One of the most important aspects of proper placemaking, according to the Project for Public Spaces, is this: “The Community is the Expert.” When the State Street Mall design team asked the public for their suggestions and ideas of how to improve one of Madison’s iconic public spaces, a frequently recurring comment was that Library Mall, devoid of shade or features, feels like a desert for most of the year: hot, bright, and uncomfortable in the summer, bitterly cold and windy in the winter. No small wonder, then, that people rarely bother to linger or gather at or near the fountain. How do we make Library and State Street Mall a year-round destination, in addition to being a pass-through space? One answer: ice skating.
Since Library Mall and State Street were filled with dirt in the mid-1800s, one common and popular winter use was ice skating. Ice skating on the Library Mall has a longstanding UW – Madison tradition, as described in the UW Cultural Landscape Inventory. From about 1910 through the early 1940s, in the winter the Library Mall was often flooded for hockey games and ice skating. In 1954 and during the post-war efforts to redesign the Library Mall, the UW Figure Skating Club wrote to the UW Regents and requested that an outdoor skating rink be included on the Library Mall. The students were so passionate about the skating rink project that they offered to help construct the rink during their Christmas break. Unfortunately, the Regents denied the students’ request for an ice skating rink.
Including a winter ice skating rink in the Library Mall area at minimal cost of installation and maintenance would transform the space into a community destination. It would also extend the public use of the space throughout the winter months. Incorporating a surface-flooded ice skating rink in the Library Mall celebrates the historic significance of this space for wintertime student and community recreation activities.
Other small urban rinks a success
Small urban ice skating rinks are extremely popular in many successful placemaking efforts. In the winter months, Canal Park in Washington, DC converts the gathering area around the summertime interactive water fountain into a skating rink.
Red Arrow Park in Milwaukee is also a small urban rink whose size fits well into the space available for a potential rink in the Library Mall area. Millennium Park in Chicago, though larger than the others, demonstrates the value that an urban ice skating rink can bring for year-round public space uses.
The Library Mall ice skating design should employ a flexible, easy to maintain and Madison time-tested winter surface flooding technique. Unlike the Millennium, Canal and Arrow Park rinks, the Library Mall ice skating rink does not require installation of an expensive underground refrigeration system. In fact, the only costs of a flooded surface rink are water and a drain. Every winter, the Madison Parks Division successfully creates and maintains surface flooded ice skating rinks throughout the Madison parks system. Of the 12 ice rinks maintained and run by the city, nine are surface-flooded. The Library Mall ice skating rink design should utilize our local and historically time-tested surface flooded ice rink technique.
A benefit to food carts
Finally, food cart vendors would invariably sell hot food and drinks to the ice skaters and spectators. While some of Madison’s rinks are equipped with warming huts that offer hot food and snacks to skaters, Library Mall and State Street’s most visible food sources include food carts. Many cart owners and operators asked the city for extended hours and seasons, and an ice rink on Library Mall would provide them with a new market.
Library Mall hasn’t been home to an ice rink for more than sixty years, but we believe it is time to bring ice skating back to the State Street and Library Malls as the space is redesigned and re-envisioned. Installing a surface-flooded rink would require only minor landscaping and the cost of water and would help make this iconic public space into a destination year-round.
Next Great Placemaking Idea: Stay tuned later this week for why the State Street and Library Mall project area could use a great deal more shaded, flexible seating!