The Urban Public Space and the Evolution of its Role

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and the evolution of its role


Vienna Technical University of Technology,

Abstract. This paper discusses the way public spaces are being given

different uses over time, according to the way the city evolves and how people relate to it. In doing so, it is important to define the roles of public realms within cities, to clarify why it is that their significance has increased drastically over the last decades and describe the current tendency in the design and revitalization of urban public spaces. All this, with the purpose of providing useful guidelines for better urban design practice.

Keywords. Urban development, public space, changing pattern, human response

1. Introduction

From ancient time until nowadays, from the Agora and Forum to today‟s corporate plaza or shopping mall, the public open spaces have always been crucial elements of the urban areas that contribute to quality of life on many different layers. The dimensions of the public urban space range from social services, health services and environmental services to economic benefits. From green spaces (parks and gardens, play areas, and sports facilities) to civic spaces (landscaped plazas or public squares, shopping centers, festival sites, pedestrian streets and promenades), the following common trends can be subtracted: public spaces that were once clearly in the public domain are increasingly under private ownership and control, although we still think of them as “public spaces”; there is ever more surveillance of these public spaces for security reasons; and the design of many public spaces has come to be more playful, often employing “theme parks”, breaking the connections with local history and geography.

2. The meaning of Public Space in the city framework

The urban public space is a key ingredient of the city; only by its presence can the private space be defined. The complexity of the public urban space can be easily understood when listing the wide range of roles taken: physical, ecological, psychological, social, political, economic, symbolic, and aesthetic.



The physical dimension can be determined if we consider the public spaces to be streets, squares, plazas, market places and parks. The streets, boulevards and avenues make up the main communication channels of the city. They are the means of transportation for people, objects and information and also they serve the daily needs of the public on the street (street lights, urban furniture and public convenience facilities).Streets offer the opportunity to develop open spaces with both public and private use.


By means of vegetation, public spaces help create ecologically healthy environments, by improving and stabilizing the micro-climate, increasing air turbulence, purifying air and water, filtering noise and dust particles, direct cooling down and cleansing breezes.


Performing as places of relaxation, public spaces provide people with the relief from the stresses of daily life and contribute to the mental and psychological health of human beings in various forms. Recent studies prove that in post-operation cases, both a patient‟s recovering time and the amount of analgesics needed are reduced if the room provides a view of trees. For the psychological and mental health of human beings, open spaces provide a certain rhythm of relaxation, but they also can act as boosters in the process of individual development by providing arenas to demonstrate skills, meet challenges and take risks0. People are stimulated to react spontaneously and learn about the others. Another important aspect of the public space which contributes to the upbringing of an individual is the social dimension. Social interaction, promoted by the public space engages people in the discovery of the „self‟, „others‟ and „the environment‟, leading to a sense of adaptation and personal continuity in a rapidly changing world.


According to wikipwdia, „a public space is a space such as a town square that is open and accessible to all, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age or socio-economic level. One of the earliest examples of public spaces are the


commons. For example, no fees or paid tickets are required for entry, nor are the entrants discriminated based on background‟. (Wikipedia 2011) Public spaces perform as arenas of social interaction and by bringing together people of different class, ethnic origin, gender and age they carry out educational, informative and communicative roles to strengthen public life and help form „the richest quality of a multi-class, multi-cultural, heterogeneous city‟.


Public spaces are open to all „freely chosen‟ and „spontaneous‟ action of people, encouraging people to act freely, interact with others and represent themselves. This way public spaces enable people to develop and promote democracy, provide healthy contexts to resolve disagreements and conflicts (rather than keep them private) and serve to facilitate free society civility and public resolve.


All throughout history, public spaces have been hosting commercial activities. Also, if kept in good conditions, public spaces can influence the economic value of the urban land which surrounds them. With their role as economic value generator, public spaces have become crucial means to add value to speculative developments, regarding amenity and commerce and to market and regenerate localities.


Public spaces have the power to provide the city its identity. When thinking of a city, the first which come to mind are its streets and public squares, or maybe building facades, the image of which also encloses and belongs to the public space. Public spaces tend to contain elements which represent „higher older values‟, such as sacred or symbolic meeting places. A valid example of such spaces are those used for religious purposes. This way the public space becomes a symbol for a group of people or a society, representing religious, cultural, historical or political values for them.


Public spaces have the ability and function to beautify and provide unity to the overall appearance of the city, to improve and enhance its aesthetic quality.


3. The Recent Increased Significance of Public Spaces

The interest in public urban spaces debuted with Le Corbusier‟s principles on urban planning, published in the document entitled „The Athens Charter‟ 1943, which militated towards reintegrating nature in the city and creating green leisure spaces.

In the early 1980s the urban planning tendency was to reject the Modernist philosophy and embrace once again the spirit of urbanism that characterized traditional towns and cities. This meant that the object was once again the public realm, rather than the buildings themselves, realm which had to be an organic, colorful, human-scale attractive environment.

1987 Another theory is that the new interest taken in urban public spaces comes from the revitalization of street activities, such as performing, walking, cycling, outdoor eating, street vending.

1993 The increasing significance of public spaces seems to be the result of the demand of certain segments of the population (employees of the service sector, tourists), which have demanded new open spaces for sports and fitness and the provision of access to nature close to the living and working places. Therefore came the necessity to revive older parks, playgrounds and other central spaces, and make them safe places.

2000 Another factor which led to the increased interest in public spaces is the so called „museumization of the culture‟ phenomenon; this is the product of a growing interest, particularly popular amongst tourists, in museums, galleries and open public spaces.

However, public spaces have also started to be used as elements which are meant to bring unity amongst the social classes. The social class segregation (which inevitably has led to its spatial expression) is a phenomenon generated by the transition from an industrial economy to a service economy. In this case, public spaces have been promoted to ameliorate the tension and anxiety caused by the social polarization and fragmentation. The prior stated are catalysts for the recent concern with public spaces, but the major generator stands to be globalization. With the arrival of multi-national companies and institutions the economies of most countries have been incorporated in a global capitalist economy, with the consequence that some cities have been turned into „world cities‟. World cities are cities which were specialized in service and technology-based activities, whereas some other cities which used to be prosperous have suffered economic decline.

Globalization is responsible for the drastic change in the urban landscape of the so called „world cities‟, whose centers often described as „glorious‟, „spectacular‟, „astonishing‟ are characterized by their exclusivity and affluence, presenting a self-referential pattern and being fragmented from


the rest of the city. The new landscape is well designed in order to create a strong visual identity.

The public spaces of the „world cities‟ have also been revitalized; the investors and the teams of designers and architects claim they are made beautiful and livable in order to fulfill the public needs. However, one of the major motivations remains the fact that the investors and the developers are fully aware of the economic benefits that such public spaces bring to their investments, especially commercial centers in exchange for the provision of public amenities.

Another motivation for this increased interest is the desire to “market‟ the city, to create and promote its image in order to attract capital, goods, corporations and labor. Within the new landscape, public spaces have become significant means of marketing localities. Cultural events and sport tournaments which are organized in order to promote the city have once more increased the popularity of the urban public spaces.

With globalization, the economy of many cities improved drastically, but also a great deal had to face economic decline. This is when these cities realized they need to promote new images, create safe, good-looking and exclusive environments in order to attract investors and developers, losing their authentic image and erasing the fading memory of their distinctive social, cultural and historical characteristics.

Today, public spaces are seen as the prominent means to develop positive images of certain city areas and achieve a level of attractiveness to potential investors. Increased investments are made in cultural centers, heritage parks and conference suites which are designed to play a catalytic role in urban regeneration.

4. Characteristics of the Public Space Nowadays

Today‟s public spaces, also called „quasi-public spaces‟, are characterized by the strong emphasis on their economic, symbolic and aesthetic roles. The changing patterns of urban public spaces present the following three common trends: increasing privatization of spaces that were once more clearly in the public domain; increasing surveillance of public spaces and control of access to them; and increasing use of design themes that employ “theme park” simulations.

The three major phenomena, which show the over-emphasis on the economic roles of public spaces, are „privatization‟, „commodification‟ and „commercialization‟. Privatization of public space means shifting of the


design, management and control of public spaces from the public sector to the private sector (the selling of public streets by public authorities to raise money). Commodification of public space refers to the recognition of public realm as a commodity to be bought and sold, just like other material goods, such as cars, refrigerators or television sets (the expansion of market trade to previously non-market areas, and to the treatment of things as if they were a tradable commodity). Commercialization of public space means that public realm is used in order to bring profit rather than to improve the quality of urban space and life (The creation of exclusive and affluent public spaces in order to increase the value of the waterfront, commercial, residential, office and entertainment complexes, and the public spaces of theme parks, regional or mega shopping malls designed according to the principle of „capture‟ in order to keep the users inside and to increase consumption). “From shopping malls to gated neighborhoods and protected walkways, new urban spaces are increasingly developed and managed by private agencies in the interest of particular sections of the population” Madanipour.

The economic, symbolic and aesthetic roles of the new public spaces are also underlined by the promotion of the over-designed and „attractive‟ public spaces, which is means of the image-building strategy meant to attract investors and affluent consumers. In order to produce these „well-designed‟ public spaces, several design strategies have been used. By introducing „exclusivity in the design‟ (use of chic, stylish architecture, highly ornamental elegant materials), the new public spaces are meant to attract, impress and promote the feeling of affluence. Another design strategy would be introducing „variety and diversity‟ in the design, which translates into various architectural styles, even replicas of world famous buildings or artifacts, as „the eclectic mix of images in the design of public spaces encourages consumption‟ (Cybriwsky). Another component, which is used to create good-looking public spaces, is the use of „art‟ which beautifies them turning them into commodities and promoting affinity. „Culture‟ and „History‟ are two other tools used to promote the economic and symbolic roles of the public spaces by means of simulation of historical places, as well as the restoration and rehabilitation of the historical sites of cities and their promotion as tourist attractions.

The second trend in the urban public space changing pattern is their control, which starts with their design. This control aims to eliminate unwanted factors which are usually to be found in traditional public spaces, such as noise, car parking, smoke, cold weather and violence. The strict control (surveillance and security cameras, private guards or private security forces and limited opening hours) is also meant to manage the users and activities taking place in these public spaces. „The control on the users and activities of the public spaces aims at achieving the smooth operation of retailers


away from thugs and muggers, the comfort and convenience of the groups which do not feel safe in conventional public spaces, as well as to encourage shopping and other consumption activities and to promote and protect the „good‟ image of the city‟(Z. Müge) Public spaces which are produced under the pressure of city-marketing policies undermine the needs of local communities for the sake of private interest. The design and management policies, also aim to push out undesirable members of the population of these public spaces, in order to serve a „homogenous‟ public, promote „social filtering‟ and therefore cause gentrification. Instead of gathering various people together, as the traditional public spaces do, the new public spaces enhance gentrification, social alienation and isolation. This shows the fact that the social role of public spaces in the design of today‟s urban public spaces is severely undermined.

3. Conclusion

Public spaces are the products of competing ideas about what constitutes them – order and control or free, and perhaps dangerous, interaction and who constitutes „the public‟. As stated in the beginning of the paper, the public space represents the material location where the social interactions and political activities of all members of „the public‟ occur. Public spaces with strong emphasis on their certain roles cannot serve the public interest. The challenge for the regeneration initiatives is to take into consideration the everyday needs that society may have, and think globally regarding the civic function of public spaces in cities. It is vital not to allow the economic, symbolic and aesthetic effects to dominate. The creation of „genuine public spaces‟, public spaces that actually meet their initial purpose and can ensure the generation of vital and viable cities, can only be achieved if there is a balance kept between the strategies to gain competitive advantage over other cities and a response to everyday society‟s needs and interests and genuine civic functions of public spaces.


Bahar Gediki, 2008, “Health, Quality of Life, Public Spaces” Stakeholder Workshop Henry Shaftoe, 2008, Convival Urban Spaces

Roman Cybriwsky,1999, Changing patterns of urban public space: Observations and assessments from the Tokyo and New York metropolitan areas

Z. Müge AKKAR ERCAN, 2007, Public Spaces of Post-industrial Cities And their Changing Roles

Dana Cornelia Nitulescu, 2006, The Process of Gentrification





Related subjects : Urban art and public space