From privatising to collectivising public space
Since Ancient Greece, public space has been the main meeting place and socialising venue in cities and towns. It has supported a host of activities such as public debate or public empowerment. It has been a public good enabling people to foster equality, respect and solidarity as a basis for a fairer society. One of the main characteristics of public space is its ability to adapt and open up to new challenges and uses.
However, over the last few years, the granting of licenses to occupy public streets and squares has become an increasing business for city and town councils. Regulating and legally limiting the use of our squares and other spaces through municipal orders or legislation is one of the main dimensions of the privatisation of public space. We understand privatisation as a process where the conditions to restrict free access to a common good are established. Overexploitation of public space for the benefit of business establishes a consumerist urban model, far from recommendable for the people.
This makes it necessary to develop new types of intervention and management of public spaces and facilities, which must be done by involving all neighbourhood groups. The responsibility of promoting a society that is both critical and proactive also falls upon urban planners. This is why we at Paisaje Transversal believe that intervening in public space can be done differently.
Several Spanish cities stand as examples of how participative architecture is one of the keys to achieving more inhabitable and responsible public spaces. Proof of this is the remodelling, jointly conceived by the town council and the neighbours, of the JH Park inTorrelodones (province of Madrid), and the protocols for activating public space in disuse promoted in San Sebastián’s Egia neighbourhood.
Yet this notion of participative architecture is nothing new. To cite an example, between 1947 and 1978 Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck designed more than 700 parks and playgrounds in both city centres and the monotonous suburbs. Another example is the project to upgrade and embellish certain squares in Bordeaux where Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philppe Vassaly worked with several neighbourhood proposals. The remodelling of Times Square in New York done by PPS stands as yet another example.
All of these examples prove that it is both possible and necessary to intervene in public spaces from a more social and open perspective, linked to the population’s real needs. This work is not only for politicians and architects, but for society on the whole which is continuously changing and progressing.
In short, these and many other examples show us that, in the face of exponential commodification of public space, there are another types of intervention that provide real solutions to improve people’s quality of life in cities instead of further fostering the prevailing privatising model that leads to urban inequalities.