NEW eReport: #92: The Public Realm

The most important aspect of city making – the design of public spaces for social interaction – is the theme of this e-report, which includes slides and papers by 12 experts and researchers from around the world, including Jan Gehl, Barra MacRuari and Michael Mehaffy. The expert content provides a wealth of insight and information for all committed to creating a more hospitable, lively, and equitable public realm.

Jan Gehl, whose reputation for making cities livable for people is worldwide, recounts in slides and video the story of his own career, and the parallel 50-year journey of making Copenhagen one of the most livable cities in the world, entertaining the audience with anecdotes and dry humor.

The evolution of Copenhagen, as Jan tells it, is fascinating. Some planners argued that the Danes were not Italians and would not come out of their houses to engage in social life in public. But Copenhagen created pedestrian areas anyway and the next year they started to be Italians, and have become ever more Italianized over the last 50 years.

Copenhagen was the first city in the world where the life of the city was studied systematically from very early on. That was done by Jan’s university students as a research project throughout the year. Over the years the city got more and more excited to see that whenever they did something that was good for people, there were more and more people using the city. This documentation gave the city the political strength to continue to make Copenhagen one of the most livable cities in the world.

Jan describes the innovations to streets and squares still going on across the whole city to improve it for social life, to encourage social integration, to make it better as a place for children to play, to allow people to meet – all of which is better for democracy.

Jan describes some improvements that have taken place in the cities that followed Copenhagen’s example – Melbourne, Sydney, New York and even Moscow. As Jan says, “When the Mayor of Moscow goes around and says we need livable cities, then I think the words of Jane Jacobs have finally been listened to.” Now, after 50 years we see a distinct change: what is wanted around the world is lively, livable cities, sustainable and healthy cities.

In his presentation on "Place Networks": Healthy Streets and Sidewalks  Michael Mehaffy stresses that we must get evidence-based research findings into policy for Habitat III, the New Urban Agenda, and shift city-making from the creation of objects into the shaping of public places for humans. This task is urgent because we are rapidly constructing cities on a model that fails for the earth and for humans.

The reason we build cities in the first place, he suggests, is to interact with each other, to have access to resources, to create wealth and human development, and of course to shelter and protect – above all, to connect. As Jacobs observed, it is the city sidewalks that preeminently foster connection: “Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”

Mehaffy demonstrates how building facades facilitate contact between people in the public and private realms from the sidewalk, shop windows, sidewalk cafes, doors, terraces, windows, bay windows, gardens, etc. There may be a variety of people at each location, and a variety of ways contact can be made - by sight or sound only, or sight and sound. On a good street this can create an intensely rich network of possible contacts, which support the social life of the city.

In Modernist urban design the complex network of possible contacts disappears. Buildings are constructed as objects in space with no connection to the sidewalk and no possibility of fostering social life.

It is possible to map these possible contact networks not only in a street but throughout a city; and the networks can be modified not only by government but by building owners and users to better satisfy the needs of the users. So our job as urban designers, Mehaffy argues, is to create a spatial and structural framework that permits a carpet of pedestrian mobility, a rich network of contacts, and that can be modulated by the users.

As Bristol’s Strategic Director for Place, Barra MacRuari’s job is about “building better lives in better places, by helping others succeed, by leading on the spatial, infrastructural, economic, cultural, physical and sustainable development of Bristol.” This position involves a new approach to what in other cities might be called Planning Director: not simply working with planners, architects and developers, but engaging with people on the street, visiting schools to get children’s experience of walking to school, meeting with community groups, working with activists to enliven the city, making sure that new large development plans do not interfere with the city’s livability, and searching for new small, large and once in a lifetime ways to enhance the quality of life on Bristol’s waterways and public spaces.

In the past, traffic engineers threatened to make traffic systems so efficient that they would have completely destroyed Bristol’s access to its waterfront. “Improvements” they did make in moving traffic through some of Bristol’s finest public places have been rerouted and Queen’s Square and the floating harbor were reclaimed for the public. The historic significance of Bristol’s harbor – for centuries a rival only to London – can now be fully appreciated and the water plays a profound role in the lives of all Bristolians.

MacRuari speaks about some of the small everyday ways Bristol is becoming more livable: by introducing 20mph speed limits throughout most of the city, and testing out driverless cars; to a big initiative of Bristol Energy (taking back from the private sector control of energy distribution and production through wind and water); and to a very big scale, the enterprise zone for the creation of a new neighborhood and football arena close to city center; and the high-speed rail connection to London that will create really difficult challenges as well as benefits; and a plethora of other major strategic plans involving health and well-being, land use, transport, sustainability, and climate change. The real challenge, MacRuari asserts, is to constantly bridge these scales.  Urbanism is a holistic activity involving a multitude of disciplines.

In his presentation on Designing Social Capital in the Contemporary City: Integration in the Public Realm Rowan Mackay argues that marginalization and social integration are affected by public spaces. As he notes, social cohesion results from repeated prosaic interactions and everyday experiences. He examines the characteristics of co-presence in the public realm that build bonding capital, strengthening a group’s identity, and those interactions in public that help to build bridges between different ethnic or social groups.

Mackay studied how these forms of interaction played out in Southall, a London neighborhood renowned for its diverse migrant populations, and demonstrates how arrangement of benches, market stalls, street corners, and thresholds provide opportunities for different kinds of interaction. Mackay concludes: “the widening of a pavement, the orientation of a public space, the planning of a weekly market – understood through the framework of social capital, these seemingly minor material decisions are proven to have a real and lasting effect on the social fabric of the contemporary city.”

Maria Beltran examines the meaning of Convivial Urban Spaces. She states, “One of the things that make cities livable is social interaction in the public realm,” and yet, this interaction is on the decline in modern cities. She asks, how do we “make the public realm more supportive of social interaction among diverse users?” This is increasingly important as rapid urbanization takes place around the world.

Beltran asks how sociability and liveliness make a space convivial. A sociable street supports human activities most of the day and throughout the week; mixed-use, diversity, and flexibility foster this sociability. Like Mackay, Beltran also proposes that public space should help create bonds among diverse groups (bridging social capital). A lively public space is characterized by the diversity and unpredictability of activities that bring together people with different values, who may be exposed to, and enjoy things they would not normally seek out. In asking “What makes a space convivial?” Beltran identifies three dimensions: flexibility, equity, and adaptability. Within each dimension, she points to measurable factors to guide future research and data collection.

Jing Jing’s presentation on The Built Environment for Children – Stockholm Experience summarizes research on the design and planning of child-friendly public places in Stockholm: (pre-) schools, schoolyards, parks and playgrounds. Through case studies and interviews, this research aimed to provide insights and practical examples of good practices useful to architects, planners, engineers, developers, and city officials. The overall goal is to contribute to the development of urban areas conducive to children’s healthy physical, mental and social development.

Among the wide range of findings, Jing reported a gap between the theoretical understanding of children’s developmental needs and the decision-making process. Designing and planning schools and playgrounds was often dominated more by economic and construction considerations rather than consideration of the effects on children’s health and development. In building playgrounds and schoolyards especially, Jing called for a more imaginative approach that would better inspire creativity, seasonal activities, and contact with nature.

Razieh Zandieh reports on Inequality in Access to Local Facilities and Older Adults’ Walking Behaviour: An Environmental Justice Perspective. Since physical activity has positive impacts on health, especially in older adults, those living in areas with poor accessibility to local facilities are more vulnerable to suffer health problems. Six dimensions of accessibility are considered, including availability, proximity, route quality, adequacy, acceptability and affordability.

The research was conducted in Birmingham, UK, and involved qualitative and quantitative data involving interviews and questionnaires from 34 older adults living in low- and high-deprivation neighborhoods. The study found that participants living in low-deprivation areas walk in their neighborhoods, especially for recreational purpose, more than those living in high-deprivation areas. The report indicates that inequalities in accessibility to certain local facilities (i.e. high quality green spaces, social centers (i.e. community centers) and shops contribute to disparities between participants’ walking behavior in low- and high-deprivation areas.

While city livability is receiving more attention in China, according to Aura Istrate, Western concepts of place making and social interaction are still not considered to be as important as the economic and business dimensions of accommodating increasing numbers of cars. In her paper on Liveable Streets in High Density Cities of China: The Case of Shanghai, Istrate considers whether the concept of livable streets is relevant for the very dense Chinese cities such as Shanghai, and whether this concept can help to produce healthier and more livable urban areas in China.

Currently, street design in China focuses on moving greater volumes of traffic, rather than encouraging social interaction. As a result, sidewalks are narrow and poorly maintained. In order to boost the economy by increasing car use, some Chinese cities promote policies to reduce bicycle use to a fifth of current use. When improvements in streets for pedestrians is considered, the rationale is to attract shoppers, tourists, and investment.

The main premise of this paper is that Chinese streets could be considered some of the most livable streets in the world, with high level of community engagement at street level. To test this, Aura Istrate repeated Appleyard’s research on livable streets by evaluating the livability of three streets in Shanghai with heavy, medium and light traffic. Different from the results of Appleyard’s findings, the street with medium traffic was the liveliest and most sociable. The question is, whether this was due primarily to the character of the businesses in adjacent buildings, rather than the volume of traffic.

In her paper on Improving Street Livability in Egypt, Nora Osama considers streets are not only ‘corridors’ but also ‘rooms’ in which much of city living happens; improving the livability of streets – especially in Egypt -  requires strengthening their role as multiuse places. She compares how Appleyard’s Livable Streets approach has been applied in Europe, North America and Australia, and develops design guidelines based on this concept. Osama offers a checklist matrix for design guidelines of livable streets and examines its appropriateness on two public use streets in Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt.

Drielle Nunes examines the urban design characteristics that influence the livability and walkability of urban places. Drawing on the extensive research from North America she identifies the characteristics of imageability, enclosure, human scale, transparency and complexity, legibility, linkage, coherence, and tidiness. In working with experts in the field in Portugal, and studying 8 streets in Lisbon, she proposes 20 physical features such as conviviality, functions and uses, travel speed, etc. to identify those aspects of the built environment that need to be changed to make a street more livable and walkable.

Jenny Donovan’s paper on The nurturing city: creating places where people thrive seeks to outline an approach to urban design that may help us create places rich in opportunities to accumulate the life lessons, experiences, achievements, forge the connections and get the insights necessary to meet those needs and face and overcome life’s challenges. By making appropriate design decisions, Donovan suggests that we make it more likely that inhabitants can set and meet the relevant challenges. This can help to nurture a sense of autonomy and reassure people they can respond to whatever life throws at them.

Key to building healthy and inclusive cities is to ensure food security for marginalized people in urban areas. This is the topic of Sara Caramaschi’s paper on Food Matters: The Role of Street Vending in Reinvigorating Previously Underserved Urban Spaces. Caramaschi argues that street food vending is a catalyst of deep urban revitalization and that in order to make cities and towns more livable, we must consider food and its wide benefits. A shared recognition of the role that markets and food trucks play in creating more livable, vibrant neighborhoods and healthy communities has sparked support for different projects and initiatives, enhancing more sustainable and livable cities.

For more information and to order