"We wanted to highlight the importance of new activators to the urban fabric that were able to increase access for everyone to participate. Our findings turned out to be quite diverse"
Three times I have had the privilege to engage in intense debates with my colleagues in the Jury of the European Prize for Urban Public Space. We wanted to highlight the importance of new activators to the urban fabric that were able to increase access for everyone to participate. Our findings turned out to be quite diverse. A site-specific Theatre enriched a river crossing in Spanish Ripoll (special mention in 2014). Equally, a square prepared for cultural usage accompanied a new theatre in Rotterdam (special mention in 2010). Two halves of the city of Elx (joint winner in 2014) were linked by bike and pedestrian connections. An unused railway line was transformed into the Helsinki corridor (special mention in 2014). In the Rainham marshes, near London (special mention in 2014), formerly closed areas were made accessible. The riverbanks of Ljubljana (joint winner in 2012) were turned into rest areas of high quality. Often, we found that the car traffic had been successfully reduced to make way for urban public space, thus highlighting central areas of natural beauty such as the Old Port of Marseille (joint winner in 2014) or the Beach of Benidorm (special mention in 2010). An innovative approach for the transformation of streets is the "shared surface" concept, such as London’s Exhibition Road (special mention in 2012). Public spaces often provide additional uses, as in the Open-Air Library created in German Magdeburg (joint winner in 2010). Once we even witnessed the rare event where the new building itself constituted the public space. And what a wonderful one it was: the Opera House in Oslo (joint winner in 2010), with its slanted roof offering a spectacular terrace, which not only won the European Prize for Urban Public Space, but the 2009 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture as well.
European public spaces are very special, evolving from a long tradition of Mediterranean town planning. They are usually not to be found outside of Europe and North Africa, with the exception of those lands where quarters of Europeanness have survived, from Buenos Aires to Singapore, from Boston to Cape Town. They depend on a close knit urban fabric that is not entirely private owned, but relying on public property. The density of habitation must be high, but not so high that all sites are either developed or devoted to infrastructure. Pedestrian and bicycle traffic must be highly valued, while car parking should not play a major role —main reason why there is hardly any chance for good public spaces in a typical US downtown. There should be an awareness on the fact that financial investment into public spaces is of major public interest and not something that should be delegated to private investors. Therefore, shopping malls cannot be considered fully equivalent public spaces —as they are controlled by security and thus they have limited access.
Usually, one would think that the quality of the design and the layout of public spaces should increase when moving from cold Northern localities to sunny Mediterranean communities, where the urban negotiations of the public sphere have been favoured for centuries by the mild climate. On the other hand, the political will to invest into projects and the quality of public administrations to organize the realization seems to be of major importance as well. Otherwise, the results of the statistics in the online archive of the Prize could not be explained. In the eight editions of the award so far, the juries selected a total of 451 interventions. The results of the ranking, including the closer metropolitan areas, are these:
- Spain: 91 works (30 in Barcelona, 10 in Madrid)
- France: 42 works (8 in Paris, 7 in Marseille and 6 in Lyon)
- Germany: 36 works (10 in Berlin and 7 in the former East)
- United Kingdom: 20 works (13 in London)
- Denmark: 12 works (10 in Copenhagen)
- Italy: 11 works (relatively poor result, with no works in Rome or Milan)
- Austria / Belgium / Netherlands: 10 works each (2 in Vienna, 4 in Brussels, 6 in Rotterdam).
One notices the lack of Eastern European countries in the results. We were also irritated by this fact in the Jury meetings, but it does seem to take a longer time for the advancement of public spaces than for single architecture projects to emerge, which has undoubtedly happened. But we do notice a slow improvement, as certain countries are showing results (6 in Croatia, 4 in Romania, 3 in Slovenia). It might be interesting to research deeper into the background.
With the ongoing climate change, there is not only a growing interest into cultivating wine in places unheard of (Ireland, United Kingdom, Scandinavia) but also a general longing by Northerners to create public spaces such as the ones that they appreciate as tourists. This will hopefully result in more interesting interventions coming up from places not yet on the list. Meanwhile, the European capital of public space will surely stay the same: Barcelona —congratulations!