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Why We Abandoned the Public Realm, and Why We Need It Again
January 23, 2013 3:16 AM   Subscribe

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Great Public Spaces
posted by the man of twists and turns (35 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
“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's 12 requirements for a good public space:From here, here, here, etc.
posted by pracowity at 3:30 AM on January 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


This reminds me of Howard Kuntzler's THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHERE.
posted by newdaddy at 3:33 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I just wish the know nothings and nimbyists on the Amsterdam city council and especially the Amsterdam Centre Deelraad would follow Copenhagen's lead instead of obsessively trying to make the city less liveable and attractive.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:43 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is our main public space. I suppose it meets most of Gehl's requirements. But there should be more places like it around here. Instead, they're still building shopping malls, which I suppose offer a number of the same things but aren't the same as a truly public space. There are certainly no "Opportunities to enjoy the positive aspects of climate" in a shopping mall.
posted by pracowity at 3:47 AM on January 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have all 12 of those requirements in my yard, which is not, needless to say, public. So I think there needs to be a 13th: access.
posted by DU at 3:57 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, yes. We're talking about public spaces where anyone in town is free to spend time with anyone else. I believe access is a given.
posted by pracowity at 4:06 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I believe access is a given.

Not everyone shares this belief. I think you'll find many classes who are excluded from supposedly "public" spaces. The homeless, for instance.
posted by DU at 4:41 AM on January 23, 2013 [6 favorites]


Well, yes. We're talking about public spaces where anyone in town is free to spend time with anyone else. I believe access is a given.

Not necessarily. Many cities in the US have been requiring developers to incorporate public spaces into their plans, but those spaces are often deliberately located so the public can't access them. Often the public doesn't even know that they exist.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:52 AM on January 23, 2013 [10 favorites]


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.

Talking with two co-workers who'd moved here from Asia (India and China respectively) who joked that everyone comes to the US and looks around says "where is everyone? where are all the people?"
posted by octothorpe at 5:25 AM on January 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


San Francisco's privately-owned public open spaces map by SPUR.
posted by Winnemac at 5:41 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I believe access is a given.

Not exactly: anti-homeless seating is cropping up in "public spaces" all over.
posted by klarck at 5:58 AM on January 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


There are really only a few proper public squares in metropolitan Boston. Nonetheless the local administrations have seen fit to dignify every other four-way intersection with the name. It gets annoying after a while, having seen much more crowded cities that made much better use of their space.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:32 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fundamentally, you cannot just declare a public space. You have to make people want to go there, or you have to make it where people already want to go.

Two cities both decided to stop cars from traveling on a central street, thus creating a public square. One of them failed miserably. One of them succeeded dramatically. Why?

Nobody wanted to hang out on State Street in Chicago. Everyone wanted to hange out on Pearl Street in Boulder, CO. What was the difference?

Well, people already wanted to go to Pearl Street. Not many wanted to go to State Street. So, they didn't.

There are really only a few proper public squares in metropolitan Boston.

Ooh, classic example. Huge public square in Government Center. Nobody hangs out there -- it is a giant brick slab.
posted by eriko at 6:38 AM on January 23, 2013 [6 favorites]


Sadly, the same thing happened to Madrid's squares. They needed them cheaper to maintain, so they got rid of the greenery and replaced it with flat concrete.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:41 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I cant remember where I saw the story about the marvelous Oslo Opera House last week... and how its become a key part of Oslo's urban experience on a formerly abandoned waterfront. Was it NY times?
posted by specialk420 at 7:18 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


We're getting a new public space in the heart of Downtown Fort Worth. Two parking lots straddling Main Street are becoming a public square, flanked by new buildings. It will include trees, canopies and a fountain. One of the buildings will have a performance stage facing the square. It was recently announced that the section of Main Street between the two lots will become pedestrian only.

I can hardly wait. They say the public square will be open by the Art Festival in April.
posted by Doohickie at 7:58 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


There are really only a few proper public squares in metropolitan Boston. Nonetheless the local administrations have seen fit to dignify every other four-way intersection with the name.

Are you referring to how every intersection is a 'square' named after someone or something? I believe that's just local nomenclature. In Boston a square is just a major intersection between streets and the surrounding neighborhood. As far as I know, the word doesn't imply the existence of public spaces.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:58 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not everyone shares this belief. I think you'll find many classes who are excluded from supposedly "public" spaces. The homeless, for instance.

Furthermore, we still see examples of poorly designed (and therefore poorly utilized) public spaces due to a misguided effort to exclude the homeless. If you leave out things which "attract" homeless people (shade, seating, tables, unfettered access), you are necessarily leaving out things which attract "people."

Yeah, I enjoy sitting as much as bums do.

If you're interested: City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village.
posted by General Tonic at 8:06 AM on January 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


Unfortunately, apparently making a public space too welcoming to homeless people makes it unwelcoming to the general public. Take a look at UN Plaza in San Francisco; the homeless encampments have made it useless as a public space. Of course this has a lot to do with San Francisco's failure as a whole to deal with the homeless problem, but still, UNP makes the general public feel unsafe.
posted by happyroach at 8:24 AM on January 23, 2013 [6 favorites]


Judith Levine's book Not Buying It also delves into the issue of public space - specifically, it's loss - a bit.
posted by eviemath at 8:41 AM on January 23, 2013


There are really only a few proper public squares in metropolitan Boston. Nonetheless the local administrations have seen fit to dignify every other four-way intersection with the name.


If you walk by Park Street Church, in Boston, you'll notice their 2nd floor window has a lectern hanging out.

It's historically significant. The church was founded by parishioners from congregations that turned Unitarian, at a time when the split was considerably acrimonious. So the church they built had a platform that would let someone speak out to the public from a window. Complete with a lectern.

That lectern was used by abolitionists to launch that movement. It's of major historic significance.

It's also never, ever been used in the 20 years I've been in Boston. I've never seen that podium in use. I've never seen that window open. I've never even seen the curtain drawn aside on that window.

Because today that podium faces 5 lanes of car traffic.

THAT is how we lost the public realm in the United States. Back when Bostonians called major intersections "squares", they were used as such.
posted by ocschwar at 8:53 AM on January 23, 2013 [8 favorites]


The article's a little thin when it comes to the first question "why we abandoned the public realm." Insofar as there's an answer it is "cars"--but there are great cities for public spaces where there are still plenty of cars. And there are cities which have been aggressively reclaiming and revitalizing public spaces without abandoning cars or finding any significant alternative to them as a major means of transportation. It's certainly true that there was a period in mid-C20th America where some amazingly disruptive road-building was done which badly compromised the public space in major cities. But many of those cities have shown a renewed interest in and commitment to public spaces without demolishing those roads (New York City would be a prime example).

In general there's a pretty thin sense of history in the article, actually. Like the reference to Gehry's Bilbao museum as some radically new kind of urban intervention. "OMG, a starchitect has designed a radical-looking new museum and drawn crowds of people to the spaces surrounding it!!" Centre Georges-Pompidou in 1977, anyone? And there are obviously earlier examples (the Rockefeller Center in New York, minus the museum part, for example).

Come to that, the sniffiness about the Bilbao museum is also rather annoying. By any objective measure, the Bilbao Guggenheim development has been a striking success at revitalizing the public space. If the idea is to create a space that people want to go to and which they enjoy occupying then what's the problem with the fact that it's a major project by a "brand name" architect? One suspects that this is simply an urban-designer's innate prejudice for spaces which have developed "organically" over time--but if you're faced with a city that patently isn't working and you want to do something to ameliorate it, sitting back and saying "let's assume a good solution will emerge organically over the next few centuries" is hardly a useful starting point.
posted by yoink at 10:31 AM on January 23, 2013


Unfortunately, apparently making a public space too welcoming to homeless people makes it unwelcoming to the general public.

Yeah, these are two different problems that should not be conflated. We need to create great public spaces that welcome everyone (homeless or not) for short visits and we need to create long-term shelter for the homeless. When we settle for the homeless sleeping in public spaces, we are solving neither problem.

The homeless need homes, not benches. It's actually more cost effective to give a person a room than to care for a homeless person. But if all you're going to offer is a chance to lie down under the sky, rather than having people sleeping on what are intended to be benches for temporary seating, I'd like to see separate places created where anyone can hang a hammock. Lots of hooks, essentially, and put them near open-access toilets, showers, and water. This could be indoors or out or both. And make clean hammocks free or cheap for everyone. You could probably make good strong ones out of light materials for very little money. Go to a shelter and they give you a fresh hammock to hang in any approved place.

Meanwhile, we need about ten times more public seating to be used as seating, not as camp beds. Look at any city map and you'll see streets that could and should be closed to cars and turned into public spaces.
posted by pracowity at 10:43 AM on January 23, 2013 [6 favorites]


Insofar as there's an answer it is "cars"

I'm not disagreeing that this frame is important, but an even larger way to understand it is as basically a closing of the commons, re: commercialization of space.

This is especially obvious in cities since public space is more heavily used than in other places AND the development (or fiscal) pressure to redevelop that space is most intense.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 10:45 AM on January 23, 2013


Nobody wanted to hang out on State Street in Chicago. Everyone wanted to hange out on Pearl Street in Boulder, CO. What was the difference?

Well, people already wanted to go to Pearl Street. Not many wanted to go to State Street. So, they didn't.


I wonder if they tried to close off State Street again if it might work this time around. There always seem to be plenty of people down there these days. My understanding is that things were a bit seedier there in the '70s when they first tried it. Then again, for people who live in a city where cars are optional, Chicagoans are weirdly attached to theirs. I can see public opinion going either way.
posted by Jess the Mess at 10:58 AM on January 23, 2013



In general there's a pretty thin sense of history in the article, actually. Like the reference to Gehry's Bilbao museum as some radically new kind of urban intervention. "OMG, a starchitect has designed a radical-looking new museum and drawn crowds of people to the spaces surrounding it!!" Centre Georges-Pompidou in 1977, anyone? And there are obviously earlier examples (the Rockefeller Center in New York, minus the museum part, for example).


Eh?

By Parisian standards, CGP is a wilderness devoid of man. The only people going there are those who really really want to see some modernist art.
posted by ocschwar at 11:19 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's been a recent controversy over the amount of private fitness classes at Palisades Park in Santa Monica. Residents are complaining that there are too many of these classes and the park is basically turning into an outdoor gym. So the city is considering charging a fee for trainers to use the park and then taxing their revenue.

On the one hand, yeah, it costs money to maintain the park when it's being heavily used, but on the other hand, it irks me that they're trying to regulate who can and can't use a public space. How can you fault people who want to escape 24 Hr. Fitness and work out in a place with great weather that overlooks the ocean?
posted by book 'em dano at 11:20 AM on January 23, 2013


it irks me that they're trying to regulate who can and can't use a public space.

They're trying to regulate who can and can't commercialize a public space. If I understand you right, trainers are running private businesses on public land rather than paying for training space somewhere. Would you approve of an auto repair shop fixing cars in the park? Or a business having their employees sit on all the park benches and work on their laptops?
posted by pracowity at 11:51 AM on January 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Come to that, the sniffiness about the Bilbao museum is also rather annoying. By any objective measure, the Bilbao Guggenheim development has been a striking success at revitalizing the public space. If the idea is to create a space that people want to go to and which they enjoy occupying then what's the problem with the fact that it's a major project by a "brand name" architect?

By which objective measures has it revitalized what public space?

There are in fact some very strong arguments, based on longstanding principles of good urban design and the sort of qualitative indicators that Jan Gehl specializes in, that the Bilbao Guggenheim is an utter failure as a public space. Like most of Gehry's designs, it sits somewhere between indifferent and openly hostile to its surrounding urban spaces. It's a destination, sure, and I have no doubt it's a beautiful building to gaze at and walk through, but it's got no real connection to the city and it's surrounded by a broad, cold, underused apron of poor public space.

The "sniffiness" you refer to is not a taste thing; there are objective measures of the success of a public space, things like foot traffic and number of people sitting or standing engaged in what Gehl's firm calls "spending time" at various times of day and year. Healthy public spaces show consistent patterns of use under these criteria, and the cities that have most carefully attempted to design for them on the Copenhagen model - Melbourne and New York City are the strongest examples - have seen similar patterns of growth in use, enhanced safety, retail traffic, etc.

I've never seen any evidence to suggest Gehry's Guggenheim scores well on any of this stuff. It's a stunning sculpture, but it's scarcely better than a suburban strip mall as a public space.
posted by gompa at 12:07 PM on January 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


it irks me that they're trying to regulate who can and can't use a public space.

They're trying to regulate who can and can't commercialize a public space.


Once upon a time the City Rec used to have these great exercise classes that you paid a fairly nominal fee to enter. Proceeds were either paid to the instructor, or split half/half instructor/City Rec. Win-win for everyone, you'd think. City Rec wasn't allowed to 'compete' with the businesses. Bye-bye exercise classes.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:14 PM on January 23, 2013


City of Sins
"The manner in which we create cities, and allow them to evolve, has great impact on how its inhabitants use it"
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:08 AM on January 24, 2013


Commissioners’ Panel – Raising the Bar: Building political capital to implement key design initiatives
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:35 PM on January 24, 2013


There are in fact some very strong arguments, based on longstanding principles of good urban design and the sort of qualitative indicators that Jan Gehl specializes in, that the Bilbao Guggenheim is an utter failure as a public space.

Except that the analysis you link to is purely aesthetic--it's simply that person's personal opinion that they don't happen to like the look of the building--along with a hilarious overrating of what Bilbao was like before the museum was built. Bilbao was a gritty, industrial city long in decline before the opening of the Guggenheim. The opening of the museum transformed the city into a thriving and bustling tourist magnet. Increased tax receipts from the increased tourism generated by the museum more than paid for its cost.

To argue that somehow the hordes of people attracted to the museum and enjoying the public spaces created by the museum are somehow not really enjoying a "proper" public space is a version of the old Yogi Berra malapropism: "nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded."

By Parisian standards, CGP is a wilderness devoid of man. The only people going there are those who really really want to see some modernist art.

I'm talking about the public space created by the project--not the private space which is the interior of the museum. The Place Georges Pompidou is a bustling public square, and has been ever since the opening of the museum.

As for the Museum--to suggest that the Musee Nationale d'Art Moderne--the largest modern art museum in Europe and second largest in the world, the eighth most visited museum in the world--is a "wilderness devoid of man" suggests that you may not have your finger on the pulse of Parisian tourist attractions. Or, indeed, have any interest whatsoever in the world of art.
posted by yoink at 9:49 AM on January 25, 2013


Just to add a point about visitor numbers: the Bilbao Guggenheim gets about a million visitors a year--that's roughly the same as LACMA and the Getty in Los Angeles. Bilbao is a city of 352,000, Los Angeles of 3.8 million. And it's not as if the Bilbao Guggenheim's art collection is all that impressive. People go there to experience the museum itself and to visit the public spaces created by the museum. When they're there, they enjoy hanging out around the museum. Obviously no space in the world appeals to everyone and you can always find someone who doesn't enjoy that experience. But you don't get a million people making the trip every year because they all heard from their friends how ghastly it was.
posted by yoink at 9:57 AM on January 25, 2013



I'm talking about the public space created by the project--not the private space which is the interior of the museum. The Place Georges Pompidou is a bustling public square, and has been ever since the opening of the museum.


Certainly wasn't when I was there. All the Parisians milling about being, well Parisian, were around the corner on the other streets and spaces in the area. The PGP only had people going into the museum or just leaving.
posted by ocschwar at 8:47 PM on January 26, 2013


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