multimedia-frontend Portlet

19 March 2004

Winning Back the Public Spaces

The Reconquest of Europe

"The Reconquest of Europe-Urban Public Spaces 1980-1999" was the title for an extensive exhibition presented in Barcelona in the spring of 1999. This exhibition aimed at giving an overview of the developments concerning public spaces, which had taken place in the European cities in the past two decades. After years of pressure from especially automobile traffic, the exhibition celebrated the new trend towards winning back the Public Spaces, which in the period 1980 to 1999 has become widespread in Europe. A similar line of argument has been taken up in the book Nuevos espacios urbanos by Jan Gehl & Lars Gemzøe in the opening chapter on "Winning back Public Space" and is the reference for the following text.

 Three traditional functions of public space: a meeting place, marketplace and access/traffic space

Looking back into the history of cities, public spaces have traditionally had three important functions in relation to the life of the cities. The public spaces functioned as a meeting place, marketplace and connection /traffic space. People were talking, exchanging merchandise or moving about. All functions were vital, and in traditional cities, these three functions occurred side by side in the same spaces in a fine balance.

In recent years we have seen how this balance in many cities has been greatly upset by a number of factors especially the expansion of car traffic.

 A physical dimension:  Invaded, abandoned and reconquered cities

Different cities have applied very different policies concerning people activities in the city centers and the design concepts for their public spaces.

A number of cities with very different policies concerning public spaces will be examined.

 *"The Invaded City" refers to the numerous cities which over the years have been inundated with car traffic to such an extent that the pedestrians and the public life have almost been squeezed out. (Examples: Naples, Madrid, and London)

 *"The Abandoned City" refers to cities where walking and public life has become completely phased out. Many cities in North American are by now in a situation where public life is non-existent.

*"The Reconquered City" refers to cities, which during the past 3-4 decades have striven to achieve a better balance between traffic, market and meeting place issues. (Examples: Barcelona, Strasbourg, Lyon, Freiburg and Copenhagen in Europe, and from other continents cities such as Portland [USA], Curitiba [Brazil] & Melbourne). In many of these cities can be found an impressive increase in the volumes of people activities in the improved public spaces.

 A social dimension:  Changing street life in a changing society

In the reconquered cities and public spaces can be found a public life dramatically different from the activities, which could find room in the invaded cities. In the automobile occupied spaces, only the most necessary activities were found. In the reconquered spaces a much wider and joyful array of human activities can be found. This is quite understandable because there are better opportunities and more room for people now.

If however the activities in the cities are seen over a longer period, a distinct change in the character of city activities becomes clear.

Four illustrations from the Main Street of Copenhagen illustrate this point.

 - 1880. The Street as predominately a workplace; most people seen are working, transporting goods, or selling things.

 - 1955. The Street as predominantly traffic place; pedestrians are squeezed into the narrow sidewalks where only walking is possible.

 - 1968. The Street as predominantly shopping mall; the street is now pedestrianized (since 1962) following a basic concept of providing better conditions for the customers. Street life is dominated by this concept. People are shopping and window-shopping.

 - 1995. A Street where urban recreation plays an ever-increasing role; the City has more and more become a place for leisure, recreation and entertainment. These activities are present side by side with the traditional activities of working, transport and shopping.

 1900 to 2000: from a public life you were forced to participate in, to a public life you can choose to participate in (from necessary to optional public life)

Taking a closer look at present day life in public spaces it becomes evident that most of the activities seen today have an optional character. In the old days ―as seen in the medieval times or in less developed economies― most people on the streets and squares are present because they are forced to use these spaces. They hardly have any choice.

In the present day situation, nearly all the activities seen in public spaces are free-of-choice activities. People do not have to walk; they can use cars and other means of transport. People do not have to shop in the streets; there are many other options. People do not have to meet and socialize in the public spaces; many other possibilities are offered. People do not have to use urban public spaces for recreation; there are private gardens and parks, amusement centers, beaches, landscapes and rural areas a.s.o.

When people use the cities today it is not because they have to, but because they like to. The public spaces can offer something attractive and meaningful to the citizens ― if not they would not come.

 Invitations to the City / the Public Spaces.  

This important change in the character of life in present day public spaces underlines the importance of creating high quality spaces, which in a convincing way invites the citizens to come and to participate. The demand for good quality public space design is becoming increasingly more important.

When this demand is not met, people will not come. This can be seen in many sterile and uninteresting new towns, in shiny office parks and certainly also in public spaces created primarily with aesthetic concerns and few concerns for the invitation and comfort of the visitors. These spaces tend to become deserted, show pieces only.

A careful approach to a people oriented design is needed. However when the design is carefully done, when the essential basic qualities are met it can be found that the citizens respond very eagerly. Good public spaces are almost universally also very loved and well used public spaces.

Many examples can illustrate this connection between quality offered and impressive public response.

The sidewalks on Champs Elysées in Paris have been widened from 12 to 24 meters on each side of the Boulevard and refurnished, resulting in a marked increase in the use of the Boulevard.

In Denmark, the city of Aarhus has opened up its city-river, which was covered in the 1960´s to make room for a traffic street. The result is one of the most attractive, populated (and economically viable) spaces in the Kingdom.

And one of the more impressive examples is found in the city of Copenhagen where in a gradual process over 40 years the streets and squares of the central city have been freed of traffic and upgraded concerning the quality offered for people activities. In 1962 there were 15.00 square meters set aside for people. By 2003 the area available as good quality public space is 100.000 square meters.

In this city have been documented that life in the public spaces has increased by a factor of 4 from 1968 to 1995. The more space and the better quality the more people can be found to choose to walk, to stand, to sit, to enjoy.

Improving conditions for life in the city

Though it can be found that the quality of public spaces plays a dominant role for the character and the volume of walking and other people activities, the methods for securing a good quality are generally very poorly developed. A much better effort must be called for.

A two-step plan can be suggested.

On a city level, much better information about the quality and the use of the public spaces must be collected. "Public-Space ― Public Life" Surveys as the ones carried out in Copenhagen over 35 years can be recommended. They are simple and cheap to conduct and give an overview concerning how the city is used, how the use is changing over time, and where improvements are called for (and provides feedback concerning previous improvements).

Nearly all cities have a traffic department that collects data about the traffic, makes policies and models for the future and generally makes sure that the traffic of cars is very visible in the city planning process.

It is about time that every city has people, who systematically look after the pedestrians, the public life and the public spaces, collect data regularly, provide policies and make sure that the life of the city becomes equally visible.

On a more detailed design level, each individual public space must be designed and furnished very carefully following a number of very simple keywords, which ensures that the spaces become comfortable and inviting.

 We need the city as a meeting place

With regular intervals, the viewpoint is put forward that public space and public life is redundant in our modern time and age. The electronic global village, e-mail, Internet and contemporary means of communication bring modern day people in contact with each other. There is no need for the city as meeting place any more it is suggested.

These theories correspond very poorly with the actual findings from all over the World.

Wherever good public spaces have been provided public life has been found to increase markedly underlining that the meeting in the public space also today is very attractive and needed in the modern, electronic society. One may even suggest that the growth in the indirect communication and the simultaneous increases in the activity levels in the (good quality) public spaces could be linked to each other.

Broadly speaking two opposite directions in city planning can presently be identified. In some cities (most frequently seen in North America) walking and public life are disappearing, emphasizing that life conditions are becoming more and more privatized: private homes, -cars, -work places, -IT-communication and privatized and highly controlled shopping environments.

In other cities, public life is being carefully supported ―by introduction of good pedestrian environments― in order to supplement the private life spheres with a well functioning public domain offering a wide range of attractive public activities.

The fact that people ―in all parts of the world― respond enthusiastically to these new opportunities for partaking in public life in public spaces, underlines that public spaces where people can meet are an important asset in the present day society.

And possibly more so than 20, 30 or 50 years ago.

In a world being steadily privatized the public spaces are gaining in importance, but also being more demanding to design because life in the public domain is optional and not ―as it used to be― a necessity.



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