people-friendly? Consciously and unconsciously, travelers ask themselves that question just about every time they stand still or sit down outdoors: at a sidewalk cafe, a park, a plaza, a public market.

But the formula for the success of a public place is no easily reproducible bit of social chemistry, which helps explain why Angelenos remain so tentative about Pershing Square and the rest of Downtown L.A., despite millions of redevelopment spending in the last decade. It's also why New Yorkers get so protective every time a change is proposed in Central Park.

Now, however, comes "The Search for Great American Public Places," a new award program that cites 63 U.S. sites as model public areas, places that successfully unite people of varied ages and races. A book on the search and the winners, "The Pocket Guide to Great American Places," is to follow late this fall; a full list of the winners can be found on L3.

The leaders of the search were a pair of nonprofit organizations: New York-based Urban Initiatives, which designed the yearlong project and recruited panelists to sift possibilities, and the Lyndhurst Foundation of Chattanooga, Tenn., which sponsored the project. In choosing their favorites, panelists said they looked at aesthetic qualities, at a site's success in bringing people of different ages and races into face-to-face contact, and various other factors, including the reconciliation of historic design with contemporary use. The inspiration for the project, Urban Initiatives founder and president Gianni Longo said, was the widespread "confusion bordering on outrage" over the deterioration of public life in American cities and towns over the past 50 years.

The list is a fine argument-starter: Pershing Square didn't make it, nor did Union Square in San Francisco, nor, remarkably, did Washington Square in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. But the recently renovated Los Angeles Public Library did (joining 11 other West Coast locations), as did Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan's West Side Community Garden and 12 other sites in New York state.

The most recently built project is Orioles Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore, which opened in 1992. There are two New Mexican pueblos (Taos and Acoma), seven squares, three markets, and one market square (Roanoke, Va.).There are three "great but endangered" sites: Santa Fe's downtown plaza, New York's Coney Island, New York's Times Square and Los Angeles's Union Station (where a large adjacent development has been proposed).

There are three railway stations on the list (New York, Boston and Los Angeles). There are--attention, powers that be of LAX, SFO, JFK, O'Hare and Atlanta!--no airports. Also not many malls. (Theme parks were excluded because they charge hefty admission prices and hence aren't truly public.)

Among the other absentees: Las Vegas; San Diego and Orange counties, and Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii and Nevada. This might be a sign that the quality of city planning and building dwindled as the development of the United States moved hastily west, or a sign that suburban Western lifestyles have effectively made us more antisocial, or a sign that the makers of this list spend most of their time east of the Mississippi. Or perhaps it's all three. (Of the 11 panelists who steered the search, one was based in California, one in Montana; the rest in points farther east.)

The effort began in June, 1994, when the group circulated questionnaires among 500 professionals involved with community development nationwide. The panel of 11 architects, authors, city planners, developers and others then convened in Seaside, Fla. (yes, it's on the list), to winnow roughly 200 nominated places down to 50. Then panelists added 13 favorites of their own.

Almost all of the panel's favorite public places in this state are landmarks to most Californians. Perhaps the most obscure was Filbert Steps in San Francisco, a foliage-lined footpath that leads from Sansome Street toward Telegraph Hill's Coit Tower.

The panelists included Jan Gehl, senior professor of urban design at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen; Paul Goldberger, the chief cultural correspondent for the New York Times; Tony Hiss, author of "The Experience of Place;" Peter Katz, author of "The New Urbanism;" James H. Kunstler, author of "The Geography of Nowhere;" and Daniel Kemmis, who is mayor of Missoula, Mont., and the author of "Community and the Politics of Place."

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