Improving our cities

Transforming urban areas through public spaces

11 JULY 2016,
Union Square, New York
Union Square, New York

Last October, Public Spaces for All was the theme chosen for “World Habitat Day 2015”. This was a good opportunity to shine a spotlight on a neglected issue. Streets, parks, plazas, and all those areas that are accessible by everyone for free, have often been undervalued. Most of all, they have been perceived as belonging to nobody. On the contrary, they are a key issue for successful cities since they help build stronger communities, enhancing their identity and culture.

Today, in tough economic times, investing in public spaces might hardly be seen as a priority. This is the reason why it is of paramount importance to show how, even with limited resources, it is possible to contribute to the well-being of citizens and boost a community both socially and economically.

Looking back, it’s not fair to say that there hasn’t been any debate over this issue, or that no one has ever acknowledged its role in strengthening the social fabric. However, only in recent years have public spaces reached global recognition when specific targets were introduced to support the Sustainable Development Goal.

The rising focus on public spaces has evolved parallel to the debate on resilient cities. The more a community is connected to a territory, the more its residents will be willing to invest and take care of their place. The process through which we can establish a stronger relationship between people and their environment is called placemaking. Its roots date back to the early 1960s when urban thinkers like Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch and William White started putting communities ahead of aesthetics. Since then, concerns about bad public spaces, healthy living standards, social equality, etc. have grown up.

In 1977 Christopher Alexander published A Pattern Language where he attempted to provide a language for building and planning. Moving from the assumption that cities can become alive only if they result from the efforts of citizens sharing a common language, this book describes how to use the elements of this language - the so-called patterns - to develop urban areas. Each pattern is composed by the description of a problem likely to occur and its solution expressed in the form of an instruction. Despite presenting each pattern in a linear sequence – from larger to smaller scale – this book highlights the linkages that exist among patterns at different levels (those “above” and those “below”). This helps to understand that if we want to accomplish a certain goal, we can’t work with isolated entities, but we need to consider the whole picture with all its connections. Moving this concept to a more practical example, we could say that if we want to build something, we can’t ignore what lies around it.

Cities are made of built and un-built areas, the latter ones being often called empty spaces. This definition reminds to the idea of something that is missing, as if they were places waiting to be filled with something. Hopefully, literature on public spaces as well as recent interest on citizens well-being are forcing local and international institutions to broaden their perspective on the role of public spaces.

Project for Public Spaces (PPS) was founded in New York in 1975 and since then it has developed and implemented new strategies to enhance its home town. Initially working autonomously, they can now count on the support of the city government. Furthermore, after more than four decades, today they are operating across the globe.

Besides good practices originated in the developed world, some major cities in the developing world are now reconsidering the role of public spaces. Nairobi is expected to become a megacity of 5 million people by 2030. The threat of uncontrolled growth leading to social insecurity and unhealthy living standards are pressing institutions to intervene. “Making cities together” project brings together local and international practitioners to develop new strategies to be replicable in the future.