Our Place in the World
In praise of streets, parks, squares, coffeeshops, and other beloved hang-outs
by Jay Walljasper
Published in Ode magazine
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. A surprising number of babies in strollers are out for a breath of fresh January air. Two African men pass by, pushing a piano. Several stylishly-dressed women sit at the edge of waterless fountain, talking on mobile phones. 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 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 growing numbers of citizens around the world who want to make sure that lively public places don’t disappear in this era of rampant traffic, proliferating malls, 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.
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, look, relax, play, stroll, flirt, eat, drink, smoke, peoplewatch, read, soak in sunshine 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.
“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 Gehl + Associates. “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 after dinner 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 people.
Gehl ticks off a list of places that have revitalized themselves by creating great public places: Copenhagen, Barcelona, Spain; Lyon, France; Bogota, Colombia [see Ode, October 2004]; Vancouver, Canada; the American city of Portland, Oregon; and the small Danish city of Vejle. His definitive book New City Spaces (2000, 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 and Lyon best illustrate 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 pedestrian promenade so popular it has spawned a new Spanish word: Ramblistas, meaning the folks who hang-out in the area. 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 celebrate the return of democracy and 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.
Lyon, taking a cue from Barcelona, embarked on an ambitious campaign in 1989 to enliven itself. Grand public projects in the center of town were paired with initiatives in less affluent communities on the outskirts to make sure that the whole city benefited. Sweeping pedestrian plazas and dazzling fountains figured prominently in the plans. “Fifteen years ago Lyon was nothing,” Gehl notes, “now it’s a showcase of Europe. The mayor of Lyon says he recovered all the costs of the city’s transformation thanks to increased economic activity and all the new companies that have moved there.”
The key to restoring life to our public places—and our communities as a whole—is understanding that most people today have more options than in the past. A trip downtown or to the farmer’s market or the local library is now recreational as much as it is practical—the chance to have fun, hang out with other folks, 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.”
But Gehl, along with Project for Public Spaces (PPS) and other advocates for better community places, do not want to be misunderstood here. When they say “quality” they mean the quality of a public space as a whole, not just the artistic quality of its design.
At the same time as many public spaces around the world are deteriorating, there has been something of a boom in lavish new projects masterminded by big-name designers. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, launched the trend, which has been continued by high-profile projects like Rem Koolhaas’s Euralille project in Lille, France, Millenium Park in Chicago, and the new public library in Seattle (also by Koolhaas). While very successful in generating buzz in architectural circles and the media, none of these places stand out as a particularly great spot to hang out and enjoy yourself . The emphasis on aesthetic style too often overshadows the basic function of serving people’s needs. Indeed, PPS’s website featured staff member Ethan Kent’s photos documenting the opening scenes of a mugging in a grand but empty plaza outside the Bilbao Guggenheim museum—hardly the mark of a welcoming and hospitable public space.
Aesthetic quality is just one on a list of 12 steps Jan Gehl devised as a guide to evaluating public spaces (see accompanying sidebar), which includes such prosaic but important matters as providing shelter from inclement weather and offering a spot to sit. PPS’s influential handbook How to Turn a Place Around devotes chapters to public participation, management strategies, and the importance of planting flowers but none to the latest design principles. “There are new building materials today that I think can help us create attractive new public places,” notes PPS’s Kathleen Madden, “but the process of creating great place is just as it’s always been: make a nice place with lots of things for people to do. Design is important to the extent that it promotes those goals.”
Matt Blackett, one of the guiding lights behind Toronto’s Spacing (perhaps the only local magazine in the world devoted to public space), represents a new wave in the push to preserve and promote public places. He’s not out of the architecture field like Gehl+Associates or neighborhood organizing traditions like PPS. Actually, he became interested in public spaces issues in a highly unusual way: he was teargassed. It was at an anti-globalization rally in Quebec City where protesters were beaten back by police. “That galvanized me. I saw how the powers that be operate,” Blackett remembers. “And it made me wonder: whose space is public space? How could they force us out of what was supposed to be public property?”
A second galvanizing experience occurred when he was fired from his job as art director at Hockey News, a prestigious position in country crazy about ice hockey. The reason: tardiness. The real reason: his streetcar was often delayed by backed-up traffic along the tracks.
Taking the free time as an opportunity, he headed off to Europe and came home discouraged about his hometown. “Toronto didn’t seem to feel the same as these historical and romantic European cities. So I decided to study more about Toronto history, to walk its alleys and eavesdrop on conversations in the streetcar— and to help improve things here. That old adage, ‘Think globally, act locally’ really started to resonate with me.”
Blackett soon fell in with the Toronto Public Space Committee, which was formed in response to the city council’s plans to ban people from hanging posters on all but a few lampposts and telephone poles around town. “At the same time they were trying to curtail community expression, notices about yard sales and music shows,” Blackett notes, they wanted to approve huge video billboards, which even city staff said causes traffic accidents.”
The newly formed group won the fight against the poster ban and has broadened its focus to a whole range of issues: better transit, pedestrian rights, bike transportation, and homelessness as well as the overcommercialization of public places. They emphasize positive solutions rather than just carping about what’s wrong, and recently weighed in on an issue dear to Blackett’s heart: supporting efforts to give streetcars priority over autos on the line that runs near his house. Not that he has any plans to ask for his job back at the hockey magazine. He’s having too much fun with Spacing, which now treats 3500 readers to fascinating commentary and photos about life in Toronto. It’s spirited and smart, with rebellious energy matched with a sincere commitment to improving the city.
Blackett sees mobile phones, instant messaging, laptop computers, blogging and wireless internet as a boost to people’s use and enjoyment of public spaces. Indeed, they are sparking an evolution in our use of public places. Throughout the 20th- century technological innovations— telephones, radio, record players, television, VCRs, and computers— fueled the retreat from public places into our homes and cars. But new technology makes it increasingly simple to be plugged into the world via phone or internet while still enjoying ourselves in a park, café, or walking down the street. In fact, these new modes of communication actually stimulate face-to-face public life; Most people who first connect in cyberspace inevitably want to meet in person.
Both the Public Space Committee and Spacing magazine symbolize a growing interest in public space issues on the part of younger people. Blackett, 31, notes that fewer career and family demands, along with smaller apartments and less money, means young people spend more time out in the streets, parks, and bars than older folks. More than previous generations they seem conscious of the need to defend their favorite public spaces against encroachment from traffic, advertisers, unwanted development, and overblown security measures. Some are even calling this newfound recognition about the importance of public spaces as the beginnings of a social movement—a point Project for Public Spaces also frequently makes in its work.
If the idea of a new movement rising up to change the face of communities all around the planet strikes you as far-fetched, consider the Crossroads mall in Bellevue, Washington. A standard-issue, auto-dominated suburb east of Seattle, Bellevue seems way off-the-radar of any upsurge to promote lively public spaces. Especially Crossroads, a ‘70s-era enclosed mall surrounded by acres of parking a mile south of Microsoft’s sprawling campus.
But look again. Whimsical public art dots the parking lot, and cafe tables and sidewalk merchandise displays flank the entrances—just like in a classic downtown. An impressively well-stocked newsstand greets you in the hall of the main entrance, right next to a used bookstore. Wandering through the mall you find the local public library, a police station and a branch of city hall, where I am told “you can do nearly everything they do at the main office.” There are even comfy chairs stationed right outside the bathrooms and a giant-sized chess board where kids can push around pawns and bishops almost as big as they are. Some of the usual franchise suspects are here: Bed, Bath and Beyond; a JoAnn fabrics superstore; a Pier One home furnishings store, but you’ll find locally-owned businesses too, like a wine shop and ceramics studio. The food court— where you can choose among Indian, Russian, Thai, Mexican, Korean, Greek, Bar-B-Que, Vietnamese, Italian, a juice bar or a burger joint— features local restaurateurs. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner arrive on a ceramic plate with metal (not plastic!) cutlery.
Many of the tables face a stage, where on this particular Thursday Black History Month is being observed with an impressive program of music, theatre and dance—all of it first rate. The audience is multi-ethnic, reflecting the changing demographics of American suburbia. The loudest applause comes from a delegation of pre-schoolers visiting from a nearby daycare center.
Ron Sher, who transformed Crossroads from a failing mall into a spirited gathering place, sits down with me for lunch and, in between greeting customers and conducting mini-meetings with shop owners, outlines the next phase of his vision. “I want a mix of upscale and affordable housing built on a part of the parking lot, so this could become a true town square that some people walk to.”
I pinch myself to make sure this is all real , that I am actually talking to a shopping centre developer who is telling me, “ I want to get people together with the city to discuss how to step this up be even more of a community center.” Now, of course, I would prefer to hang-out in Copenhagen, or Barcelona, or the famous Pike Place market in downtown Seattle. So would many of the people in Bellevue. But the fact is they live in Bellevue, and it’s a great thing they have a mall where they can take care of their errands, meet their neighbors, and have some fun. If a lively public place can take root here, it can happen anywhere.
The power of place goes global
It’s easy to dismiss rising interest in public spaces as something that only the wealthy can afford to worry about. But take a look at any bustling place anywhere in the world—from the markets of Africa and Asia to the squares of Latin America to the street corners of Europe and North America—and you’ll find it’s poor people who depend on public spaces the most.
Enrique Peñalosa—former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia—notes that rich people enjoy the pleasures of big homes, backyards, private clubs and country houses. Poor people have only their local street to hang out in—and if they’re lucky, a park, library or playground nearby. He made public spaces the centerpiece of his administration, creating or refurbishing 1,200 parks and playgrounds, establishing 300 kilometres (186 miles) of bike trails, building 13 libraries and inaugurating the world’s longest pedestrian street running 17 kilometres (10 miles) through the city. Since leaving office he has become a globe-trotting ambassador helping out cities from Jakarta (Indonesia) to Dakar (Senegal) improve life for their citizens. “Public spaces are not a frivolity,” he asserts. “They are just as important as hospitals and schools. They create a sense of belonging. This creates a different type of society. A society where people of all income levels meet in public spaces is a more integrated, socially healthier one.” (See Ode, October 2004, for a profile of Peñalosa.)
Public spaces also play a key role in countries learning the ins and outs of democracy. The New York-based group Project for Public Spaces (PPS) promotes squares, parks and other community places as a symbol of civic participation in Eastern Europe, where Communist regimes kept strict tabs on public gathering spots. In the Czech Republic, PPS’s efforts to help citizens reclaim the public realm led to the formation of a sister organization, the Partnership for Public Spaces, which works throughout the country on projects ranging from cleaning up streams in small villages to refurbishing a major square in Prague.
In the war torn Balkans, revitalized squares and markets offer hope that communities can be brought back together. Croatia is planning a nationwide public places program, similar to that in the Czech Republic, while in Serbia citizens of Novi Sad created their first organic farmers’ market with PPS’s help. Public place workshops were also held in Montenegro for the first time last November.
In Capetown, South Africa, the Dignified Places Programme is developing a public spaces strategy to help heal racial wounds and promote a a sense of unity in the city. Louise Grassov, a project manager at the Copenhagen urban consulting firm Gehl+Associates, has been involved in the far-reaching initiative, which hopes to instill blacks with a sense of ownership in a city where for many years they were not allowed to enter without permission. The immediate goals, Grassov says, include, “getting more affordable housing in the centre of the city and giving back some dignity to people who walk rather than drive cars.”
The proliferation of autos, and the low social rank afforded anyone who doesn’t drive is an issue all across the developing world. Lisa Peterson of the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) notes that bicycles are being banned from roads in China and cycle rickshaws banned in India and Bangladesh. “Cars are seen as status for people. Big, fast roads are seen as status for cities. That is still the idea of progress in many places.” ITDP and the Utrecht, Netherlands-based Interface for Cycling Expertise are two international organizations challenging this view by showing the benefits of better balanced transportation policies. Peterson sees a number of signs in Asia, Africa and Latin America that people are realizing it’s a mistake to pursue the same kind of auto-dominated development that has created environmental problems and eroded the vitality of public life in the West—especially in countries where the great majority of people can never afford a car. The World Bank has recently backed off from its auto-oriented development guidelines, while cities like Bogotá and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania provide new models of urban development with a strong emphasis on transit and bicycles. A number of places are also creating pedestrian districts. Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in China and Cartagena as well as Bogotá in Colombia offer successful examples; Delhi, Jaipur and Hyderabad in India are in the planning stages.
“People in the U.S. now recognize there are problems with building cities for cars and not for people,” Enrique Penalosa says, “and we in the Third World need to know that.”