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The Great Resurgence of Public Spaces

Here's why we need parks, streetlife, squares, markets, trails, community gardens and other hang outs more than ever.

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“If you asked people twenty years ago why they went to central Copenhagen, they would have said it was to shop,” observes Jan Gehl, sitting in the former navy barracks that houses his “urban quality” consulting firm GehlArchitects. “But if you asked them today, they would say, it was because they wanted to go to town.”

That small change of phrase represents the best hope for the future of public spaces. Historically, Gehl explains, public spaces were central to everyone’s lives. It’s how people traveled about town, where they shopped and socialized. Living in cramped homes, often with no yards, and certainly no cars or refrigerators, they had little choice but to use public spaces. Walking was most people’s way to get around. Urban families depended on markets and shopping districts for the day’s food. Parks were the only place for kids to play or see nature. Squares and churches and taverns were the few spots to meet friends.

But all that changed during the 20th century. Cars took over the streets in industrialized nations (and in wide swaths of the developing world too), putting many more places within easy reach but making walking and biking dangerous. Towns and cities spread out, with many merchants moving to outlying shopping malls. Telephones, refrigerators, television, computers, and suburban homes with big yards transformed our daily lives. People withdrew from the public realm. No longer essential, public spaces were neglected. Many newly constructed communities simply forgot about sidewalks, parks, downtowns, transit, playgrounds, and people’s pleasure in taking a walk and bumping into their neighbors. Today, many folks wonder if public spaces serve any real purpose anymore.

“Some places have gone down the drain and become completely deserted.” Gehl notes, brandishing a photo to prove his point. “See this, it’s a health club in Atlanta, in America. It’s built on top of seven storeys of parking. People there don’t go out on the streets. They even drive their cars to the health club to walk and get exercise.

“But other places have decided to do something about it; They fight back,” he adds, pointing to another photo—a street scene in Norway, where dozens of people are enjoying themselves at an outdoor cafe alongside a sidewalk filled with passersby.

How Public Spaces Revive Cities

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.

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.

Barcelona best illustrates the power of public spaces. Once thought of as dull industrial centers, both are 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.

 
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