Vision and Innovation in Public Spaces

According to a new study out of the UK, contemporary urban design is what's driving people away: “The ‘urban renaissance’ agenda appears too concerned with matters of urban design, as well as being distinctly metropolitan in character...Most public spaces that people use are local spaces they visit regularly, often quite banal in design, or untidy in their activities or functions, such as street markets and car boot sales."

While there is a good deal of truth to the first statement, I find the second to be very troubling. It seems to suggest that the fact that frequently used spaces are often banal in character is a credit to the banality of the design. (My vocal response upon reading this: "Whaa?") There is certainly a degree of insularity to the contemporary design community...some might even call it elitism. The idea that planners know best when it comes to public space has been proven, over and over again, to be incorrect. The problem is not that planners are clueless or elitist, as the study seems to suggest. It is that communities are often left out of (or worse, choose to ignore) the [re]design of the public spaces around them.

Actually, I whined a few weeks ago about how uninspiring the results can be when the public is asked how to create successful spaces. Ask a crowd what they want in their park and they'll tell you: street vendors, fountains, playgrounds. This is where I think planners come into the equation. As the British study suggests, human use of public spaces is often much messier than planners would like to admit (much less allow for.) Max Nathan of the Centre for Cities is quoted in an article about the study, saying "There is a danger you can be over focused on design, imposing visions on people and not understanding how they use that space." I would argue that visionary planning is a very important component of successful placemaking. But a truely visionary planner does not need to impose anything on people--they learn how to understand the "banal" needs of a community and translate them into innovative environments that facilitate those uses--and, eventually, inspire new uses.

Public wants space not style, architects told (bdonline)

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