Executive Director’s Letter

An entirely reimagined Public Square opened to great acclaim in 2016. It was a delight to see the former traffic crossroads become a beautiful gathering place. In keeping with a long tradition of free speech on Public Square, demonstrators of many stripes re-christened it during the Republican National Convention. After that event Clevelanders flocked to the new Square to begin enjoying its many features and the new perspective it provides.

In truth, however, the Square’s revival remains a work in progress. Not long after its opening, a complicated dispute arose between the City of Cleveland and the Regional Transit Authority over the future use of Superior Avenue through the Square, and as of this writing in mid-2017, traffic barriers scar the Square. Design modifications consistent with the quality of the entire space are being discussed but the outcome is so far unknown. On one level, this state of affairs feels like Cleveland painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa. The current and, we hope, temporary condition is, as Mayor Frank Jackson readily admits, simply ugly. But on another level, the Superior Avenue issues are something of an extreme illustration of the fact that public spaces are often works in progress. They are, after all, public spaces and they should evolve with the changing needs and desires of people. 

Striking the right balance among competing needs is rarely easy but the process should be a reminder that all of us have a stake in these spaces and that, like the democracy that we also share, we must find ways to accommodate an array of interests if public spaces are to live up to that name. These spaces have many values but the greatest is the simple fact that they are public, democratic, open. In a time when some extol building walls, public spaces tear them down. As income polarization accompanies political disunion in America, public spaces remind us of our nobler aspirations for unity and shared values.

These may seem to be lofty ambitions for parks and other spaces. Indeed they are, but they are achievable if that is what we insist upon in our public realm. It does not happen by accident. The photographs of Matthew Pillsbury in this annual report depict a range of Cleveland’s public spaces. Some may surprise because they are not parks or even considered public in the usual sense. But a city inevitably and desirably includes such places as well as traditional parks and plazas. And in recent years Cleveland has augmented its portfolio of welcoming spaces as more people get out of their cars, return to the central city and celebrate what it means to be urban. Building that arsenal of great places deepens our commitment to common bonds even while the viewpoints freely shared there do not find universal acceptance. That is democracy building at its most fundamental.

Public spaces do even more than that. Creating beautiful places for people is an essential part of competing in a global economy. Great public spaces attract and retain residents. They help to fuel the interactions that spark creativity and innovation that are indispensable to economic growth. 

We get these results when people-centered design makes them happen. Intentional programming and careful maintenance are also key. Examine Pillsbury’s photographs and you will see places that succeed and some that do not. Some spaces lack the human scale or amenities that make people feel welcome. Others are missing the access and connectivity that are needed to give them life. Cleveland’s downtown waterfront is especially limited in this way but the success of the Metroparks’ revival of lakefront parks shows what is possible. The proposed bridge from the downtown mall to the lakefront is a vital connection that has been absent far too long. That is just one example of the work that Cleveland, despite recent strides, has yet to accomplish. That work certainly includes resolving the issues on Public Square. Among all of our public spaces, the Square’s historic and current prominence means it must achieve its potential as active, beautiful and welcoming to all – a magnet at the center of the city and a beacon of Cleveland’s contributions to that other public square of our democracy.

David T. Abbott Signature

David Abbott
Executive Director