Review More than half of the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050, it will be around two-thirds. All these people are users of the public space in their living environment and are also dependent on it – for their function and well-being. They are of great importance: the streets, the squares, the parks, where people move, where interaction with acquaintances and strangers takes place, where recreation, play and sports take place. And worth being well thought out and arranged. A new release by Vikas Mehta helps with that.
In ‘Public Space: notes on why it matters, what we should know, and how to realize its potential’, Mehta, professor of urban planning at the University of Cincinnati, tries to describe public space in all its facets. He does this in an easy-to-read and accessible book and by highlighting the potential of the public space from different disciplines: the social, the political and the spatial. And in addition to more theoretical reflections, he provides practical guidelines for design, management and management.
Western and non-Western
The book is divided into two parts: a consideration of the need to take care of urban public spaces and a definition. What are we talking about when it comes to public space and how do different Western and non-Western concepts relate to each other?
This is followed by three chapters detailing the paradoxes, possibilities and claims. Values, goals and sustainable design are discussed here. What do we want to achieve with the space between the buildings? Who is this and how do we manage, finance and program it?
The author defines public space as the ambiguous domain between urban structures. This is where connections between neighborhoods are made, but also numerous practical urban issues are addressed – think social interaction, health, climate adaptation, commerce, but also mobility and above-ground and underground infrastructure. On a socio-political level, the public space is the carrier of the citizens’ expression and their liberation. Places such as the Maidan, Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park were the scene of the Orange Revolution, the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. At the lower scale level, the public space is of great importance to children and young people who play here, reflect their identity to others and appropriate the city for themselves.
‘Public’ or ‘public’ means that the space is collective, shared, accessible to all. The book discusses to what extent privately owned public spaces, administered by market participants. If use here is linked to strict rules that not everyone can follow (think forced consumption, bans on political speech, bans on lying down or sleeping), is it the public space? And wouldn’t the public space be like air and water ordinaryso should it become common?
‘Little Island, New York’
In which Global North these kinds of questions play a role Global South also other challenges. Due to rapid and often unplanned urbanization, too little attention is paid to open spaces and urban greenery, resulting in a huge lack of public space. The quality design of the street, usually the only available public space, is of great importance here.
No place for the poor
Another theme that is much talked about is inclusivity. The author notes that the public space often conforms to frameworks determined by a certain class, usually people with money, so that the wishes or initiatives of poorer population groups have no place here. This also applies to bottoms Up processes where the highly educated, creative residents are better represented than the residents with fewer opportunities. To make the use of the space more democratic, Mehta advocates temporality in the programming. With alternating use, several different groups get the chance to use the space.
In the last chapter, entitled ‘Propositions’, schools of thought are explained which help to better position and value public space. It also refers to and elaborates on the ideas of Jane Jacobs, the observational studies of William H. Whyte, and the analyzes of Jan Gehl. What if we see the public space as a system: as a network, as a carrier of political, socio-economic, ecological and infrastructural use, but also as a place where many of the current transition challenges must be accommodated? Here, the ability to adapt is of great importance, as it moves in step with changing wishes and requirements, to be able to respond to a hitherto unknown development.
Mehta calls the adaptability of public space with a good concept of ‘open endedness’; keep options open for the future. But protecting public space as a place where citizens can express themselves and be themselves is also an important building block for our cities. Too many frameworks and too strict rules nullify citizenship, while freedom and informal use actually have a stimulating effect. There is also a call for walkability, a credo that has been high on the agenda in European cities for decades and is a proven ingredient for vibrant cities.
Opportunities and pitfalls
All in all, this publication provides a nice and fairly adequate overview of how we can look at public space and what we should think about as a designer, manager or initiator/developer if we want to treat it carefully and future-proof. manner. The book can be used as a lesson or handbook for anyone who wants to be aware of the possibilities and pitfalls of designing public space, both in terms of governance and design. Also refreshing: the Western view is supplemented with examples from Global Southespecially India, where we can learn from the informal use of space and flexibility that prevails there.
Encouragement to think
This is an enrichment of the content, which to a large extent sounds familiar to the expert – the book does not contain very much news. However, due to its design as a kind of ‘material collection’ of all possible ingredients and ways of thinking regarding the public space, the book challenges you to think further and look for solutions to themes that require answers.
What is missing here and there are captions and explanations for the pictures – nice hand sketches of examples from all corners of the world and photos that are unfortunately blurred, causing them to lose their soul a little. Good captions could have added an extra layer of information and added depth.
Cover: ‘Public space in New Delhi’