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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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Opponents of Copenhagen’s first pedestrian street warned that people would abandon the area if cars were removed; now it’s the pulsing heart of the city.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Gehl Architects

 

 

It’s a dark and wintry night in Copenhagen, and the streets are bustling. The temperature stands above freezing, but winds blow hard enough to knock down a good share of the bicycles parked all around. Scandinavians are notorious for their stolid reserve, but it’s all smiles and animated conversation here as people of many ages and affiliations stroll through the city center on a Thursday evening.

A knot of teenage boys, each outfitted with a slice of pizza, swagger down the main pedestrian street. Older women discreetly inspect shop windows for the coming spring fashions. An accomplished balalaika player draws a small crowd in a square as he jams with a very amateur guitarist. Earnest young people collect money for UNICEF relief efforts. Two African men pass by, pushing a piano. Candlelit restaurants and cafes beckon everyone inside.

“Cultures and climates differ all over the world,” notes architect  Jan Gehl , “but people are the same. They will gather in public if you give them a good place to do it.”

Gehl, an urban design professor emeritus at the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts and international consultant, has charted the progress of Copenhagen’s central pedestrian district since it opened in 1962. At that time cars were overrunning the city, and the pedestrian zone was conceived as a way to bring vitality back to the declining urban center. “Shopkeepers protested vehemently that it would kill their businesses,” he recalls, “but everyone was happy with it once it started. Some now even claim it was their idea.”

The pedestrian zone has been expanded a bit each year ever since, with parking spaces gradually removed and biking and transit facilities improved. Cafes, once thought to be an exclusively Mediterranean institution, have become the center of Copenhagen’s social life. Gehl documents that people’s use of the area has more than tripled over the past 40 years. The pedestrian district is now the thriving heart of a reinvigorated city.

Copenhagen’s comeback gives hope to people around the world who want to make sure that lively public places don’t disappear in this era of rampant traffic, proliferating privatization, heightened security measures, overpowering commercialization and the general indifference of many who think the internet and their own families can provide all the social interaction they need. There’s an emerging movement to protect these commons— literally common ground— as places all of us can use and enjoy.

Why We Abandoned the Public Realm, and Why We Need It Again

While only a century ago streets almost everywhere were crowded with people, many are now nearly empty—especially in the fast-growing suburbs sprouting all over the globe, but in some older towns and cities, too. Walking through the center of certain North American communities can be a profoundly alienating experience, as if the whole place had been evacuated for an emergency that no one told you about. Even in the crowded urban quarters of Asia and Africa, public spaces are suffering under the onslaught of increasing traffic and misguided development plans imported from the West.

The decline of public places represents a loss far deeper than simple nostalgia for the quiet, comfortable ways of the past. “The street, the square, the park, the market, the playground are the river of life,” explains Kathleen Madden, one of the directors of the New York-based  Project for Public Spaces, which works with citizens around the world to improve their communities.

Public spaces are favorite places to meet, talk, sit, relax, stroll, flirt, girlwatch, boywatch, read, sun and feel part of a broader whole. They are the starting point for all community, commerce and democracy. Indeed, on an evolutionary level, the future of the human race depends on public spaces. It’s where young women meet and court with young men—an essential act for the propagation of the species. Numerous studies in fields ranging from social psychology to magazine cover design have proved that nothing grabs people’s attention more than other people, especially other people’s faces. We are hard-wired with a desire for congenial places to gather. That’s why it’s particularly surprising how much we overlook the importance of public places today.

 
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