The importance of public spaces in urban life is an issue that has been apparent since ancient Greece and is still with us today. Opportunities to meet and exchange ideas in these spaces are able to influence how the inhabitants participate in the development of their city, and occur in greater instances when public spaces are accessible to everyone.
However, in modern societies, the strategic role of these spaces has been limited. According to The City Fix, a blog on sustainable urban planning, one of the main reasons for this is the overabundance of automobiles. In fact, according to one study by the Brazilian Institute for Energy and the Environment, 70% of public spaces in urban centers are taken up by roadways and other spaces for cars, while car owners make up only around 20 to 40 percent of the city’s population.
How can public spaces be recovered to promote urban life? We discuss three important factors below.
1. Helping Build Vibrant Communities
For a public space to attract people and encourage them to be part of the communal use of these places, it needs to possess certain design characteristics that make for a good quality location.
Streets, squares, and sidewalks that connect with public spaces need to allow equal access to all residents. That happens when urban design utilizes the concept of "complete streets," meaning streets must be accessible, safe and people-centered.
Something else to consider is the exploration of new forms of revitalization, like interventions of tactical urbanism, which allow for a greater variety of uses of a space.
For example, the urban intervention "21 Balançoires" (21 Swings) that took place in the bus stops of one of the busiest streets in Montreal. While people were walking through the area or waiting for a bus, swinging on the swings offered a way to break their routines.
2. Reinforcing the Local Economy
The restoration of a canal that passes through downtown Seoul and its conversion into Cheonggyecheon Park is perhaps the best example of the potential influence a public space can have on the local economy.
In 2002, city authorities were seeking to demolish a highway and accepted a proposal submitted by Kee Yeon Hwang. They were looking for a solution to the urban afflictions typically associated with highways: environmental and noise pollution, loss of useful space for sustainable methods of transport, and the creation of an unpleasant environment, among many others.
Kee Yeon Hwang proposed a large urban park that, once opened, managed to give back space to residents by creating a more attractive and healthy place. In addition, a portion of the 40,000 residents who were displaced by the construction of the highway returned and new employment opportunities were created in the areas around the park, whereas the highway had eliminated 80,000 jobs.
The real estate sector also benefited from the park, as the area of properties increased by up to 25%, something that was well received by residents whose properties had previously been significantly devalued by the presence of the highway.
While this a long-term solution, there are other short-term plans that also allow the recovery of public spaces, like holding cultural fairs and festivals.
3. Greening Public Spaces to Reduce Environmental Impacts
If public spaces have green areas, they not only benefit citizens, but also contribute to the local ecosystem and therefore lessen environmental impacts, increasing the capacity for urban recovery and shortening the distance between people and vegetation within the urban environment.
An example of this highlighted by The City Fix is the creation of the Cantinho do Céu Park in the Grajaú neighborhood of São Paulo. The park was the result of the “Water Source Program,” a city-state initiative that aims to ensure quality water and sewerage services for the metropolitan area. To accomplish this, they needed to expand the sewerage service in vulnerable sectors, to build new rainwater systems and to maintain balanced water and sewage networks.
By doing so, they were able to improve the quality of these resources in a neighborhood that would not have been able to access this improvement before building the park.