#designingcities 7: new cities

Again, some enjoyable vids but largely unchallenging – just too descriptive. We didn’t really get to the nub of the horror which is Ørestad. But a whole lecture on walkability, yay!

Lovely to revisit Ebenezer Howard and friends, felt right at home in the lectures but don’t feel I learned a great deal. In particular I could have done with a critical look at the later stuff, what has been learned from eg people’s responses to Cumbernauld, and the issues around the fact that the new often feels sterile, dull and orderly, not the kind of place you want to move to.

It is difficult to create the institutions which form a community from scratch, and people are often reluctant to move until they are in place. Variety is the key, with real choice for the residents about the kind of building they wish to live in (Amsterdam waterfronts), but with consistency in the public realm to avoid the Las Vegas effect. 

How can the spaces and places that provide the social glue for areas be created? Electronic networks and communication are replacing face to face interaction, meaning that we get information about others in our community and beyond through media, social networks and other forms of controlled communication and develop stereotypes about whether others must be like. It’s only when we see people in public that we come to know people as people. Richard Sennett calls this process de-stereotyping, observing that disorder and lack of control over streets and public spaces is critical. The rituals we observe in public spaces say a lot about what we share in common.

The public realm 

What is included in the term ‘public realm’? Just the spaces owned and managed by public bodies? It usually also includes private spaces the public is allowed to use, if sometimes with restrictions, such as restaurants on a square. The uses that border the public realm are also key – ‘hot’ frontages have active uses while cooler ones, such as open spaces and facades with only windows on them, are less of a magnet to a passerby. Time is a further factor – we seldom stand still on streets, and usually experience public spaces in a serial way.

The most public spaces in the city are owned by the city, where we can do pretty much as we please within the norms of a civilized society – examples includes streets, squares and waterfronts. Spaces such as arcades are also open to the public 24 hours a day, but the owners of the buildings have the right to restrict who goes there and the kind of activities they carry on – such spaces can be seen as ‘semi-public’, similar to university campuses. Other spaces, such as gated communities which are only accessible to those who live there or are there as guests can be seen as semi-private spaces – a growing category. The least public environments are purely private spaces, such as our own garden and any other space we can exclude others from at our will.

According to the Complete Streets Movement the public realm should serve all the users who come there in a balanced way, encouraging diverse ways of traveling to and along the street and giving priority to the most vulnerable, such as pedestrians. Thinking of complete – or Living Streets offers a way to imagine what to do with the places where only people in cars are at home today, for example by reclaiming traffic islands for pedestrians. Other opportunities to create a public realm include those where wasteland now exists.

Most people enjoy being in public, especially in good weather. Having a public realm that avoids conflicts and supports social interchange is critically important for cities, as well as being a source of pride for residents and an important piece of a city’s economy for visitors.

See week 5 on communicating in cities for more on these issues, plus Atlantic Cities and Leo Hollis on the Wolfson Prize.


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