Intimate and inviting - the public square revives

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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."

He adds, "What urban sociologists really don't understand is the whole raft of issues that go with streetscape." Successful public spaces are as likely to happen by accident as by plan, he says.

If anyone has ever understood the dynamics of a streetscape, it was probably the late William Whyte, who spent 16 years studying the streets of New York - with cameras and clipboards. In 1988, his research became the basis of a book, "City: Rediscovering the Center," and his findings inform the best urban design around the world.

Among his key discoveries: "What attracts people most ... is other people." Urban congestion - the hustle and bustle of pedestrians on the sidewalks - is one of the most attractive things about cities.

Whyte and his researchers plotted the location of street conversations lasting two minutes or more at Saks Fifth Avenue at 50th Street over five days one June.

In his diagram, dots representing conversations are clustered on the busy corner itself, and then secondarily at a store entrance. "The activity was not as expected," he wrote. "To our surprise, the people who stopped to talk did not move out of the main pedestrian flow; and if they had been out of it, they moved into it. The great bulk of the conversations were smack in the middle of the flow."

Says Robert Campbell, a Boston-area architecture critic: "People tend to assume that congestion is bad. But people are attracted to it. Very busy streets and squares are a good thing. It's not nearly as important that they be beautiful as it is that they be useful and interesting."

A good public space needs "a mix of different uses - civic, commercial, and residential," says Mr. Campbell. "It should have interesting architecture, if possible; a choice of sun or shade; places to sit, especially with chairs that can be moved; and places to eat and drink. And everything should be at street level."

Inexpensive plastic chairs can be perfectly suitable seating and do the job just fine. (Whyte's research found that people settling down in chairs in a public square often adjust them slightly before sitting - putting them back just about where they were at first. "In this one small matter you are the master of your fate," Whyte wrote.

Asked to nominate their favorite public spaces, North Americans often turn to Europe. As Campbell explains, "Their private homes tend to be much larger" than Europeans', which can lead to a feeling that they "don't need the public world." Europeans, he says, understand better "that we all need to get out and mix in the world and be part of a larger community."

Italy is "that mother lode of all public spaces," says Douglas Kelbaugh, dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Dublin, London, Stockholm, and Copenhagen are on his list, he says. He makes special mention of Barcelona and Las Ramblas boulevard.

"Everyone I know that's been there says it's the best street in the world," he says.

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