Few people have done more in recent years to breathe life into America’s dead or dying public spaces. Best known for designing the High Line in New York, Corner has been called a landscape “rock star” and mentioned as a modern successor to Frederick Law Olmsted, the visionary behind Central Park. When Corner boasts that “almost every city” wants something like the High Line—as he sits in his Manhattan office, segments of the once-abandoned tracks he transformed visible through the window behind him—his client roster backs him up. Santa Monica, San Francisco, Seattle, Brooklyn, Memphis, and Chicago are just some of the places that have turned to his practice, James Corner Field Operations, to revive their urban parks.
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.
In renderings, the new Public Square looks from above like two boomerangs nearly meeting at the tops of their arcs. One half of the space—the side that gets more sun—is a green area with a scalloped lawn meant for shows or other outdoor events, and a more informal area for picnics and casual meetings. The other half is a plaza anchored by a Civil War monument, a café that can become a beer garden in summer, and a reflecting pool that can be turned into a skating rink come winter. The square is bordered by a promenade and a colorful mix of native plants and trees. Crossing from any corner to another is not only easy but almost encouraged by the design.