The Blog

New challenges in public space

5 minutes of reading
Today, public spaces are facing new challenges – societal, environmental, political, technological and economic – and must deal with the uncertainty of a changing world. How can public spaces be designed to meet the various expectations of society while also being able to adapt to future developments?
Espaces Publics

What is meant by “public space”?

Public spaces refer to all spaces intended for use by everyone, without restriction: the principle of free access for all. They include squares, forecourts, pavements and pedestrian areas, but also green spaces (parks, gardens, paths, riverbanks), and furniture or any other object present in these places. However, these urban public spaces are not merely a matter of physical definition. The importance of the usage value of these places was highlighted by the Covid-19 health crisis in 2020. The multiplicity of ways in which public space can be used and developed lend it an intangible value. Moreover, when we speak of “public space” in the singular form, we generally mean a place for political debate, for the confrontation of opinions.  

Public space and social connections

Public space is above all the place for social connections and communal life which gives our towns and cities their urban character. They are places in which to share and meet, where everyone can express themselves and live their own way, individually and in community. According to urban philosopher Thierry Paquot, “it is in these so-called ‘public’ spaces that we are each able to satisfy ourselves of our own difference by observing the strangeness of others”. However, these shared spaces, which form the backdrop of our urban civilisation, are today subject to numerous and even contradictory injunctions. How is it possible to design a public space for all that makes us feel good, while also reconciling issues of well-being and safety? How can individual aspirations be reconciled with the collective quest for social and intergenerational cohesion?   In the spring of 2022, the Metropolis of Lyon launched the construction of a Charter for Public Spaces – a common framework for envisaging and developing spaces for movement and gathering (squares, streets, parks, etc.) in the metropolitan area. The goal? To obtain a shared and consistent vision in urban development, thus meeting the challenges of tomorrow: ecological transition, well-being and safety, social inclusion, mobility, etc.  

From functional to relational cities

Sonia Lavadinho, urban anthropologist and geographer, believes that “the relational city is formed of encounters in the public space: it links us to others but also to life in general, and to the local environment.” “Today, a mere 10 to 15% of urban spaces are relational: parks, central squares, etc.” The monofunctional city – a legacy of the 20th century – does not take consideration of changes in usage. This city of interactions is a key element, and public space is a powerful driver of social connections. This public space also enables spontaneous encounters between people who had not planned to interact; this city of “surprise” and spontaneity reinforces the relational city. In her book entitled “The Relational City”, co-authored with Yves Winkin and Pascal Lebrun-Cordier, Sonia Lavadinho describes the 7 faces of the relational city.  

Public space and ecological transition

Urban spaces need to transform in order to meet climate challenges: reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality, encourage soft mobility, promote biodiversity, fight against urban heat islands and develop better urban resilience. Paris is home to initiatives such as OASIS school playgrounds. These playgrounds are being transformed into islands of cool by replacing asphalt surfaces with permeable materials suited to hot weather, creating open areas, increasing vegetation (trees, vegetable gardens, shaded areas) and installing fountains. These cool islands are open to local residents during heatwaves, outside of school hours. With the same amount of money invested, the project has an impact on various different public policies, affecting social cohesion (meeting places for inhabitants), rainwater recovery, health (a place for vulnerable groups to gather in times of heatwave, well-being of schoolchildren in calm playgrounds), education (awareness of climate change) and the promotion of biodiversity in the city. Eleven municipal departments were involved in this project, and several collaborative workshops were run with users (pupils, teachers, maintenance staff, etc.). In Rotterdam, Watersquare Benthemplein is a multifunctional, resilient public space. This public square, consisting of three large ponds, is used as a basketball court, skate park or amphitheatre in dry weather and and allows water to be retained during periods of heavy rain. The project was designed with the involvement of users of the adjacent facilities (college, church, theatre) and local residents. It maximises the impact of the investment by allowing the storage of rainwater, improving the quality of the urban public space and providing an educational dimension regarding the purpose of the “watersquare”. Adapting our public spaces to climate change is a basic prerequisite to providing better resilience and fighting against heat islands, storms or floods that will multiply and intensify in the coming years.  

Public space and inclusiveness

Urban spaces are not always suited to the diversity of the groups that use them. Designing open and welcoming public spaces for young and old creates a benefit for everyone. Let’s take the example of children, who have been perpetually overlooked in urban planning and architecture. According to Thierry Paquot, the author of the book “Pays de l’enfance” published by Terre Urbaine, “The more a city is made for children, the more pleasant and enjoyable it will be for everyone, of all ages.” Over the past 40 years, the time a child spends outdoors without an adult present has dropped from five or six hours a day to three minutes. 85% of children previously walked to school at the age of five or six. Today, this figure is only 8% in OECD countries. More and more communities are taking an interest in the priority given to children’s participation in community life. Concepts such as “designing the city at children’s level” and initiatives such as La rue aux enfants (“streets for children”) are being developed to make the city more habitable for them, to give them back some of the public space that the car has taken away: pedestrian streets around schools, children’s streets. Some local authorities have even made it a central focus of their work, declaring that they want to create a “city at children’s level”, as Montpellier has done. This is a major issue for all generations. A “city at children’s level” is a city for everyone: peaceful, green and accessible.

The public space as a place of expression for citizen participation

What is the relationship between the political public space as a condition of democracy, and physical public spaces?

This entails experimenting with another way of developing public policies, in which citizens would regain their ability to take action, alongside elected representatives. The public space becomes a place of expression for citizen participation. Citizens’ expectations relate not only to wanting, but also to doing! “Today, we are turning to public spaces to ‘reinvent society’, because we see them as the best place for action regarding political innovation and democratic experimentation”, says Joëlle Zask, a philosopher who deals with the subject in her book “Quand la place devient publique”. The growing number of consultation spaces is contributing to restoring the public space to its primary function as a place of expression and for mobilising citizens around a common good. Consider the example of the Hyper Voisins… In 2017, Patrick Bernard, founder of the association, outlined a plan for a “Republic of Hyper-Neighbours” in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, whose purpose is to demonstrate that communal spirit is not just a matter of good feeling, but must be considered as an economic asset into which urgent investment is required in order to design the city of tomorrow. Among its various initiatives, the association is responsible for assisting in the transformation of a crossroads into a village square in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. The aim is to make events a vehicle for encounters and connections, so that people can live better together, take ownership of public space and care for it, in the belief that if the city of tomorrow is to be caring and resilient, it must redesign its structure to be as close as possible to the daily lives of its inhabitants. The first initiative was the “Children’s Rights Square”. A square is traditionally a place that generates connections. Although geographically central within the small republic, it is busy and insecure, and does not fulfil this role. Transforming it into a village square, with the contribution of the inhabitants, has therefore become the association’s goal. The association was able to be involved in the joint management of the project (financing of architects, town planners, wooden structures, acquisition of street furniture, etc.) and turned this collaboration between citizens and the town’s technical services into an initiative worthy of replication. In conclusion, a good public space must be designed to be both upgradable and reversible, with an intense pattern of use and a diverse range of audiences to enable it to adapt to changing needs and to prepare for the needs of an uncertain future. Integrating nature and nurturing biodiversity is a crucial ecological transition issue in the fight to become more resilient, faced with today’s complex world. Lastly, a city that maintains its public spaces for everyone’s use is a city that is moving towards democracy. The public space thus becomes a place of shared governance and a place of expression for the participation of citizens who wish to become stakeholders in creating and running inclusive, hybrid, evolving and resilient public spaces. The connection comes from the place! Public space is a reflection of our society…