Social Spaces Need Creative Management

Cape Times (South Africa), August 2, 2007 | Go to article overview

Social Spaces Need Creative Management


BYLINE: ERIK SCHAUG

If the proposed improvements to the Grand Parade are going to work, it will be because of good management. This is one of the factors neglected in urban design theory until fairly recently.

Most urban designers come from a background of architecture, and their emphasis tends to be formal, in the sense of the shapes of the spaces they create.

But often the most important thing about public spaces is not their shapes - important as these are - but the nature of the human activities that take place in them, and how they are managed.

Modernism in architecture is very concerned with the appearance of buildings, and although they are supposed to look functional, they often end up looking suspiciously sculptural.

Little thought, if any, is given to the impact buildings have on the spaces immediately surrounding them, particularly at ground level. There may be a few trees planted to soften the often hard visual impact of the buildings, and perhaps a water feature to add a bit of life and movement.

Too seldom do architects realise that the liveliest thing you can add to a building is human life. One reason why modernist architecture fails to do this is that it has been heavily influenced by humanism, and one of the chief shortcomings of humanists is that they think humanity is more important than humans.

Historian Paul Johnson put it very well when he defined intellectuals as those who think that ideas are more important than people.

Early writings about urban spaces concentrated mostly on ideas of shapes and appearances. Alberti, for instance, wrote in the 15th century that the proper height for the buildings around a square is one third of the breadth of the open area, or one sixth at the least.

Similarly, Palladio wrote in the 16th century about the typical width of a Roman Forum being 1.75 to 2.50 the height of the buildings around it.

Camillo Sitte, writing in the 19th century, said that the key to a sense of enclosure to a square is the treatment of the corners: if they are open, the sense of enclosure is diminished. Little was said about how public spaces were actually used by people, and how these activities could be enhanced and encouraged. The title of his book, published in Vienna in 1889, says it all: City Planning According to Artistic Principles.

Public spaces are large containers for human activities. They might be beautifully designed, but they do not fill themselves automatically.

Urban designers who have written recently about such matters include Jan Gehl, whose book Life Between Buildings has made a big impact since it was published in 1980 and then translated from the original Danish.

Another is William White, who wrote The Social Life of Small Urban Space in 1980 and City: Rediscovering the Centre in 1988.

Both focus very much on the human and social aspects of public spaces; for instance, they point out that urban squares, if they work at all, do so from the edges. Get the edges wrong - make them lifeless and unattractive to people - and the square will fail.

Squares also need lots of opportunities to sit and socialise: on formal seats and benches and on impromptu perches like flat-topped bollards and wide steps and ledges.

Even these types of measures will not be enough. You have to manage what happens when people start to fill the space.

In his handbook, Managing Downtown Public Spaces, American Stephen Davies puts the case succinctly: "Early on, we focused primarily on finding ways to design spaces better. But now we recognise that management is often more important and can accomplish more, and faster, than any new design scheme. Many cities have discovered the hard way that just creating a new pedestrian mall, for example, is not enough - brick sidewalks and flowering trees cannot in themselves revitalise a downtown."

That's why it is encouraging to see that, among the proposals for the redevelopment of the Grand Parade, management plays an important role. …

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