The discussion around public space today is one that touches every aspect of human life in cities. It encompasses our right to gather in solidarity and protest, as we witnessed in Istanbul’s Gezi Park earlier this year; our prioritization of people over vehicles; and our commitment to joyful urban experiences. Public space has become a priority for city makers and city dwellers the world over, and even UN-Habitat, with their recent commitment to developing an official resolution on sustainable urban development through access to quality urban public spaces, has set public space at the top of their agenda.
Clearly, public space is now seen as being more that a luxury. But what, then, is it? And where do we need to take the discussion from here in order to push it forward? To answer some of these questions, I caught up with place maker extraordinaire and one of the world’s most well-versed and active players in the world of public space development: Ethan Kent, Vice President of Project for Public Spaces (PPS). Founded in 1975 by Fred Kent to expand on the work of urbanist and author William H. Whyte, PPS has worked in thousands of communities around the world to improve public spaces.
One of the themes that has really emerged in recent years—and certainly came up a lot at the Lab—is a global sense of the need to “reclaim” public spaces, whether it’s governments making more of a priority out of pedestrian-oriented spaces, more DIY efforts by citizens, or even UN-Habitat crafting a resolution on public space. Why is this all happening now?
I think definitely for a long time public space has sort of fallen between the many causes and focuses of governments and nonprofits. Now we’re seeing it really emerging as a leading cause in and of itself, but also as a focus through which we can better address a whole range of other issues, from equality, to economic development, to cultural creativity and preservation, to a series of basic rights of individuals. There have been leading movements, maybe the environmental movement or even by UN-Habitat, focused on housing and economic development and inequality and whatnot, but public space wasn’t defined as much of a cause or focus of attention. Now I think all those groups are moving towards public space as an issue in and of itself, but also as a means to better address those various issues.
The issue of ownership comes up a lot—either that of private versus public ownership of publicly used space, or issues of decision-making about how space is built and used. Where do we need to take that conversation now?
A big focus for us that has emerged in recent years has been around governance of space, very broadly defined, and shifting to what we call a place-lead culture of governance. How decisions are made, and the process through which spaces are created, has kind of been left out. There’s been a lot of focus on the form and the design and people learn a lot more about that. There are still mistakes being made there, but we think most of those mistakes are being perpetuated because of this idea that it’s form alone that creates great places. In fact, we think it’s best that you first create demand for good form, and then create the design through a better process and governance of the public realm . . . a lot of informal communities are actually already doing this. Everyone is trying to create place value, and leadership can come from any level. It can still come from the professional level, or the mayor or whoever, but great ideas can come from anywhere. It’s a culture where every building, every vendor is competing to contribute to the shared value of the public realm. That’s very different from a commercialized public space, where everyone is competing to take value from that place. So it’s a culture of governance more than anything else, and a lot broader than the form of the space or the economic viability of it.
Speaking of governance as it relates to public space, PPS has been involved with the creation of UN-Habitat’s public space resolution. What does this resolution actually mean for us, and how will we see it affect cities?
The idea is to really present public spaces and place making as a central strategy for development—to get governments to see this as a cause, effectively, and a strategy for meeting their goals as governments. UN-Habitat is really helping elevate this as a cause and apply this to areas that haven’t seen public spaces as a focal point. Many people see public spaces as a luxury, and this is meant to change that: to help define it as a means of achieving many basic goals. It’s making the case for that, but also looking at how to direct investment appropriately and efficiently.
What are the most exciting things happening right now in the public space movement?
One of the most exciting things, I think, is this increasing focus on what we call the lighter, quicker, cheaper elements of public space improvements. In both the wealthiest countries and the poorest, often the factors that are leading to the most improved public spaces are low-cost amenities, programming, and management of space. They’re temporary experiments or efforts to try things and learn collectively what’s more compatible with local participation and governance and ownership of public spaces.
What are we not talking about now that we should be?
There’s still a lot of need to see public space as a means to create better equality and as a democratizing force. I think public spaces are bearing the burden of increasing inequality in many parts of the world. To succeed as integrating forces they have to be stronger, better-quality spaces, [both in the developed and the developing world]. It certainly plays out in different ways, but it’s in the best public spaces that people feel more equal; where they’re more likely to make eye contact with somebody different than them and where everybody elevates their role to contribute to the shared experience of everyone else. In weaker spaces that are prone to more use by any one private user group, inequality can really be a detriment everyone’s experience. At the same time, I think investing in public spaces that are truly public and offer comfortable, safe, purposeful experience to everyone is a powerful tool we have for democratization, for bridging divides, and creating and anchoring strong economies that have jobs that create upward mobility and social integration.