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Decline in the Public Realm

By PatelNeilV1 Dec 15, 2012 1841 Words

“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 buildings, department stores, hotels, apartment buildings and mixed use complexes and illuminated by competing billboards and large screen televisions. Like other Japanese public spaces, it is not a traditional square, but rather a center of activity.

And like many other Japanese public spaces, it is plagued by the domination of automobiles giving the pedestrians a secondary priority and hence willfully depleting the potency of the public space. It is the traffic signals that allow the pedestrians to cross over.

A similar example but in this case the public domain was ceremonially sacrificed by the collaborative effort of town planners and architects for the construction of the “Padmavati Commercial Complex” in the downtown area of Baroda, India. Here, the former site of the Padmavati complex was a public garden, besides the lake “Sur Sagar”, that enjoyed the grand entrance view of the “Nyay Mandir” ; the court that portrayed British Colonial panache . This area now witnesses a severe lack of space for public use in the downtown area and is overwhelmed by congestion of both vehicles and pedestrians.

In UK, for instance, over the last three years this pattern of privatizing public space has accelerated dramatically, with astronomically high property prices in the hot areas, all too often just a mile or so away from cold areas of exclusion. Accompanying this new patchwork is the growing privatization of the public realm which is gradually changing the nature of our towns and cities.

The backdrop to this changing urban landscape is postindustrial change, as the UK economy completes the painful shift from an industrial-based economy to a knowledge-based ‘new’ economy, driven by the high earning globalized financial services industries.

Just as development in the UK between the 1950s and ‘60s followed clearly defined trends driven then by centralized planning and the system building of tower blocks this latest wave of urban change is also characterized by certain key trends, relating this time to the private ownership and management of the public realm, which has now become part of the process identified by the government as the ‘urban renaissance’.

This process has created a tremendous opportunity for cities, transforming warehouses, docks and riverfronts up and down the country into thriving centers of the new economy. But there is a downfall; In Liverpool, an enormous new regeneration scheme is prompting fears that the city center is to be entirely privatized and sanitized, policed by its own security force and ruled by its own laws.

The plans, approved by the city council, will see developer Grosvenor Estates redevelop 35 streets in the heart of the city, replacing traditional rights of way with ‘public realm arrangements’, policed by US-style ‘quarter masters’ or ‘sheriffs’.

Further, in an echo of mega-mall Bluewater’s recent banning of ‘hoodies’, the Liverpool regeneration scheme articulates the banning of any form of begging, skateboarding and rollerblading, alcohol and food consumption allowed only in certain designated areas and any form of demonstration will require police permission.

Arguments in refute are being made that the privatization of the public realm, through the growth of ‘private-public’ space, produces over controlled, sterile places which lack connection to the reality and diversity of the local environment, with the result that they all tend to look the same. They also raise serious questions about democracy and accountability.

Underpinning the changing urban picture are significant changes in landownership which are seeing the rise of individual landlords owning and managing entire city center schemes, in place of the dense network of local shops and businesses which provide automatic diversity and enhance local culture and local identity.

The paramount concern is that today’s developers are more concerned with the principles of the shopping mall than with creating places able to stand the test of time. This is because they are too narrowly focused simply on creating places which generate maximum returns in terms of shopping and spending. But while economic viability is important, successful places must be about more than a balance sheet, or they will fail to connect with local communities.

City centers which are designed purely with shopping and leisure in mind produce strangely ‘placeless’ places, cut off from their original wellsprings of local life and vitality, characterized instead by a fake, theme-park atmosphere which is a result of disconnection from the local environment.

This state of distasteful confusion and loss of the public realm that is defining the current scenario of our cities is felt throughout the world and was caricatured by Miles Kington, writing in “The Independent” in July 1988 and explaining the offbeat England to tourists:

“Is city a town with a cathedral?

No. A city is a town with a high rise car park blocking the view of the cathedral. Other features of a city include…….. a railway station inconveniently far from the center, ……….….. branches of all the main clearing banks plus one other, at least two concrete overpasses, a taxi rank with more than five cabs waiting at the ring road. On the ring road you will see signs to the city center. If you follow these, you will eventually end up in a cul-de-sac behind the cinema. Nobody knows why.”

The privatization of public spaces must be met with severe contest as it tends to disintegrate the social nature of cities. Towns and cities are about human contact. The principle reason behind the importance of public spaces is that they provide the opportunity for us to meet people that we know and sometimes people that we do not.

One of the most previously privatized places in the world, that is, “The Forbidden City” in Beijing has now been transformed into a public space that witnesses millions of tourists every year making the entire experience of the city; richer and enjoyable.

Developments in towns and cities should be done to seek the promotion and benefit of the widest possible user group. However, while developments still occur with the sole intent of increasing the profit margins, the notion of “spaces of all” becomes obsolete and these developments tend to be a hindrance to the social matrix of the cities. Urban spaces that need to be accessible to all regardless of age, ability, background or financial capabilities are now becoming gated developments for the selected elite with their own reserved admission rights.

Cities are witnessing developments that only pursuit economic gain and completely ignore public spaces.

However, this present declined state of the public realm can be changed and in fact improved. For instance, in New York and some other cities, the opening up of ground floors for public use is viewed as a public benefit, which often brings the developer, the bonus to build additional floor space and storeys above; granted by the planning commission. This kind of policy making solves both the issues at hand, that is, the need to get more economic benefit out of investments; and to ensure the rightful development that benefits the public as well as the investors.

Planning permission, quite simply, if not granted until and unless the development clearly enhances the public realm and provides, where appropriate, facilities and amenities for the pedestrians.

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