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How can an empty artificial turf field in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, be just as popular as the carefully designed plaza space nearby?

By Daniel Jost, Associate ASLA

Photography by Daniel Jost, Associate ASLA 

Located less than a block apart, the two most successful spaces in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, could not be more different. Silver Plaza is a triangular space with a water feature where children can play. The plaza has tile mosaics, a mix of seating, and raised planting beds with shade trees.

The Turf (which has no official name) is an empty field covered in artificial turf. When it comes to design, there’s not much to it. Yet, without any seating or organized programming, the Turf can still draw more than 200 people on a Friday or Saturday night.

Looking at these two spaces, it’s hard not to wonder if good design really matters to the success of a space. If you can just throw down some artificial turf and bring in hundreds of people, who really needs landscape architects? After all, isn’t it just the location of both spaces that makes them so well used? If there weren’t restaurants surrounding them and clothing stores, movie theaters, and a bookstore nearby, would anyone show up?

Some people probably wouldn’t. When asked what they liked most about these spaces, many visitors mention the restaurants, shops, and theaters nearby.

Even James R. Urban, FASLA, the landscape architect who designed the layout for Silver Plaza, admits that the retail component played a big role in the space’s success. “The one thing that has just amazed everyone is its success from day one,” says Urban. “Design didn’t have a huge amount to do with that. I think the bigger picture ideas, the organization of the spaces, and the retail mix were more important to the site.” 

However, the energy from the retail does not act alone. According to the people who visit these landscapes, design does play a role in their success. Even at the Turf, the features of the space itself are part of the draw.

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