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How Public Spaces Revive Cities




by Jay Walljasper

Read Part 1 here

Gehl ticks off a list of places that have revitalized themselves by creating great public places: Copenhagen, Barcelona, Spain; Vancouver, Canada; Portland, Oregon; Bogota, Colombia; and the small Danish city of Vejle. His definitive book New City Spaces (Danish Architectural Press) , written with partner Lars Gemzoe includes more success stories from Cordoba, Argentina; Melbourne, Australia; Curitiba, Brazil; Freiburg, Germany; and Strasbourg, France.

Source: Public Design Festival

Melbourne made great efforts to keep its streets pedestrian-friendly by widening sidewalks and adding attractive features, which ignited a spectacular increase in people going out in public. Cordoba turned its riverfront into a series of popular parks. Curitiba pioneered an innovative bus rapid transit system that prevented traffic from overwhelming the fast-growing city. Portland put curbs on suburban sprawl and transformed a ho-hum downtown into a bustling urban magnet, starting by demolishing a parking garage to build a town square.

People are not out in public spaces because they have to but because they love to

Barcelona best illustrates the power of public spaces. Once thought of as a dull industrial center, it is now widely celebrated as sophisticated, glamorous places that attract international attention and instill local residents with a sense of pride. Barcelona is now mentioned in the same breath as Paris and Rome as the epitome of a great European city. The heart of Barcelona—and of Barcelona’s revival—is Las Ramblas, a beloved promenade so popular. In the spirit of liberation following the end of the Franco dictatorship, during which time public assembly was severely discouraged, local citizens and officials created new squares and public spaces all across the city and suburbs to heal the scars of political and civic repression. Some of them fit so well with the urban fabric of the old city that visitors often assume they are centuries old.

Source: Public Design Festival

The key to restoring life to our public places—and our communities as a whole—is understanding that most people today have more options than in the past. A trip downtown or to the farmer’s market or the local library is now recreational as much as it is practical—the chance to have fun, hang out with other folks, and enjoy the surroundings.

“People are not out in public spaces because they have to but because they love to,” Gehl explains. “If the place is not appealing they can go elsewhere. That means the quality of public spaces has become very important. There is not a single example of a city that rebuilt its public places with quality that has not seen a renaissance.”

But Gehl, along with Project for Public Spaces (PPS) and other advocates for better community places, do not want to be misunderstood here. When they say “quality” they mean the quality of a public space as a whole, not just the artistic quality of its design.

Source: Public Design Festival

At the same time as many public spaces around the world are deteriorating, there has been something of a boom in lavish new projects masterminded by big-name designers. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, launched the trend, which has been continued by high-profile projects like Rem Koolhaas’s Euralille project in Lille, France, and the new public library in Seattle (also by Koolhaas). While very successful in generating buzz in architectural circles and the media, none of these landmarks of “iconic” architecture stand out as a particularly great spots to hang out and enjoy yourself . The emphasis on aesthetic style too often overshadows the basic function of serving people’s needs.

Aesthetic quality is just one on a list of 12 steps Jan Gehl devised as a guide to evaluating public spaces (see accompanying sidebar), which includes such prosaic but important matters as providing shelter from inclement weather and offering a spot to sit. “There are new building materials today that I think can help us create attractive new public places,” notes PPS’s Kathleen Madden, “but the process of creating great place is just as it’s always been: make a nice place with lots of things for people to do.”

This article originally apepeared at On the Commons magazine on 5 August 2013. Read the full article here