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Intimate and inviting - the public square revives

From Barcelona to Toronto, as cities reinvent themselves, one thing is

By Ruth WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 27, 1999


Reports of the death of cities, as Mark Twain might have said, are greatly exaggerated.

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Cities around the world are reinventing themselves at a brisk pace.

Some of these transformations have specific causes: Berlin is in the midst of a huge building boom as it resumes its role as the capital of reunited Germany.

Barcelona, spiffed up for the 1992 Olympics, has blossomed as Spain has awakened from the bad dream of Francoism and rejoined Europe.

And New York sparkles as residents and visitors realize that the much-reported falloff in crime there is more than a statistical blip.

More generally, many cities are finding they can - or must - reinvent themselves as ongoing cultural celebrations. In the 1970s, developers like the Rouse Company, renovators of Boston's Quincy Market, introduced the term "festival marketplace."

Nowadays, it seems, we have "festival cities."

It's no longer enough to be able to say that a city "works." A "world city" has to be able to play, too, or nobody goes there.

Amid all this, Torontonians, who still chuckle over Sir Peter Ustinov's description of their city as "New York run by the Swiss," are scrambling to stay in the elite group of "world cities." Toronto's city planners have just launched an 18-month quest for a new vision of their city.

More visible to most residents, however, is another effort at urban reinvention: Dundas Square, a new "urban space" under construction at the famously tacky intersection of Yonge and Dundas streets (story below). This new square may be more important in people's perception of their city, too, since one test of a festival city is the quality of its public spaces.

What makes a great public space? Why is it that some streets and squares can make us laugh out loud for sheer delight - whereas others call to mind Gertrude Stein's quip about Oakland, Calif.: "There is no there there."

"The most notable of public spaces that work are quite small," says Jamie Learmonth. He's an architect in Melbourne, Australia, which is striving to reclaim its disused Docklands district as a post-

industrial playground.

One of the biggest dangers is that a space may be made simply too big, he says. "In a large space people walk around the edge of an empty space."

In Italy, for instance, Mussolini's enormous squares were an aberration. Traditionally, Mr. Learmonth adds, "Romans' natural inclination was for open spaces to be actually quite small." The fountains of Rome were typically closely surrounded by buildings.

Similarly, in Paris he finds that the best spaces are often the courtyards of buildings, rather than the sweeping expanse of, say, the Place de la Concorde.

It seems to help for a space to have what we might refer to simply as "meaning," too:

Learmonth compares London's Trafalgar Square with Piccadilly Circus: "Trafalgar is a sort of knuckle joint of the nation. You've got the government nearby, Buckingham Palace, the theaters, the church of St. Martin's in the Fields.... It all happens here." Piccadilly, he says, for all its bustle, "is really quite tacky."