thoughts on our urban future

Enjoying public space

The last couple of weeks have been great for being in London. We have had (apparently) the driest and warmest April since records began, and that, coupled with 5 of public holidays in the space of 2 weeks has given us plenty of opportunities to enjoy what the city has to offer.

It has been a particularly good time to appreciate the quality and quantity of public spaces available to most Londoners. From small squares dotted around residential neighbourhoods to the big civic spaces, riverside walks and the great big city parks, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the sunny weather and engage in all sorts of activities from sports to contemplation, access to nature, picnics, barbecues and many more. It’s at times like these that I realise really how much of a difference it makes to live in a place where the impact of adequate public open spaces (and public realm in general) is recognised and appreciated.

I come from a country where there really is a culture of using the street. Lots of things happen there – almost regardless of the weather conditions (rain excluding, I suppose), people of all ages go out and hang out on the streets. There are many things to eat and drink, and buy, all rather chaotic actually, but very vibrant and full of life. The same applies to parks and squares. People make the most of them, almost regardless of their quality, which as everywhere, varies; even if admittedly – and especially in terms of quantity – the open space provision can’t be compared to that of richer parts of the world.

Yet I think the average citizen takes whatever public spaces are available to him or her a little bit for granted, and I suppose that is just normal. The way we use public space is largely determined by its availability, type and quality, but also by its configuration or design. The expectations of users, as designers seek to respond to the needs and expectations of the society around them (with varied degrees or success), play a huge part on what they actually offer. So whilst an Englishman or Englishwoman will expect large open green areas that feel a little like ‘the countryside’, someone in Southern Europe may expect much more formal arrangements of paths, seating areas and fountains – with different characters depending on countries and regions.

I personally can’t quite make my mind up on what my favourite public space is, or what kind of space I like more. From those which I have some sort of emotional attachment to those newly discovered as little well kept secrets in unexpected locations – passing through the big London Parks which inspired me to write this post, I always feel inspired by public space (understood widely, streets and avenues included). This is probably the reason why I chose to be an architect and an urban designer, not that I had much more than an intuition about this. It wasn’t the buildings that seduced me, but the spaces in between.



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