Project for Public Spaces

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Project for Public Spaces



From a commentary by David Bollier at

" 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 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. 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.

Historically, explains Jan Gehl, a professor of urban design at Copenhagen’s Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts and global consultant, 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.

But all that changed during the 20th century. Cars took over the streets in industrialized nations, putting many more places within easy reach but making walking and biking dangerous. Telephones, refrigerators, television, computers, shopping malls 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. “Some places have gone down the drain and become completely deserted." Gehl notes “But other places have decided to do something about it; They fight back."

Gehl ticks off a list of places that have revitalized themselves by creating great public places: Copenhagen, Barcelona, Spain; Lyon, France; Bogota, Colombia; Vancouver, Canada; Portland, Oregon; Cordoba, Argentina; Melbourne, Australia; Curitiba, Brazil; Freiburg, Germany; and Strasbourg, France.

Barcelona best illustrates the power of public spaces. Once thought of as a dull industrial center, it 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.

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." (