The world’s best-loved cities all have something in common—beautiful public squares and plazas surrounded by magnificent buildings. They are the places where people meet and things happen, the places we tell stories about. Across the United States, public squares and plazas are being rediscovered as a powerful way of revitalizing and transforming downtowns.
Cities are also taking stronger steps to heal the natural environment within their borders. They have discovered that restoring nature in the city not only helps the environment, but also connects people with place, while, in many cases, enhancing local prosperity via tourism, increased visits by local citizens and increased land values. As one model of a successful strategy that celebrates nature in the city, the City of San Luis Obispo’s Mission Plaza and San Luis Creek restoration has unequivocally contributed to bringing the downtown commercial vacancy rate from 60 percent to current full occupancy.
Berkeley recently took an exciting and positive step towards transforming its downtown into a world-class destination with nature as inspiration when the City Council appointed Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee voted for the pedestrianization of one block of Center Street, between Oxford Street and Shattuck Avenue, as their preferred option for the site. And, in acknowledgment of a decades-long community vision of restoring, honoring and celebrating Berkeley’s “green” infrastructure, her creeks, the DAPAC also said that a “maximum practical” creek design should be prepared as part of putting together a plan for Center Street.
The Berkeley Center Street project site is not only the core of the downtown but is also a transit hub served by the downtown Berkeley BART station and several AC transit lines. Approximately 10,000 pedestrians already traverse Center Street each day, walking from BART to campus. If there is any one place in downtown Berkeley that is practically begging to become a pedestrian plaza, this is it. It is a location that has great importance to the citizens of Berkeley and the greater Bay Area as a destination for the arts and entertainment, as well as education and commerce.
Also coming to this central location are a “green” hotel/conference center and a world-class art museum, to be designed by one of the most exciting architects alive today, Toyo Ito. It’s an exhilarating time for downtown Berkeley, especially now, with the newly added hope of a beautiful and functional world-class public space accessible to all citizens, regardless of age, ability or income. A trademark of a great community!
We hope that residents of Berkeley and the Bay Area will join us in advocating for this promising vision.
Kirstin Miller is a member of Citizens for a Strawberry Creek Plaza Steering Committee.