From Spaces To Places: Valuing Public Spaces In URBACT Cities

Fernando Barreiro Cavestany

By Fernando Barreiro Cavestany, on June 24th, 2015

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A handful of cities belonging to four URBACT networks (1) addressed from different angles the public and urban space issue, one of the more important topics for nowadays cities. It is true that some of these projects were beyond the public space theme. Anyway, we should point out that through these networks different dimensions and perspectives on public spaces were revealed, overflowing the more classic perspective of urban planning concerning only municipal authorities.

Plurality of perspectives to deal with public spaces becomes an asset and an added value for the URBACT program as a whole, showing the need of a comprehensive approach to match its complexity and multidimensionality.

Plurality of Perspective

Firstly, a uses and users perspective, focused in the public spaces as a privileged domain for the urban social life beyond the physical quality of the urban forms and valuing public spaces by its capacity to facilitate social interactions. In short: transforming “spaces into places”(2). Under this principle, cities are considered meeting places for a multifaceted urban life and a mixture of uses and activities. The principle of conviviality should be pointed to accommodate different demographic groups and different ways of using spaces, different behaviours without excluding anybody, facilitating the encounters between different users. But the increased intensity of uses raises the risk of conflicts and the NIMBY attitudes (not in my back yard) where different interests are manifested and where some residents and users express that “my public space is not your public space”.

Good daily maintenance, safety feeling, mixture of uses, avoiding rejection of more vulnerable groups and prevention of overuses and environmental impacts, are key issues that should ensure social life in public space. Well-diagnosed uses and users of public spaces are the starting point for designing public space that is adapted to users’ needs avoiding at the same time divided and unclear places. Considering uses and users as a basis for the improvement of public spaces is necessary but requires a change in the usual working habits.

Secondly, a re-using and re-filling perspective, based in a more territorial approach, fostering the compact, dens and sustainable city to reduce urban sprawl. Strategies that seek the reduction of empty land use based on its protection, promote the re-using of the inner city spaces. The compact city model requires urban interventions to re-use and re-fill underused spaces, urban voids, brownfields and non-places at different scales. This strategy proposes the refilling of empty urban spaces as a key component of the sustainable city.

This proposal requires a deep change in the urban planning tools, neglecting the zoning concept and adopting a multifunctional approach for urban areas. Therefore, rationalization of land use avoiding urban sprawl demands a FUA (functional urban area) and metropolitan governance approach to underpin a wide territorial vision.

Thirdly, and very linked to the former, a temporary uses perspective. Reusing empty spaces, both private and public is the starting point. Temporary uses are directly linked to the non-used spaces and urban voids, to transform them in new resources for the urban development. Investors, developers, land owners, public and private agencies and municipalities value those practices of temporary uses. They start to see how these “in between spaces” are drivers of local rooted processes, and how these processes have a high degree of manifold sustainability. The type of contract between users and owners, compensation, policies of functional mixing, incentives towards property owners to participate in these initiatives, municipal support, etc, appear as fundamental challenges for temporary uses.

Finally, a placemaking and co-production perspective: a process which draws on the ideas, resources and commitment of a local community to create places that they value. Placemaking should be considered as an on-going process through which a community creates and develops the spaces where people pursue their business, recreational and social interests in a self-determined way. It is a multifaceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Put simply, it involves looking at, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work and play in a particular space to discover their ideas and aspirations. Placemaking is very much about the process of “making” the place, collectively and in ways which develop and celebrate a sense of a common place.

An Untidy Process

As a cross cutting issue shared by all the networks, improvements in urban places are often perceived as a linear process, predictable and controlled, the new approach proposes an untidy process where the outcomes are not easily predicted. The best spaces evolve by experimenting with short-term improvements that can be tested and refined over many years. We need to carry out small interventions that make things visible, and experimentations that show how people react.

It should not just focus on the quality of life of the space at the time of its creation or recovery but include the conditions of quality maintenance over time and give through to its adaptability without being limited to a single technical point of view. We should check the ability of a public space to respond to the needs and various expectations of those it concerns, at different levels, its ability to preserve its intrinsic quality in the long term.

Unlike “utopias of spatial form” and their tendency for closure the new paradigm to address public spaces proposes a practice for transforming the real where the vision acts as a catalyst or compass rather than a plan. The new approaches that were tested by the URBACT networks to face public spaces with a comprehensive approach strive to build a trajectory, however uncertain, towards the desired situations. There is no question of an overarching rational planning approach or of seeking “one best way”, but rather of opening the field of possibilities and of recognizing the various means of reaching appropriated public spaces. In this way, we should be guided by principles, values and one or more visions that act as compasses that orient public space development. It makes use of experimentation and capacity building for reflection.

Transforming spaces into places entails also considering urban spaces as pieces or portions of an urban fabric integrating them coherently and balanced in their surroundings where environmental, economic, social and cultural functions are interrelated.

Complex and Flexible Partnership

Building complex and flexible partnerships is a big challenge to face public space improvement. Regulatory powers, public property, private resources and citizenship participation are needed to ensure a proper design, management and maintenance of qualified public spaces. It will not be possible otherwise. Traditional and closed forms of urbanism are not longer possible to address diversity and complexity of urban spaces neither to find the required solutions.

Citizen participation and users engagement are key ingredients to deal with public spaces in all the considered projects. Participation should be valued not by itself, but as a function of its contribution to the qualities of the public space being produced, managed and transformed. Behind the generic mantra, the participation of residents and users in projects of public spaces development, could elicit very varied responses according to very different roles and status assigned upon the residents.

Residents and users participation processes should be considered as a sort of apprenticeship for all the stakeholders concerned, from design to project management, in the legitimacy of users knowledge, and thus in the expertise and legitimacy of the decision-making process. Changes in the conceptions, attitudes and practices of all the stakeholders will gradually occur through the experience of successive projects, by learning lessons every time.

(1) P4C- Placemaking for cities, TUTUR (Temporary Use as a Tool for Urban Regeneration), USEAct (Urban Sustainable Environmental Actions) and USER (Changes and conflicts in using public spaces)
(2) the geographer Tim Creswell illustrates the distinction between space and place by referring to an advertisement in a local furniture shop entitled “turning space into place” reflecting how people use furniture and interior décor to make their houses meaningful, turning them from empty locations into personalized and comfortable homes.
Photo: Stalingrad, Paris, France. By Inge Knoff on Flickr, under creative commons license.

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