Decline in the Public Realm

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THE DECLINE IN THE PUBLIC REALM

“We have reached a stage in the development of our technology where we have the power to create the environment that we need or to destroy it beyond repair, according to the use we make of this power. This forces us to control this power. To do this we must first of all decide what we want to achieve. And this is far from easy…..”

* Sir Ove Arup
(How do you want to live?)

The need to care about the urban environment has never been greater. Towns and cities over centuries are the greatest achievements of technological, artistic, cultural and social endeavor. The public realm is the most important aspect of this collective endeavor by us. The greatest amount of social interaction and human contact happens in this “realm of the commons”. The public realm essentially consists of all those places that the common folk have visual and physical access to; these include the streets, the parks and squares, various buildings for public intent. They together in a communal manner represent the index of our civilization, particularly the state of our towns and cities.

However, there has been consistent depletion of the richness of the public realm world over. And this deliberate act of what can only be termed as mass insanity, has had adverse effects on the cities and towns all over the globe. Many of the world’s towns and cities, especially their centers have become threatening places littered, piled with rotting rubbish, polluted, congested and choked by traffic, brimming with mediocre and profit oriented buildings that the developers in their decadent pursuit to gain more economic benefits have consistently erected as obelisks signifying the act of ritually sacrificing the welfare of many over the few.

Buildings and cities have, to many, have become mere instruments for gaining monetary benefits. They have become mints for the manufacture of money; at the cost of dehumanizing the most intrinsic human endeavor - the city. Even though it is apparent that the simple blind folded approach to gain profit and economic benefits is not at all compatible with the improving the quality of our urban lifestyle, the trend still continues.

With car ownership on the rise, the city centers which were once characterized by an appealing maze- like, intricate quality are now beset by noisy traffic congestion and these urban motorways have got devastating impact on the local environments through which they pass.

Places are losing their public identities and it is becoming all the more easier for cities to loose what is unique and beneficial to the collective whole, in favor of the car oriented profit minded developments that are dominated by the second-rate tower blocks and commercial mixed use complexes that lack the very progressive quality within the architecture that was once to be found in every space tailored specifically to the need of the people.

An extreme example of such oppression is the center of Osaka, Japan, where all the pedestrians are confined to the sidewalks by street railings and can only cross the downtown streets on high pedestrian bridges. Much of the new shopping is underground, some three stories below the surface, while the traffic flows uninterrupted through the downtown area as if it were a ground level freeway. This results in the formation of anti-streets, i.e, streets that prefer vehicular movement over pedestrian movement.

Even the figure-ground plan of Tokyo reveals a pattern that prefers the movement of vehicles rather than pedestrians. Whereas, the figure-ground plan of Amsterdam reveals a totally inverse planning, one that prefers pedestrian movement along with the canal system that offers two unique spatial experiences: one of moving along the linear, concentric canals; while the other is of moving across the canals grain along the radial streets.

Hachiko Square, located in Tokyo’s Shibuya district is an intersection surrounded my multi-storeyed office...
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