What makes a great public space?

Many cities have lost these spaces, but cities such as Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Portland have shown how to revive them, thus reviving downtown life.
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Many cities have lost these spaces, but cities such as Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Portland have shown how to revive them, thus reviving downtown life.

It’s a dark and wintry Thursday 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 known for stolid reserve, but it’s all smiles and animated conversation here as people of many ages and affiliations stroll through the city.

A knot of teenage boys swagger down the main pedestrian street. Older women inspect shop windows. 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. Two men pass, 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.”

Cut, now, to scenes from the Republican National Convention in Tampa the past week, and the Democrats’ upcoming convention in Charlotte next week. Love them or hate them, those people packing the convention halls – convening from different places and backgrounds – have come together to take part in rituals that, for better or worse, help perpetuate our democracy. What does that have to do with a cold Copenhagen street? Only this: Democracy requires public places where people can congregate. Further, people are drawn to public places where they find other people. We all need those public places – good public places.

Architect Gehl, an urban design professor emeritus at the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts and international consultant, describes how Copenhagen’s central pedestrian district opened in 1962. Back then, cars were overrunning the city, and the pedestrian zone was a way to bring vitality to a 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 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 lively public places don’t disappear, even in this era of rampant traffic, proliferating privatization, and commercialization.

A century ago streets almost everywhere were crowded. Now many are nearly empty. 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 no one told you about.

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

Public spaces are favorite places to meet, talk, sit, relax, stroll, flirt, girl-watch, boy-watch, read, sun, and feel part of a broader whole. They are the starting point for community, commerce, and democracy.

Numerous studies have proved that nothing grabs people’s attention more than other people, especially other faces. We are hard-wired with a desire for congenial places to gather. That’s why it’s so surprising how much we overlook the importance of public places today.

“If you asked people 20 years ago why they went to central Copenhagen, they would have said it was to shop,” observes Jan Gehl. “But if you asked them today, they would say, it was because they wanted to go to town.”

That change of phrase represents the best hope for the future of public spaces.

Historically, Gehl explains, public spaces were central to everyone’s lives. They were how people traveled about town, where they shopped and socialized. All that changed in the 20th century. Cars took over the streets, making walking and biking dangerous. Towns and cities spread out, with houses on big yards. Merchants moved to outlying shopping malls. Inventions like telephones, television, and computers transformed our lives. People withdrew from public spaces. Many new developments neglected to include sidewalks, parks, downtowns, transit, and playgrounds. Today, many wonder if public spaces serve any real purpose.

“Some places have gone down the drain and become completely deserted,” Gehl notes. “But other places have decided to do something about it. They fight back.” He ticks off a list of places that revitalized themselves by creating great public places, including Copenhagen; Portland, Ore.; Bogota, Colombia; and Barcelona.

Barcelona best illustrates the power of public spaces. Once considered a dull industrial center, it’s now widely celebrated as a sophisticated, glamorous place, mentioned in the same breath as Paris and Rome. The heart of Barcelona – and its revival – is Las Ramblas, a beloved promenade.

The key to restoring life to public places and to our communities as a whole is to understand that most people today have more options. A trip to downtown, the farmers market, or the library is recreational as much as practical, a chance to have fun, hang out, 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.”

Here are 12 steps to a great public space, courtesy of Gehl and Lars Gemzoe:

  1. Protection from traffic
  2. Protection from crime
  3. Protection from the elements
  4. A place to walk
  5. A place to stop and stand
  6. A place to sit
  7. Things to see
  8. Opportunities for conversations
  9. Opportunities for play
  10. Human-scale
  11. Opportunities to enjoy good weather
  12. Aesthetic quality


This article comes to Crosscut by way of Citiwire.net, a syndication service dealing with issues of urban planning.



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