To hear Clevelanders talk, Public Square is a place you pass through to reach somewhere else. When Moses Cleaveland laid out the town in 1796, he imagined the open area at its center as a New England-style commons: a gathering space for settlers, a grazing area for livestock.
But its natural position as a transit hub—first for stagecoaches and streetcars, later for buses and automobiles—steadily intruded on that civic purpose. Despite efforts by some residents to preserve it as a park, including a decade-long stretch in the 19th century when it was fenced off to horse-drawn wagons, roads and traffic triumphed over people and place.
“Over the years, it just turned into more like a series of big traffic islands,” says the landscape architect James Corner. Two major streets, Superior and Ontario, bisect Public Square, creating four discrete squarelets. Locals who find themselves in one of the quadrants have a tough time getting to another. If the cars aren’t enough of a hindrance, the lack of things to do or see in the area is: of the square’s 10 acres, more than six are paved over with concrete or asphalt. Now, with the square’s original communal spirit greatly diminished, Cleveland has asked Corner—a revivalist with what he calls a “theatrical flair”—to help bring it back.
City planners are increasingly realizing that investment in public spaces, many neglected for decades, can provide a competitive edge in luring new businesses and residents—especially young creative types—to the urban core. The High Line now attracts millions of visitors a year, and property values nearby have skyrocketed. “There’s an economic imperative to look for how you can keep a city vibrant and vital,” Corner says, “because otherwise people just leave.”
Cleveland certainly took note of the High Line’s success. The city’s own downtown population, which plummeted during the economic slump of the 1980s, has risen to an all-time high in recent years, helped by billions of dollars of investments in attractions like a convention center, a medical marketplace, and a casino. But Cleveland still lacked a central point where people could meet for coffee, or walk a dog, or stroll on a date. Public Square “has been our front yard for over a century,” Ann Zoller, the head of land Studio, a local design partner working with Corner’s firm, says. “We really felt that if you had all this development but you still had a dysfunctional Public Square, the city was never going to thrive as it could.”
By the time Cleveland engaged Corner’s help, in 2008, many ideas for how to revamp the square had come and gone. They all suffered from the assumption that traffic around the site could not be disturbed. Corner came in with a bold idea: if we can’t remove the streets, let’s build an elevated park above them. The hilltop-park concept didn’t pan out, because of the cost and complexity, but Zoller says it got locals reimagining Public Square as a place prioritizing people over cars. A traffic analysis determined that the city could close one of the streets and narrow the other to a passage for buses, which could be rerouted during major events. Construction started this spring on Corner’s final design, which is estimated to cost $32 million.
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