how urban design can make people less likely to use public spaces


Urban beautification campaigns are generally sold to local residents as a means of improving their daily lives. Design elements – from lighting systems to signs, benches, bollards, fountains and planters, and sometimes even surveillance equipment – ​​are used to renovate and beautify public spaces.

We only feel free to use spaces that we can identify with. Vagegeim | Shutterstock

Designers call these elements “urban furniture”. And the projects in which they are used generally aim to increase social interaction, enhance safety, improve accessibility and generally improve city life.

Some research, however, argues that such beautification campaigns can lead to exclusivity of urban public spaces. Despite the promises with which they are marketed, if these projects do not take into account the needs of local people, they may feel less able or less willing to use these spaces.

Cheonggyecheon Canal, in Seoul, South Korea. PixHound | Shutterstock

Cities are not only identified by their monuments or their emblematic buildings. You can tell New York and Palermo apart just by looking at what people are doing in public. A scene from New York is more likely to feature someone on a skateboard eating a burrito, while an image from Palermo might include a group of men on a street watching a football game on TV across a display case.

Urban space is where city children learn and play, students read, and people work, walk and relax. It is through these different activities that the urban culture of a city is created.

Exactly what urban spaces look like is urban design, a powerful tool.

Architects, infrastructure and space designers carefully configure the built environment – ​​the built fabric of our cities – and this has a lasting effect on how we use or inhabit them.

In cities around the world – from Algiers, Auckland and Chicago to Hanoi, Mexico City and Seoul – research shows that the transformation of public spaces is dramatically affecting the diversity of what people do there and if they use them.

In Algiers, the Algerian capital, neighborhoods were formally designed in the 1970s in a rigid modernist style. Design elements including shady trees, benches and lights at night made people feel comfortable carrying out activities such as playing cards or meeting to chat, but huge buildings , wide streets and open spaces also caused a sense of insecurity and loss. Additionally, the land has been laid out in a seamless manner characteristic of other major cities, including Los Angeles, Auckland and Sydney. These large-scale, non-contextual conceptions have also been linked to antisocial behaviors.

Research in Mexico City’s historic Alameda Central Park neighborhood highlights similar patterns of exclusion caused by the way a neighborhood has been redesigned.

After the transformation of the neighborhood in 2013, there has been a notable drop in the diversity of activities practiced there (family and religious gatherings, street art, music, informal vendors). Instead, the law now prioritizes tourist activity over the day-to-day needs of local people and allows authorities to apply a zero-tolerance approach to anything deemed disruptive. Vendors have become nomadic, packing their bags and hiding whenever the police are near.

In the Cheonggyecheon-Euljiro district of Seoul, South Korea, redevelopment has led to the demolition of 50-year-old workshops. This in turn threatened the historical and cultural values ​​of local people and disrupted social networks.

How cities are co-created

In his 1968 book, The Right to the City, the French Marxist philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre describes the city as a co-created space. In contrast to the more capitalist definition in which urban space is a commodity to be bought and sold, Lefebvre saw it as a meeting place where citizens collectively constructed urban life.

This idea that public space is a public good that belongs to everyone has been increasingly challenged in recent years, with the rise of private public space. Most of London’s parks (about 42 square kilometers of green space in total) are owned by the City of London Corporation, the municipal body that governs the City of London, but more and more places in new developments are owned to companies.

Urban theorists have long noted the connection between the way a city is designed and the way life takes place there. American researcher Jane Jacobs is famous for pointing out that cities fail when they are not designed for everyone. And Danish architect Jan Gehl’s output has always focused on what he called “life between buildings”.

As Gehl explained, for a city to be good for its people, those responsible for designing it must be aware of how it is used: what people do in its spaces. To be successful, urban designs must be centered and relevant to people’s daily lives. Gehl explained that designing a city for pedestrians – on a walkable scale – is the way to make it healthy, sustainable, lively and attractive.

When we use public spaces, even if only in the short term, we effectively appropriate them: urban planners and architects speak of “temporary appropriation” to describe the individual or collective activities by which we invest these spaces.

Research has also highlighted how democratic this can be. But it depends on the design of these spaces in collaboration with the residents. When a public space, on the contrary, is too designed without taking into account the needs of people, it is not used.

Since the 1970s, urban theorists have emphasized that we only use public spaces where we feel represented. For urban design to work, it is crucial to take into account what the inhabitants really think of their city.

Jose Antonio Lara-Hernandez, Senior Architecture Researcher, University of Portsmouth

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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