Why Are July 4th Gatherings So Special?

It's not just the fireworks, but the place where you watch them.
What Makes July Fourth So Exciting?

A July Fourth fireworks display over Canalside in Buffalo, New York.
Courtesy Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation

From the National Mall to the local town hall, millions of us are preparing to watch the fireworks go up over our waterfronts, plazas, and parks—the kinds of places in our communities where we feel drawn even when large events aren’t taking place.  “It’s easy to celebrate on the day of a big event, but the real success of a place is that it’s comfortable on any given day,” says Perkins Eastman Principal and Executive Director Hilary Bertsch, who’s had a guiding hand in some of the firm’s most prominent place-making developments.

Reflections of the Past

With Perkins Eastman serving as Master Architect of Canalside, Bertsch and Principal Stan Eckstut directed the planning and design of a twenty-acre project that recreates the western terminus of the Erie Canal—filled in and paved over in the last century—with reflecting pools that trace the canal’s original path. The project extends the Buffalo River inland, with open space and mixed-use development coming up along the edges. The initial phase was completed in 2014, and new development there continues to this day.

“Canalside has become a destination location and catalyst for the renewal of Buffalo’s historic waterfront,” New York Governor Kathy Hochul said in a statement last month as she opened the bidding for the last open parcel on the site, a two-acre lot where an arena once stood. This final mixed-use development, Hochul said, “will help boost the economy, open new public spaces, and make the Buffalo waterfront an even more popular place to live, work and play.”

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New channels off the Buffalo River trace the original path of the Erie Canal, providing opportunities for open space and development to come up along with them. Courtesy Perkins Eastman

The water, of course, draws people there. When it freezes, it forms the largest outdoor skating rink in New York. During the summer, it fills with paddleboats while people stroll its tow paths, which replicate the ones that mules plodded to pull barges along the original canal. The new buildings fill the original footprints of structures that populated the Buffalo Harbor in the late nineteenth century. These developments, with their ground-level restaurants and shops, frame lively open spaces around the canals that include a great lawn for concerts and large gatherings plus smaller sites such as cobblestone pathways and a fire pit with Adirondack chairs. In this respect, Canalside is the model for a thriving urban locale, Bertsch says. These spaces “have to recognize the scale and be specific to the place they’re going into—and if you make a place successful for the locals, it’s successful for everyone.”

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The shallow canals were designed three feet below street level to mitigate Buffalo’s famously cold winter winds.
When it’s not as cold, mechanical systems underneath ensure the water stays frozen for ice skating.
Copyright Joe Cascio/ Courtesy Perkins Eastman

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The channels fill with paddle boats and remote-operated sailboats during the summer, while the wide tow paths welcome people to walk, wade, or dine. Copyright Joe Cascio/ Courtesy Perkins Eastman

Changing Perspectives
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The Wharf energizes the long-underused Washington Channel waterfront in Washington, DC. Restaurants, locally owned shops, office and residential buildings anchor networks of open space that stretch into the water along a series of wide, welcoming piers. Photograph Andrew Rugge/Copyright Perkins Eastman

Crowds will be filling the streets, plazas, and the waterfront at The Wharf to watch the fireworks explode over the Washington Monument on the Fourth, just as they did recently for events related to the city’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival.

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The Wharf plays host to numerous events during the year, including the Cherry Blossom Festival in early spring. Courtesy Perkins Eastman

Yet this network of streets, alleys, and piers that can effortlessly host a cast of thousands are equally inviting on a Sunday afternoon. Maximum flexibility is the name of the game, says Eckstut, who with Bertsch led this master-planning project along the Washington Channel in Southwest DC. Its first phase completed in 2019 after more than a decade of development—and even as its second phase is still in construction, the project has already won several major design awards. Here, the wide piers can be gated for special events, Eckstut notes, but the mechanisms for gating are invisible when they’re not in use. And to enable big crowds, every surface for sidewalks, alleys, and roads is on the same grade. “It’s like a stage,” he says – no steps or walls to obstruct the views.

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The Wharf accommodates more peaceful moments around the Blair Phillips Fountain (a tribute to a late Perkins Eastman architect who worked on this project), left, and within shady spots between buildings, right. (L) Photograph Andrew Rugge/Copyright Perkins Eastman; (R) Copyright Jeff Golberg/Esto/ Courtesy Perkins Eastman

On the other hand, “You wouldn’t want to create a place that, ninety-five percent of the time, looks empty or looks unsafe or scary,” Eckstut says. For that reason, the large, central District Square has a free-standing restaurant between the Maine Avenue thoroughfare and the plaza on the water. It was originally going to be one big open space, Bertsch says, but the building defines it better, so people use it more.

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A restaurant divides District Square, anchoring a variety of uses all around it.
Copyright Jeff Goldberg/Esto/Courtesy Perkins Eastman

Along the water, a wide boulevard breaks off into smaller alleys, niches, and courtyards. The most successful projects of this nature “have a variety of places in their community,” Bertsch says. And that’s why well-designed buildings play a key part in defining the open-air design, says Associate Principal Jason Abbey, who has worked closely on The Wharf. “The negative space a building creates around it— that’s the public realm,” he says. “We should make these spaces just as important—if not more so—than the activities that are going on inside.”

A Pause in the Journey

Off the water, transportation nodes have always provided ripe opportunities for public gathering, because they are already bringing people together on their travels. One of the oldest placemaking examples of this sort is New York’s Times Square, which has grown up into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world on top of it  its century-old foundation as a nexus of rail, bus, and road networks. “Times Square has really represented the soul of New York City throughout its history,” Perkins Eastman Co-CEO and Executive Director Nick Leahy says.

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The new design for TKTS goes far beyond merely rebuilding the famed booth for discount Broadway tickets.
Copyright Paul Rivera/Courtesy Perkins Eastman

It’s one thing to create a public place where none existed before, but enhancing an iconic cultural attraction is another challenge altogether. Such was Perkins Eastman’s assignment when Leahy and his team were asked to build upon a contest-winning Australian concept to replace the renowned TKTS booth at Father Duffy Square—the geographic heart of Times Square. The firm’s response was an all-glass amphitheater built over a prefabricated  booth where theater-goers come for discount tickets. The red glass steps reference the Broadway red carpet, and their design recalls theater seating. “There are so many readings of the design,” Leahy says. “Our goal was to use state-of-the-art technology to build a landmark that truly celebrates Times Square.”

The completed project was the catalyst that led the Times Square Alliance to proceed with its plan to close Broadway to vehicle traffic between 42nd and 47th streets, converting “the crossroads of the world into a true town square,” Leahy says. The result is a space for pedestrians to participate in all this drama—or sit on the steps and watch it unfold.

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When viewed within its context, left, the TKTS steps blend right in with the brightly lit signs of Times Square.
For those who are sitting on them, right, the steps provide a view down the sweep of Broadway.
Copyright Paul Rivera/Courtesy Perkins Eastman.

In cities where transit infrastructure is newer, public spaces and amenities play a crucial role in attracting new development and investment around that infrastructure. When Perkins Eastman was commissioned to build a station at Target Field in Minneapolis, Principal Peter Cavaluzzi knew there needed to be more than just a train platform and an entry plaza next to the Minnesota Twins’ ballfield. “The design has to extend and enhance what is already there,” he says.

Target Field Station

The lawn and amphitheater provide a gracious connection between the rail station and the baseball stadium. Copyright Morgan Sheff/Courtesy Perkins Eastman

Like every space where people naturally want to converge, “it needs to have edges,” forming a room of sorts where they feel enclosed and safe. At Target Field Station, the stadium and an historic Ford Motor Co. warehouse form high-quality edges, he says.

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The Ford Motor Co. warehouse and Target Field frame the train station and its amphitheater, left, while fans gather on the lawn above to watch the Twins’ games, right. Copyright Morgan Sheff/Courtesy Perkins Eastman

“Then we activated the space with a really inviting green lawn” where people meet for picnics, yoga classes, and games. “We were creating a space that’s welcoming and accommodating to a whole variety of uses,” he explains. Capping it off is a video tower where people can watch the baseball games and movies from the amphitheater and lawn; it resembles a campanile, such as you’d find in an Italian town square, Cavaluzzi says. “It rises up so you can see it in the distance. In all these cases, you’re looking to create the heart of the city.”

In Seattle, the designers at VIA—A Perkins Eastman Studio are implementing planning concepts that originated in densely populated Vancouver, British Columbia, where the company was founded. As urban populations expand and transit lines are built to accommodate them, outer communities are incentivizing developers to build robust town centers near those lines that include public benefits such as open space, bike paths, day care, and affordable housing, says VIA Principal Matthew Roewe. VIA is embarking on a new plan in Federal Way, Washington—which lies north of Tacoma on the way to Seattle. “It’s an in-between place that is just waiting to happen,” Roewe says.

While new light rail is being developed nearby, Roewe, VIA Principal Kokila Lochan, and their team are developing a master plan to replace a defunct shopping mall with a food innovation district, which includes a market hall at the heart of a town square that will anchor six acres of mixed-use redevelopment to bring a town-center feel to a suburb that lacks it. “The effort will be a catalyst to raise the bar for other development sites around it,” Roewe says.


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A new food market hall and town square, sketched above, will replace a defunct shopping mall and parking lot in Federal Way, WA. The sketches below represent the second and third phases of the planned development to come up around it.  They were all used to win the commission during VIA’s interview with the client. Courtesy VIA—A Perkins Eastman Studio.


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Seattle’s metropolitan area is expected to add at least one million people by 2030, according to The Urban Institute, and as these numbers increase near urban centers in the face of climate change, Roewe says it’s critical to continue developing walkable, mixed-use communities near public transit. “There are a million Federal Ways across the country, and we have to urbanize them one at a time to reduce our car dependency.”

Back in DC, The Wharf is expecting its usual July Fourth crowds, where people will bring lawn chairs to sit on District Pier while they listen to music as the fireworks go off. A VIP ticket will get you into the elevated, glass-enclosed Dockmaster Building, which provides the best views up and down the channel. More than a single restaurant, shop, or office in The Wharf’s complex of buildings, these experiential spaces are the ones that will fill memories.  “I see architecture as not just responsible to the owner and the user’s needs. I see it as serving a bigger purpose,” Eckstut says. Whether it’s for one person or one thousand—for huge gatherings or private pursuits, he notes, “Buildings are less important than the public realm. Buildings are a means to a bigger end.”