Published in the exhibition catalogue The Reconquest of Europe. Urban public space. Barcelona: Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, 1999
Why public space?
A great many events which have characterised life in European cities have taken place in their open spaces. Public space has not been the space in negative of dwellings, but the space in positive of the city. Public space has appeared, it has been created to be the place for assembly, for the market, for the festival, for justice, for theatre, for play, for meeting, for conversation, for religion, for carnival, for music...
The Born square provides a magnificent example of this in both medieval and modern Barcelona. Indeed, the Born was Barcelona's main square. It was here that the nobles held their jousting tournaments and the autos-de-fe took place. The Born was the site of the glass fair, on the first day of the year: a manifestation of civic pride to which the most illustrious foreign visitors were invited. The square itself was also a market place. Thus, nobles and retailers, inquisitors and witches, caparisoned horses, vegetables and pulses succeeded each other in the same urban space, day after day. In short, the Born comprised a vital space which allowed a great number of functions to be performed; a space for all kinds of events and all kinds of inhabitants: the splendid coalescence of the equivalence between city and public space. Without this type of area, if we only had groups of dwellings, we would not be able to speak of cities as such.
The availability of quality public space is one of the varied characteristics with which we have sought to define the city and has always shaped the character of the urban with intensity.
Besides allowing us to fulfil an extensive series of functions, public space, as a place, has had ―and still has today― a symbolic character which is indispensable to urban life. It is a referent in which the inhabitants, on the one hand, recognise themselves as members of a community and encounter and recreate their collective history, and, on the other, are confronted with change and innovation: essential elements in the city.
The public square as a summary, as past, present and future, as pride and symbol of the city. It is this symbolic recognition of a place such as the Born (and the most remarkable public spaces in general), as an essential area of the community, which makes it easier to understand the psychological impact on Barcelona when, following the defeat of 1714, a number of buildings in the square were demolished and the Born was suddenly exposed to the surrounding countryside and the menacing fortress of the Ciutadella. The vandalised Born changed from Barcelona' central urban space par excellence to become the stalls from which people could view the constructed and dramatised scene of a defeat.
All European cities have been positively marked by spaces such as this, which are unificatory and symbolic, efficient representatives ―through the intermediary of space― of the city as a whole. The unificatory character of these central public spaces has been essential to the history of European cities. Nevertheless, public space in general, that is the whole public space, has also fulfilled a great number of functions on another scale, further removed from the global scale of the city and closer to the world of each individual, as a complement to the private space of the dwelling. The street and square have always been the extension of the home, particularly of small homes, of the homes of the most disadvantaged. Public space, to which we are all entitled and have access, restores the balance between economic inequalities. It provides a potential way of redistributing wealth. Thus, the public open space in cities interests us here, mainly as a sphere of action for governments, to which we can apply a policy of interventions which seeks to reduce economic and social inequality and that of quality of life.
Of course, public space is not the only factor which helps to define and improve the three previously mentioned areas in which it plays a basic role: that of the active container of sociability, that of the symbol and unifier of groups and that of corrector of inequalities. In all these cases, even if the intervention in public space is not enough, it is in fact necessary and inevitable.
As far as the last point is concerned, at a time when, directly or indirectly, the welfare state seems to be called into question, it would not be a bad time to call for what many European cities have been trying to achieve for twenty years: to intervene decisively in public space; to invest in what is common to everyone in the city, in order to restore the balance, as far as this is possible, between the existing socio-economic differences.
Of course, the results which can be expected from this policy have a well-defined ceiling and limits. The problems which exist in cities cannot be tackled in depth only by interventions which will improve public space. We cannot expect this of these interventions. In some cases, this limit, which points out what can really be achieved through an intervention in public space, becomes apparent in a dramatic way. If the social conditions of the urban weave in which the project is carried out are particularly hard, the improvement of public space will be proportionally insignificant. It may even appear incidental.
If the economic conditions of the population in the sector involved in the project are more favourable, the improvement in the public space is more in proportion and may even take priority. In any case, it is precisely in these disadvantaged physical and social spaces where these investments in the improvement of public space are necessary, even though it is quite clear, in some cases, that they are totally inadequate.
The improvement of public space is, first and foremost, one of the few courses available to local governments in order to bring about effective improvements in the living conditions of the most disadvantaged sectors of the population.
As far as being a receptacle for sociability is concerned ―at a time when it seems that there is a tendency to stress the fact that communication, information and exchange increasingly involve the creation of telematic social spaces― it is appropriate to remember and demand that public space continues to be a physical as well as social space, in which communication and exchange can continue to occur. Furthermore, it is a good time to state that quite a few of the potential forms of communication can only take place in urban public space: some of these are associated with collective expression, with contact, with speaking to each other, of being and feeling things together, of seeing and touching, of remembering and imagining... There can be no doubt that neither the praise nor the undeniable virtues of the telepolis, nor the commonplace, uniform and commercialised attraction of the new spaces of exchange ―the great consumer and leisure hypercentre-containers― will be able to replace the potential of the street and square. In any case, it is the sum total of the capacities of sociability and solidarity, on the one hand, and the democratic penetration of telecommunications in society, on the other ―seen in terms of what the square and Internet mean― which will define a sustainable future.
If we then acknowledge the importance of public space in European cities, we will have to move immediately from interest to concern. An element as important as this, which unifies urban social life, has been under almost constant attack throughout the continent. The aim of this exhibition is to acknowledge, in a positive yet vindicative way, the efforts being made in Europe since the beginning of the eighties in order to regain public urban open spaces. This recovery of public spaces seeks to re-encounter everything which has always defined European cities and therefore aspires to reconquer cities, which, on a continent created by its urbs, is almost equivalent to reconquering Europe.
In order to fulfil its aim, the exhibition brings together a group of objects which allow a sequence of linked chronological and thematic reflections. The situation used as a starting point is illustrated by the films of convivial urban spaces in a number of European cities, made by the Brothers Lumière in 1897, which contrast with the apparent urban chaos which can be perceived in the still images of urban spaces at the end of the 19th century.
Afterwards, the extraordinary document by Gaumont, filmed in the twenties, illustrates ―between the comic and the dramatic― the starting point of the change in the concept and use of urban space due to the increasing dominance of the car.
There follows a series of photo triptychs from 1910, 1970 and 1990, contrasting the work of Alain Blondel and Laurent Sully Jaulmes, which put on record the inexorable urban transformation associated with mobility, and lastly, a carefully chosen selection of European projects carried out between 1980 and 1989 (which are extensively supplemented by the collection of the Documentation Centre of the CCCB) shows the work carried out in a number of European countries in order to improve the quality of urban public space.
Public spaces in the cities of the brothers Lumière
The principal late-nineteenth-century metropolises deployed all the features of modernity within their reach in their central spaces, creating a series of relatively uniform quality landscapes.
This uniformity was partly the result of the regulation of the basic components of the street, the square and boulevards, of the deployment of basic technical networks and urban facilities which would, in the end, distinguish metropolitan cities from pre-industrial ones. Nevertheless, the quality and uniformity of these landscapes also responded to a cultural desire: it was a question of equipping an urban space which believed it was invaded by the public; an inhabited space, of sociability which was furnished almost like an interior. A place where a broad coexistence of uses had to be possible, which would give support to general mobility in the city and, at the same time, allow it to be occupied and enjoyed as a shared space for relationship.
This production of new public space assumed spectacular proportions in Europe and left an enduring legacy.
Indeed, in the second half of the 19th century, the creation of the railway network, the consolidation of the Industrial Revolution and the increase in population in cities brought about a change in the scale of production of urban space. Although this phenomenon was widespread, in a number of cities, such as Paris, Barcelona and Vienna, this new production was particularly important and also involved the application of global models for creating space.
In Paris, Haussmann ―following what the engineers had done on land with the railway lines in order to optimise mobility and allow access to all areas of the country― justified the creation of boulevards in the old urban fabric with the creation of a new city of movement in which mobility became the essential element, and in which sanitation, fostered by the creation of spaces which were less dense, also took priority.
However, these urban spaces were not just the result of the percées, of the straight line, of accessibility, of sanitation, of the eclectic architecture which bounded them, of the change in urban scale. An indissoluble part of this landscape were the technical and functional ―and sensorial and aesthetic― elements which equipped it, furnished it and made it human. They made possible the creation of a proximity scale which engaged in a dialogue with the new, anonymous and cosmopolitan metropolitan scale, where connection, accessibility and mobility were determining factors; technical and functional elements which were introduced as part of a framework with globally established guidelines in which at least three elements were essential: a concave section in the street which would solve the problem of collecting rainwater, which would give priority to wide pavements for pedestrians and would allow the ways of moving around to be separated; the systematic incorporation of rows of trees in the streets, which served to improve their appearance and hygienic conditions; the large-scale use of public lighting which emphasised, like the trees, the straight lines of the streets and made public space safer.
The elements of street furniture which were solid, produced in sets, and adaptable, were introduced into this systematised space and helped shape a new framework for city life, which was efficient from the point of view of hygiene and mobility and that of sociability and the diversified use of public space.
In short, new urban spaces in the second half of the 19th century functioned as a technical macrosystem which drew together all the innovations of modernity but also fulfilled the requisites of a new sociability.
The two functions turned out to be compatible. The street of the ancien régime was, above all, the space of exchange and sociability; mobility was scarce. During the second half of the 19th century, public space was conceived and measured in order to make compatible the uses of mobility, leaving sociability with practically no options.
In the cities of the second half of the 19th century, the beneficial use of proximity scales depended on two essential factors: the low average speed of moving objects which had the right to use urban space; and the moderate levels of occupation of public space by the engines of mobility.
If we take into account what the spaces of 1900 were like, they functioned considerably well, with the dimensions and aims they had been created with. The total quantity of moving objects and their average speed were contained within limits which made it possible to use public space in a variety of ways.
The writings of Ildefons Cerdà do not cease to voice a concern for the above-mentioned dual function of urban space. In fact, Cerdà writes: "What place, what location, what means will abandon itself to transverse motion in the middle of the street? [...] The residents who need to go from one pavement to another will be mercilessly condemned to crossing the street whilst having to deal with [...] the dangers of traffic moving lengthways [...]." And after acknowledging this problem, Cerdà wonders "[...] by what means can or should the street provide other services which residents, on the one hand, and pedestrians, on the other, demand of it, without ceasing to be a road or public thoroughfare, and without being detrimental to the services it should provide as such, whilst responding, at the same time, to the demands of locomotion and the social and urban body." The engineer even affirms the priority of all things unrelated to highway administration: "[...] the street, without losing its character of a road, is largely, and more immediately, destined to provide ―and it really does provide― an endless series of services which are all of equal importance to the existing neighbourhood [...]." The space for pedestrians must, therefore, be dealt with in a balanced way from a quantitative point of view: "With regard to the width of the series of belts or areas intended for pedestrian use, and after giving great thought to the question, the fact is that under no circumstances should it be less than that apportioned to the movement of horses or vehicles." But Cerdà goes even further and does not only concern himself with the amount of space allotted to sociability, but also with its quality and precise location. Quite significantly, it is precisely at the intersections of the network ―a particularly unusual and difficult space when it comes to resolving the movement of mobile objects― where Cerdà locates the spaces which have to contain an important series of functions and services for pedestrians: "These surfaces, which remain empty at each intersection and seem to have no objective, after they have fully met the demands of mobility, provide the street sellers of food and other everyday household items with suitable spaces where they can carry out their extremely useful trade [...]."
Regardless of the concrete physical solutions chosen by Cerdà, which were implemented for a time in Barcelona (such as, for instance, the clever and original solution of intersections, which allowed pedestrians to move in a straight line without them having to cover a greater a distance at each intersection), what is certain is that the essential feature of urban spaces at the end of the 19th century ―which the Lumière Brothers captured admirably― was the maintenance of limits in speed and density of vehicles. Cerdà envisaged specific crossings for pedestrians in his project, in order to give them greater safety when crossing the road. However, the Lumières' pictures show that in 1900 this was still, in fact, unnecessary.
In this sense, the still images of the postcards of the time could lead us to be mistaken. They seem to show considerably dense and chaotic traffic. However, if we add the images obtained from analysing the movements in the Lumières' films to the information provided by the still images, we would then see that the supposed chaos does not exist or that it is, in any case, a friendly chaos.
Vehicles and pedestrians coexist without conflict in their common spaces. Pedestrians cross the streets in every direction, without following specific, compulsory routes. They do so without hurrying, without paying too much attention to the vehicles passing by, even reading as they cross the street. The speed and the number of vehicles were sufficiently low to allow coexistence between the different uses of public space.
Against public space in the city
Since before the First World War, a number of signs heralded the end of the way in which public urban space had been produced in the second half of the 19th century. The first International Congresses of the Road drew up rules which aimed to guarantee safety and, above all, smoothly flowing vehicular traffic. Everything began to be considered, first and foremost, with the car and driver in mind. Thus, a change occurred in the relationship between pavement and roadway, and speed became really important, considered as a positive value in itself, regardless of any other variable. It was as if it didn't affect pavement and roadway. The statements made at these forums follow this line of thought and introduce the ideology which inexorably links progress with the car, and which justifies it in order to favour an element which is considered a priority: "l'apanage essentiel de l'automobile est la vitesse, et lui interdire trop vigoureusement la pratique constitue une régression dans la voie de ce que la plupart de nos contemporains regardent à tort ou à raison comme le progrès" Speed is the essential prerogative of the car, and preventing it from practising it too vigorously is a regression to a way which most of our contemporaries view, rightly or wrongly, as progress.
Thus, inexorably and with conviction, the public thoroughfare, as the 19th century had conceived it, lost its multifunctional character.
It had served to distribute public services and to facilitate a new dimension of sociability: a modern and cosmopolitan dimension. By reducing its capacities to the dimension of mobility, the street became a road and relinquished its vocation as a public space which, no matter how much it continued to exist in its material form, disappeared as such from the point of view of its use.
A true revolution was taking place, behind this transformation, in the way of using the city and in the mind of its users. Something which did not exist was gradually introduced as natural and necessary: the priority of vehicles over pedestrians. The inhabitants were reduced ―when using public space― to pedestrians, that is people making their way along a thoroughfare.
The superb filmed document by Gaumont shows the forced and intensive learning process of inhabitants who have become pedestrians. It shows the early days of the new species, the pedestrian, forced to walk in demarcated spaces, on the pretext of preserving their safety, but with the real aim of facilitating rapid movement of vehicles. This educational endeavour, which instilled in every citizen his inferiority to the car, created a new man in a new town. Once the necessary preparations had been made for the invasion of the city by the car, there would be a subsequent progression ―relentlessly and without ideological conflict― towards levels of improvement of a model which had sought, for decades, to adapt the city to vehicles and maximise their speed, instead of reflecting on the most suitable mobility to be developed in cities.
An exceptional series of documents, created specifically for the exhibition, allows us to follow, in a specific case ―that of the greater Paris area― the development of urban spaces in their journey towards the loss of functional capacities and diversity. Alain Blondel and Laurent Sully Jaulmes have compared postcards depicting a series of characteristic Parisian urban spaces, taken in around 1910, with their own photographs, of the same spaces, take in two phases: one around 1970 and the other around 1990.
The first thing worth noting in this comparison is the deterioration of the physical setting of the public space. The second is the conversion of a number of old urban centres, characteristic to Paris, into a true and homogenous urban periphery; its series of relatively autonomous towns, with a multiplicity of functions, into dormitory suburbs. The third subject to be considered is the emptying of public space, and this is the question we seek to highlight here.
In fact, we can see that in 1970 the number of people in the street was four times fewer than in 1910. We can also see, perhaps more surprisingly, that in 1990 there were less than half the people there were in 1970. A new emptying of the street has occurred, parallel to the improvement of technical elements associated with road traffic.
We should bear in mind, of course, that in the spaces of 1910 more people were prepared to have their photograph taken (a novelty which subsequently would attract nobody), and there were more women and children. It can be said that the occupation of the street by children was partly associated with low levels of school attendance, but we should also mention the school overalls worn by some of the children photographed. This is what is surprising in another case: that of the Gran Via in Barcelona, which seems to have been turned into a school playground in a thought-provoking image from the end of the 19th century. It could be said that, at the time, women were obviously not fully incorporated into the world of employment, and had a more prominent presence in public spaces. It is also true that women and children were also able to occupy the street, because the motorisation level was low, and public spaces still offered many possibilities for socialisation, relationship and activity. In 1990, however, the photographers who worked in these areas only obtained subjects for their photographs if they stopped moving vehicles and asked the motorists to get out.
The last transformation, which took place between 1970 and 1990, must be emphasised. At the same time as the urban reconquest of many European cities was taking place, a counter-movement emerged which insisted on negating public space as a place for sociability. At the same time, as we will see, many cities were carrying out exemplary interventions in the reconquest of public space. In other places, decisive steps were still being taken to improve the street as a roadway (with the systematic use of elements such as metal strips, which protect a non-existent pedestrian and benefit a car which travels at ever increasing speeds) and to empty public space, through its desertification by eliminating functions and inhabitants.
In favour of the city
Since the Second World War, public space in European cities has been left to its fate and treated as a residual space in which no interventions were carried out or investments made. Predominant factors have been the need to find room for a large population of incomers, facilities given to property speculation, the separation of functions in the urban weave as the misunderstood legacy of the postulates of the modern movement... together with the prominence assigned to private transport, as if it had been given carte blanche. Public space has gradually lost its capacity to act in the ways mentioned above, to strengthen collective imagery, to redress the balance of inequalities, and to receive and foster communication and exchange.
Since the 1980s people have fortunately become aware of this deficiency; the illness has been diagnosed and actions have been undertaken to correct the state of things. These actions seek to stop the invasion of the car, foster public transport and favour pedestrians and cyclists, reclaim obsolete industrial, harbour or railway sites, create new parks and improve the public open spaces in housing developments...
This process of reconquering public space has tended to become widespread and can be considered a defining element of our time. This is what now appears as significant, more so than the power of any city which has been converted into a model one. There can be no doubt that Barcelona and, to a lesser extent, although with great interest and vigour, Lyons, have become the exemplary conceptual locomotives which have gone ahead with the recovery of public space in an intelligent way. What really stands out today, despite the fact that mistakes are still being made, is the considerable spread of the phenomenon of urban regeneration. The recovery of public space in European cities is not done because shining examples, such as Barcelona and others, have created the need for renewal in other places, but because the neglect of public space was so great, because the situation was bad enough for many cities to feel that they had to intervene. It is precisely in this historical context that the Barcelona model has been extraordinarily timely, exemplary and useful.
At this point, the exhibition chooses a series of projects which illustrate the efforts mentioned above. It groups them, in part, according to the problem to be solved by each intervention and, in part, according to the growing complexity of problems and the need for an increasingly complex and globalising approach.
In some of the cases chosen, in a space which can be categorised as a historic centre, attempts were made to improve urban conditions in initial situations which were not extremely serious: the refurbishment of the seafront at Le Havre or Ole Bulls Plass in Bergen. In others, the invasion of the car had created more serious situations, such as the case of the Piazza del Palazzo di Città in Turin or the historic centre of Oviedo. In a third group, this situation made it necessary to reflect on the need for more radical systems in order to address the problem: in Paris, the abandonment of Montorgueil, a district in the centre of Paris, led politicians to try to find a global solution for the whole district, which would restrict vehicular access and create a true pedestrian island of intermediate size. In Lyons, a long section of the Rue de la République has re-encountered a series of equilibriums which bear an extraordinary resemblance to those of the European cities at the end of the 19th century. In this case, the mobility of pedestrians and buses has been boosted, and access to private vehicles restricted: they can only cross the avenue perpendicularly. Cleverly, the presence of the car is not eliminated, but lanes are kept for private vehicles which coexist with wide pavements which have been re-evaluated. In this way, the Rue de la République has become a public space which can be lived in, where the inhabitants cross the road from wherever they want, without restrictions, enjoying the fact that the average speed of vehicles is very low and that an urban culture of respect for the uses of public space has been reinstated: uses different to those of driving around in a motorised vehicle. This is an excellent example in order to understand that the demands to regain some of the equilibriums which existed in European cities in 1900 are not just cases of foolish nostalgia, but a necessary attitude in search of a possible result.
If we go even further beyond these intermediate-scale considerations and interventions ―such as those in Paris or Lyons― this leads us inevitably to consider the problems of urban mobility as a whole; to seek to redress the balance, throughout the city, between the amount of private and public transport; and to find a new approach to the relationship between centre and periphery linked to questions of mobility. This is the case of Strasbourg and Nantes, cities in which the impetus given to public transport, and the choice of the tram as the linchpin of the policy of mobility, have not only made it possible to improve traffic conditions and accessibility to the centre from the periphery, but also to show the tram as a means of transport which can co-exist and has a great capacity to generate the redevelopment and the creation of public spaces which have a great capacity to contain sociability.
Giving an impulse to public transport can also foster solutions in metropolitan areas. Another intelligent commitment to the tram, consisting of its recovery following its absurd and radical elimination during the difficult preceding period― has occurred in the sector of the Parisian metropolis between Saint-Denis and Bobigny. Transverse mobility has been boosted here, between a number of points outside the centre of the great metropolis, and environmental conditions have been improved in an area which, until the time of the project, lacked character in its public spaces.
Other dysfunctions needed, and will need to be corrected, besides the damage inflicted on the urban weave by the car. Dysfunctions which do not just stem from all things related to private mobility, but are linked to the obsolescence of urban infrastructures (slaughterhouses, railway facilities, major industries...), to the new relationships ―which are now feasible― between cities and their ports, to the possibility of refurbishing dilapidated green zones...
The Parc de La Villete in Paris, is the obligatory point of reference, from a historical point of view, amongst those interventions based on the recovery of an urban site formerly occupied by large-scale infrastructures and now used as an open space and for public amenities. The Parc de Vallparadís in Terrassa is, in turn, an excellent example of how a functionally peripheral, yet geometrically central, space can become a prominent public space, capable of reorganising the town centre and providing it with functions characteristic of a city park. The recovery of the old railway site in Madrid which has led to the creation of the Pasillo Verde (green corridor) is a similar case, in so far as it represents the rediscovery of a space with the potential for centrality. The urban "wound" left by the railway line (a peripheral space, uneven terrain which had to be dealt with, urban barrier) has been cleaned up and stitched back together and links up sectors of the city which were previously disconnected, and creates ―in this case as well― a park with basic and essential functions in its urban setting.
The redevelopment of the seafront in Vigo, with its new tunnel which has removed vehicles totally from the surface and reclaimed a prime public space overlooking the port, is an example of interventions which try to establish new relationships between cities and their waterfronts: interventions which are usually carried out due to the obsolescence of old harbour facilities, but can go beyond the automatic recovery of spaces ―which is sometimes merely speculative― and add a firm desire to re-establish the balance between public space for pedestrians and rapid roadways for cars, with their sights set on the creation of urban places which are really useful to the community.
The same choice has been made and defended in the case of the waterfront of the Rhine in Düsseldorf. In this case, the rapid roadway has also been rerouted via a tunnel, and this has created a high-quality urban space, in a matchless location, set out on two levels: the lower one more closely linked to the river, and the upper one which extends and enriches the activity of the neighbouring streets.
For decades, the Avinguda de la Meridiana in Barcelona was a rapid roadway which formed a genuine urban barrier right in the centre of a heavily built-up district. Its reconversion into a possibilistic and effective boulevard reveals the limits ―which are often inevitable― in eliminating the mistakes of the past. In turn, Barcelona's first ring road took the policy of favouring the rapid and large-scale movement of vehicles to its extreme conclusion, to the detriment of the urban weave they passed through. In this case, a number of depressed sections of road were established, and the barriers created, combined with the literally unbearable noise, caused by maximum speeds, which although they didn't feature in the economic and traffic figures, involved an excessive social cost. The covering over of one of the depressed sections of road is an extraordinary example, in the sense of recomposing a decent urban situation and the creation of a new public space ―in this case a high quality one― capable of becoming a genuine rambla or boulevard and becoming a landmark in the sector.
The function of public space as an essential and vital complement to the private space of the home, mentioned above, is clearly seen in housing developments. The planning proposals of the modern movement were clearly distorted when it came to creating these groups of dwellings. In fact they were used in many cases as an excuse to create dormitory suburbs based, in planning terms, on the advantages of isolated blocks, but where public space was completely abandoned (without the medium of the traditional structure of the street it had to be developed on available surfaces). The spaces between the blocks were often merely interstitial, peripheral spaces, a negative of the surfaces to be used for housing. It was in these cases where, because of the usually low-quality rooms, the careful treatment of public space was more vital. After the end of the large-scale influxes of incomers and after protracted struggles for vindication, the inhabitants of these districts and the municipal councils which were most closely involved, are finally managing to intervene in public spaces, in many European towns, creating green areas, children's play areas, meeting places... and endowing each district with its own personality which large-scale developments had denied them.
In Berlin, Lyons, Marseilles and Barcelona there are plenty of examples which have followed this pattern. In some cases, such as the Prainet district in Décines, in the built-up urban area of Lyons, where the social conditions were less difficult than in neighbouring districts, the intervention in public spaces has been most effective and of sufficient scope to cater for the needs of the district's inhabitants. The intervention, which was carefully considered and sensitive to the demands of the residents, has not only provided them with spaces where they can develop sociability, but has also created a central place in the district, a centrifugal space between the blocks with the capacity to become the square in Prainet. The participation of the residents in the exemplary conservation of the entire project, shows to what extent the previous involvement of the residents is necessary when it is being developed and decisions are taken, if the collective appropriation and respect for the element transformed is to be achieved.
The capacities of the intervention in public spaces to equip peripheral metropolitan sectors with functional and symbolic contents are quite clear in the cases of the renovation or creation of parks. On the one hand, small-scale interventions are carried out which, when added to each metropolitan territory as a whole, manage to establish a true green system which orders and defines these spaces: this is the case of the extensive series of parks fostered by the Àrea Metropolitana de Barcelona. On the other hand, extensive surfaces are protected and re-evaluated; they are treated as genuine natural reserves but also as new public spaces which belong to the public.
Indeed, in these cases, the function, as a symbolic referent, of extensive areas separate from urban centres, which need recognisable new urban space, is added to that of safeguarding natural systems and the more directly utilitarian functions of public space. With the progressive loss of the city limits, and the extensive removal of spaces between municipalities, it is a question of recovering or creating ―more and more frantically― new parks, of different sizes, in the gaps left by growth and major infrastructures: green areas with amenities which can take on the role of metropolitan parks.
Regardless of the quality levels used in the development of these parks (for instance, it would be hard to compare the Parque del Campo de las Naciones with the magnificent Parc de Villepinte), it is important to stress what these interventions entail from the viewpoint of sustainability of land and applying restrictions to wasting that scarce commodity: land. In this respect, the most interesting and radical case is provided by the Duisburg-North Park. In fact, this intervention is linked to the most radical policies associated with the concept of sustainability. This project in the Duisburg park is part of an ongoing territorial policy in the heavily polluted and obsolete industrial zone of the Ruhr, which seeks to reclaim the area, without building on new plots of land, and to regenerate, through new uses, old areas which have already been built on and where attempts are being made gradually to eliminate levels of pollution. Here, the concept of sustainability is put into practice, firstly, by completely avoiding building on more virgin land, and, secondly, by converting some of the obsolete industrial structures into amenities and public spaces.
The Duisburg Park is a prime example of this kind of intervention. It is, in fact, a difficult and brave choice, which converts the old blast furnaces and the Thyssen mine into a large-scale metropolitan park. In order to achieve this, the eradication of high pollution levels on the land and in the underground water system is considered a necessity and will take an extremely long time. It will be twenty years before the park reaches an advanced stage of development. Furthermore, the factors of sustainability were highlighted in the opening up of the park to the initiatives of civilian society, which are significantly enriching the functional capacities of the whole site. At the same time, the symbolic and central values of this major new metropolitan facility have been strengthened by the decision to preserve the massive structures of the blast furnaces, which predominate visually on the landscape of an area with poor connections with the urban centres and which, until now, had been deprived of powerful collective referents.
As this choice of examples bears out, the re-evaluation of public space which is taking place in European cities seeks to do much more than just recover the city's open spaces in an aesthetic sense. The difficulties of these interventions are made clear when we study them in detail. Interventions in cities have high levels of irreversibility. Going back, or correcting the mistakes of the past is extremely difficult, and on many occasions impossible. The fact is correctional interventions are always costly.
The compromise between the ideal intervention and the possible intervention always takes precedence. The same thing happens with the steps taken to apply the concept of sustainability. On the one hand, we have the model which guides the philosophy of the intervention, which we must tend towards, and on the other, the reality and the urgent problems to be solved. It is quite clear, for instance, that it is not easy to deal completely with the problem of road traffic: a key issue which is absolutely central to every policy of the recovery of urban space based on the concept of sustainability. The progress being made in this sense, such as the slow redress of the balance in favour of public transport, takes its time and, meanwhile, pressing urban interventions, which will improve living conditions in the city's most severely affected areas, have to be carried out.
From the strict viewpoint of sustainability, the covering of a partially sunken, rapid roadway ―as is the case in Barcelona― to regain the land for a public space where people can walk, and to cut out noise, is not quite the optimum solution. This would also happen in a more widespread intervention in the city, which would seek to decrease, very slightly, road traffic, by implementing schemes which will foster public transport and, eventually, give priority to proximity over mobility. However, when faced with problems which require urgent solutions, an intervention such as the one mentioned is a good example of an intelligent compromise. In this sense, although the compromise and half-realised solutions are sometimes inevitable, the best initiatives will be the more flexible ones, which can be improved at a reasonable cost: those which opt for interventions which, without looking backwards and moving instead towards the sustainability of cities, will condition the future as little possible.
5 December 2003