If you are in the business of city making, the following story probably sounds familiar to you. A city or a developer decides to (re)design a public space and hires an architecture or planning firm to do it. The firm then studies the location and creates a beautiful proposal. Next, the city – often because it is required by law – informs the public about the plan and waits for objections. When this legal hurdle is over, the project is carried out. The city has a new public space, but how is really working?
This is when the story gets sad. Because too often, top-down planned public spaces just don’t work. People just don’t use it. Resources are spent on projects that end up empty and sad, despite looking great on paper. These failures are devastating because of two reasons. First, good public spaces are essential for livable cities. And second, creating a great open space is not a difficult task, as I will share below.
The main reason for a failing public space is the gap between citizens’ needs and the actual design. Cities differ from each other, but most of them have one thing in common: many planners and architects that think they know what people want. However, they can only understand what people want if they involve the public in the creation process. As Jane Jacobs said: “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody” (Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 238).
Luckily, making great public spaces is easy. In short, it’s all about the process and the honest effort to listen to people. Below you’ll find Humankind’s five steps to create a place. To illustrate it, I will use a project in Groningen, the Netherlands. It’s a playground, sports field and outdoor gym that we planned a couple of years ago.
Projects do not start out of thin air. If there is no need, even a hidden one, there’s no reason to work so hard. Once a city asked us to plan a new sports court in the back of the neighborhood. When speaking with residents, we discovered that not only they had enough sports courts in the neighborhood, but also the existing ones were sufficient and much closer than the proposed location. There was absolutely no need, and we advised the city to cancel the plan.
In our case, the need for redesigning the public space was evident. The existing playground was old, children didn’t use it, and the police had to deal with vandalism at night. The place is located close to the city center, next to a historic port. The gap between the potential of the area and the reality was shameful.
This is the essential part of the process. Before even getting to the planning part, it’s vital to get to know the surrounding neighbors, business owners, and casual passersby. At the end of the day, after the plan will be carried out, they will be the ones to be there every day.
In Groningen, we’ve been interviewing neighbors and got a pretty good insight of the challenges and the potential of the area. We later organized participation meetings, in which we’ve planned together with the locals their new park. We allowed them to share all their dreams about their neighborhood.
This step is the planning part of the process. The reason we don’t call it “design” but “listen to them” is because this is where so many projects fail. Planners and architects, even those who do ask people what they want, tend to forget during the planning process the basic wishes. They get too deep into the design process that the results do not answer the need or citizens’ preferences.
I think that this is the most natural part of the planning process. If the previous step is done well, translating people wishes into reality is an easy task. Gil Peñalosa from 8-80Cities explained once that in participation projects we ask the people WHAT they want, and then we need to figure out HOW to do it. The most important thing is always returning to the WHAT and see if we are still in the right direction.
This is how this process looked in Groningen. Notice how the design proposal followed the wishes of people, as shown in one of the maps that were drawn during the participation meeting.
When planning the public space, we try to combine as many uses as possible in the area. This is similar to PPS’s The Power of 10+ concept: “the idea behind this concept is that places thrive when users have a range of reasons (10+) to be there”.
This is where planners should think outside the box. How can different users use the same space and objects for different purposes? This will ensure a lively place throughout the day.
In the Groningen case, we designed the children playground so it can be used by adults for sports and sitting. In addition, we made sure that the sports facilities are safe enough for children. We’ve created a place that looks different at different times of the day, depends on the target group.
The last part is getting your plan and make it a reality. This part varies among cities and projects, yet there is one rule of thumb that most projects share. Just like the design of the place should be diverse, so are the actors and companies executing the plans. There is no one company out there that can do everything from A to Z. While cities tend to outsource this task to one company, as it seems the more affordable option, it proves many times to be the wrong and more expensive route.
This is it. At the end of the day, it’s about working together with the community and truly corporate their wishes in the plan. Want to work with us? We’d be happy to help you create a park that works for everybody.