Cities and Public Spaces

Winston Churchill once said, ‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.’ Likewise, our public spaces shape our community identity and who we are.

It is less of a trend and has been the reality in the cities around the world that more and more people are coming and living in them. It is a fact that most people will be living in cities in the future. A lot of talks about innovation in city planning, real estate development, architecture, energy, transportation, housing and even tourism have been going on. While one group is busy with plans to accommodate more people and infrastructure within cities, I hear the voices of movements and community leaders reminding and promoting the need for public spaces in the cities where people would come together freely and have a good time.

City administrators in general more often than not tend to run cities like a corporate organization. They are driven to operate by placing real estate development and profit first with declining attention to people and their well being. They want to be competitive and investment driven to attract capital, businesses, talents and tourists. This creates dense commercial areas of shopping malls and skyscrapers covering large parts of a city. Some would argue that these are just pieces of real estate development and don’t qualify as a city. The result is that people living in the city are reduced to just consumers or workforce undermining their role as citizens.

These days people have come to recognize and use shopping malls as public spaces forgetting that they are privately owned public spaces (POPS). A public space should be free to sit, sleep, meet people and picnic. How cities design, develop and maintain public spaces have great influence in people who live in them in terms of how they interact with each other and form communities. Lively enjoyable public spaces make cities come alive and fill people with hope and self esteem.

The quality of public spaces could create equality for people and have an important role in the practice of democracy. A rich and a poor person can meet or be in the same public space and the poor person may not feel inferior. Cities are about people. Where people go and meet is core to make cities work. City administrations must work to make land, buildings, transportation and resources people use more sustainable, enjoyable and prosperous for the city and people. There are cities taking steps to carve out public spaces within commercial land developments. For example, they let the real estate developer have a bonus of indoor or outdoor space for developing and maintaining a public space. This happens in cities with high-density commercial and residential districts and are intended to provide light, air, breathing room and green space to ease the hard character of the city. Although these are considered POPS, they typically contain functional and visual amenities such as tables, chairs and planting for the purpose of public use and enjoyment.

Good cities are the ones where people want to be outside, where people want to be in the public realm. It doesn’t matter if a place is hot or cold, humans have a need to be with each other, to meet and see and interact with other people. If you make places nice for people, people can have a very good life and they are not so worried if it looks bad from an air plane.

Jan Gehl, Danish architect

Sustainable social design is a foundation for social justice. Economic development can come sooner or later, but the way cities are created will determine how people live and how happy they will be.



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