I recently returned from an intensive 3-day conference in Stockholm entitled ‘The Future of Places’. Co-organised by Project for Public Spaces and UN Habitat in the lead up to the much-anticipated UN Habitat III, the event brought together urbanists, academics, practitioners, students, experts and everyone in between from 50 countries around the globe. Stories were shared, challenges were addressed and voices were heard. Below I have tried to think about the key messages that came out of our discussions – the important things to remember when creating, supporting or enhancing public space:
A people-centred approach: The UN Habitat’s primary message was that with such rapid global urbanisation – 200,000 people move to cities each day – the only way that places are going to work is if we adopt a people-centred, integrated approach to development and management.
Time for change: This people-oriented approach means reforming the way cities are planned and managed. If we don’t make cities that work for their inhabitants, human rights will be diminished and social unrest will undoubtedly rise. The Urban Think Tank made clear that we still have a long way to go to make cities truly sustainable, tolerant, equal, balanced and connected. Dr Narang Suri asserted that cities today are undertaking investment that is not for everyone – but at the cost of the resources that belong to everyone. The drivers of wealth are promoting the homogenisation of public spaces – how do we deal with this?
The community is the expert: This simple and crucial idea was outlined by PPS and many others: people need to be involved in a genuine and integrated way. Crowdsource ideas for making place because we are making spaces for the public, not just the professionals.
Be experimental: A theme that repeatedly emerged was the need to be experimental, though a qualitative scale of this experimentation was not explored. We need to allow space for new and innovative things to happen. Tactical urbanism is a form of this experimental approach, but it should be complemented, as Place Partners noted, by strategic and opportunistic methods.
Access, access, access: The buzzword of the conference – and rightfully so – was access; accessibility, as Ali Madanipour and others argued, is the key feature of good public space. Boundaries suggest inequality and fear – even overdesigning a space can limit access to it. Only through making truly accessible spaces can we move towards a more inclusive city.
Build partnerships: The simple fact is that a lot of future public space will be provided by private developments. Clever and collaborative partnerships need to be made across the public and private sectors as well as the community to ensure that space created is collaborative, contextual and democratic.
Don’t build objects, build places!: As Paul Murrain made clear, good placemaking isn’t just about THINGS – it’s a much more joined-up, contextual and nuanced approach.
Make places a joy to the senses: The experiential nature of public space was discussed, with an inspiring David Sim from Gehl Architects articulating how we experience the world through our senses. Place should be more interested in a richness of experience than of its people.
‘Lighter, quicker, cheaper’: This approach to placemaking was driven home by PPS. In this age of austerity, it’s certainly vital we learn how to do more with less. Making small, appropriate improvements is key.
Recognise what’s there: Suzanne Hall put forward this vital starting point – that we build on and support what already exists when approaching a place rather than simply changing it. Start by understanding the needs and the stories, and build this in to the process.
Build capacity: This emerged again and again: capacity needs to be built in the government, private sector and community to approach a more effective placemaking strategy. It’s a huge but vital challenge. The community should have the capability to make it their process: they will be empowered through organisation.
Don’t copy success stories: Again this related to the need to always be contextual; Place Partners highlighted the danger of trends such as the ‘High Line Fever’ that assume universal narratives in place.
There was far more but I believe that provides a good taster of the important discussions we had.
It is not about traditional vs temporary / formal vs informal, because dichotomies won’t help us get to a more sustainable future. There needs to be a joined-up approach that promotes partnership. My phrase would be ‘inspiration not instruction’: be inspired by people and place, and in turn inspire others. It is not always about stringent rules. It’s about a conversation.