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Rethinking the future of public space at South Africa’s largest transport node : A new public for Park Station| FUTURE JOBURG




“It is a way of thinking about space in this information age that is inclusive and diverse and space that can change and morph as it is appropriated”

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Julie-Ann Tyler, a Masters of Architecture graduate based her thesis on the notion of creating, “The New Public”. She investigates ways of re-appropriating  Park Station’s public space and developing new functions and uses that support public life.

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Lebo Mokolane (LM) : Your thesis focuses on exploring the notion of ‘The New Public’. After your intense research around Park Station in Johannesburg, how would you now define ‘The New Public’?

Julie-Ann Tyler (JT) : Firstly I should say that my thesis project originated from the idea that, in the 21st century, we no longer view or use public spaces in our city in the same way. So when I started this project my research aim was to determine role of public space and civic architecture in the information age.

As this thesis is grounded in the context Johannesburg, the next level of investigation was on a local scale. Johannesburg brands itself a ‘world-class African city’ and has a vision to be a city that provides real quality of life for all its citizens. However, while this may be the aim of the current spatial policies, this has not always been the case. The city is still plagued by a past based on segregation and inequality, particularly within public space.

Currently our public spaces are governed by by-laws and government improvement policies that often stand in opposition to appropriation and democratic use of public space. Everyday users of inner city public spaces such as pedestrians, public transport users, informal traders and public performers often struggle to appropriate public space as inner city public spaces are synonymous with surveillance, distrust, and a fear of assembly.

Therefore The New public is an idea. It is a way of thinking about space in this information age that is inclusive and diverse and space that can change and morph as it is appropriated.

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(LM) : Could you  explain what the character of the site, Park Station ? Especially since it is the largest transport node in Southern African.

(JT) : It is situated within the heart of the city, and houses multiple public transport facilities that connect users locally, nationally and internationally. If you were to visit the precinct you might experience Gautrain and BRT users rushing to a meeting. Bus and train users waiting to depart and meat traders and taxi users in the bustling long distance taxi rank. However, although this rich diversity of public life exists in this precinct, the best way to describe this precinct is extremely segregated.

There are many factors leading to this including: a lack of quality public space or pedestrian infrastructure, extreme level changes across the precinct and poor urban planning that has led to inaccessible and crime infested spaces. In my opinion however, the biggest problem with the precinct is the attitude towards public space. The ‘no sitting on this low wall’ attitude of the Gautrain northern concourse is vastly contrasted with the bustling markets and inform trade zones in the South of the site, creating a massive divide.

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(LM) : A strong part of your project is dealing directly with this disparate and disconnected transport node. How did you go about tackling this?

(JT) : I feel strongly that a divided public environment is strongly linked to a divided public and quasi-public transport system. In a functioning public environment, public transport plays a vital role in creating inclusive spaces. Beyond planning policy the actual spaces that transport modes inhabit need to promote diversity and have the ability, through pedestrian focus, to create integrated movement networks.

In my project the emphasis is not on rerouting any transport systems, the focus is on the spaces that are associated with the nodes associated with these systems. These public spaces need to be connected physically through pedestrian movement routes but also though planning policies.

The current reality is, there are public transport modes for the rich and there are public transport modes for the poor and no real middle ground. How can we live or work in one city and yet not share public spaces?

I should mention that although my thesis idea stems from an outrage against the separation of ‘publics’, the design is also inspired by Park Station’s massive potential for diversity. My design is therefore addressing this separation that currently exists within the precinct by providing a piece of civic infrastructure which proudly states: we live in one city and therefore we share one space.

This is achieved by creating an integrated passage of pedestrian movement through the park station precinct which links all the transport modes. Within this route opportunities are provided for both formal and informal programmes that facilitate public life. Lastly, a large sloping public square was created which caters to a diversity of public functions including: access to green space, everyday rest spots, public performance spaces as well as large events and exhibitions.

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(LM) : What programmes will be integrated in the building and how were these chosen?

(JT) : Choosing the programme for the building was most properly the toughest part of the design. I aimed to find a programme for the building that fostered public life. I focussed on 5 principles: access to information, public accountability and a platform for interaction. This is achieved by providing a mixed use building containing both public and private interests.

There are three core functions. Firstly, a permit application centre and public open office. This promotes public life by providing a way for traders, performers and other users of the city better access to their public rights, and in some cases their means of income. The second function is a ‘city info center and conference venue’. This allows citizen’s access to the ‘city imaginary’ by providing users with information of the upcoming plans for the city. Lastly the building is an Urban Gallery with both formal and informal exhibition spaces. The exhibition spaces become platforms for local government to display their plans for the inner city. This creates a kind of ‘public accountability’, where Joburgers can have access to information and the right to object to it.

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(LM) : What design elements of the building make the space interesting for users to freely engage with those spaces?

(JT) : The design approach was to create a campus containing a new public space and a hybrid civic building which together allow for spaces that facilitate new forms of public engagement. The aim of this campus is to create public spaces which host many different forms of public life and allow for mixing and exchange.

There were several principles outlined from my urban framework which I used to develop the buildings. These pimples are all aimed at creating pedestrian focused spaces. Firstly, the building is raised above the ground allowing pedestrian movement to happen bellow the building and in that way the building gives the space back to the public realm. The building is also broken up into 3 masses which allows for light to reach the public space bellow.

The materiality of the building was also an important consideration within the design process. The building has three core systems: the three concrete blocks which house the formal programme of the building. The timber walkways bellow these and the steel screens which connect the blocks.

The contrast of these materials shapes the buildings new civic identity. The robustness of the concrete coupled with the lightness of the steel create diversity on the facades of the building. Using timber and lightweight steel for the public aspects helps to create a more tangible and ephemeral public environment.

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(LM) : To what extent have disabled users been considered with regards to accessible design?

(JT) : Above all the design is about people. It is about pedestrians in our city experiencing freedom of movement. It is about users of the city understanding their public rights in order to feel as though they have a place in public space. A core principle of the framework is therefore to address the issues of splintered movement within the precinct by providing new pedestrian entrances across the site.

Disabled access was a key diver when designing the public environment in this project. Although a challenge due to the massive level changes the design is essentially a series of platforms that facilitate the movement across levels, meaning that a precinct once segregated by level changes becomes integrated. This allows for a multitude of new horizontal and vertical movement routes through the site.

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(LM) : Generally some public spaces are not used due perceived levels of low security . How can space be designed in order to combat this, especially in a site such as Park station?

(JT) : In my opinion the most important thing you can do to increase the safety of a public space is to make sure it is active. This means a space which has good sightlines, ‘eyes on the space’ from buildings above, well-lit and most importantly has a diversity of uses.

In my project the public space is a sloping square. However this new space is seen as part of a greater network of public space. It connects not only to Joubet Park but also the Gautrain concourse and therefore becomes important link between two vastly different public spaces.

The square is designed as a multi-use space and is a combination of green space as well as hard surfaces to accommodate a variety of functions: from informal public gatherings to film screenings and major events with up to 10 000 people.

 

 About Julie-Ann Tyler

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I currently work for StudioMAS in the field of Architecture and Urban Design in Johannesburg. I completed my Masters of Architecture degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2015, my thesis is entitled ‘The New Public’ and focuses on the city’s public realm and how this has changed over the last decade. While studying I became a part of the blog Urban Joburg and have since become a co-editor. I have a passion for all things Joburg but especially architecture and urban space. I am particularly interested in, and write about, Johannesburg public space and how it is appropriated by users of the city.


 

Interested in knowing more about public space? Read more:

  1. Hillbrow, a community centre and the future: Interview with Thomas Chapman
  2. Transforming Maitland train station as part of densifying Cape Town
  3. How a building can communicate the spatial and social violence in South Africa

Credits

  1. Image Credits :  Julie-Ann Tyler
  2. Park Station image accessed here