While only a century ago streets almost everywhere were crowded with people, many are now nearly empty—especially in the fast-growing suburbs sprouting all over the globe, but in some older towns and cities, too. Walking through the center of certain North American communities can be a profoundly alienating experience, as if the whole place had been evacuated for an emergency that no one told you about. Even in the crowded urban quarters of Asia and Africa, public spaces are suffering under the onslaught of increasing traffic and misguided development plans imported from the West.
The decline of public places represents a loss far deeper than simple nostalgia for the quiet, comfortable ways of the past. “The street, the square, the park, the market, the playground are the river of life,” explains Kathleen Madden, one of the directors of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces, which works with citizens around the world to improve their communities.
Public spaces are favorite places to meet, talk, sit, relax, stroll, flirt, girlwatch, boywatch, read, sun and feel part of a broader whole. They are the starting point for all community, commerce and democracy. Indeed, on an evolutionary level, the future of the human race depends on public spaces. It’s where young women meet and court with young men—an essential act for the propagation of the species. Numerous studies in fields ranging from social psychology to magazine cover design have proved that nothing grabs people’s attention more than other people, especially other people’s faces. We are hard-wired with a desire for congenial places to gather. That’s why it’s particularly surprising how much we overlook the importance of public places today.
“If you asked people twenty years ago why they went to central Copenhagen, they would have said it was to shop,” observes Jan Gehl, sitting in the former navy barracks that houses his “urban quality” consulting firm Gehl Architects. “But if you asked them today, they would say, it was because they wanted to go to town.”
That small change of phrase represents the best hope for the future of public spaces. Historically, Gehl explains, public spaces were central to everyone’s lives. It’s how people traveled about town, where they shopped and socialized. Living in cramped homes, often with no yards, and certainly no cars or refrigerators, they had little choice but to use public spaces. Walking was most people’s way to get around. Urban families depended on markets and shopping districts for the day’s food. Parks were the only place for kids to play or see nature. Squares and churches and taverns were the few spots to meet friends.
But all that changed during the 20th century. Cars took over the streets in industrialized nations (and in wide swaths of the developing world too), putting many more places within easy reach but making walking and biking dangerous. Towns and cities spread out, with many merchants moving to outlying shopping malls. Telephones, refrigerators, television, computers, and suburban homes with big yards transformed our daily lives. People withdrew from the public realm. No longer essential, public spaces were neglected. Many newly constructed communities simply forgot about sidewalks, parks, downtowns, transit, playgrounds, and people’s pleasure in taking a walk and bumping into their neighbors. Today, many folks wonder if public spaces serve any real purpose anymore.
“Some places have gone down the drain and become completely deserted.” Gehl notes, brandishing a photo to prove his point. “See this, it’s a health club in Atlanta, in America. It’s built on top of seven storeys of parking. People there don’t go out on the streets. They even drive their cars to the health club to walk and get exercise.
“But other places have decided to do something about it; They fight back,” he adds, pointing to another photo—a street scene in Norway, where dozens of people are enjoying themselves at an outdoor cafe alongside a sidewalk filled with passersby.