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November 11, 2015

SEiSMiC Wraps Up Public Space Discussion

SEiSMiC Wraps Up Public Space Discussion

SEiSMiC concluded a two-day conference on new concepts of public space this week, discussing everything from whether Europe needs common standards for public space to whether public ownership is the best guarantee of public access.

The conference drew 65 participants from the 10 SEiSMiC countries. They included a range of experts and practitioners dealing with public space: architects, urban planners, academics and researchers, public-participation specialists, urban gardeners, and managers of social enterprises.

The goals of the conference (SEiSMiC Forum #2: New Public Space) were two-fold: to stimulate international exchange of best practices, and to provide grassroots feedback on the specific needs for European urban research. A pair of representatives of the European Commission attended to collect this information.

Day 1 kicked off with a keynote speech from Pietro Garau, an architect, planner and tenured researcher at the University of Rome. As curator of the 2015 Biennale of Public Space in Rome, Garau presided over the creation of the Charter of Public Space, which proposes public space as a universal human right.

More and more, public goods are being sold off to private interests, Garau noted during his talk: transport services, schools, health care, public housing and more. But public space has been largely exempted from this trend, he said. "We still think of public space as belonging to all."

Over the next couple days, the Forum conference delved into several aspects public space, including through small-group "creative dialogues" on how cities can make public use of abandoned or underused lots and buildings; the role of collaborative mapping in public space policy; and how streets can be designed and regulated to create a new balance of public purposes.

One of these talks went more deeply into public space ownership. Participants cited several examples that contradicted Garau's point that public space is still seen a space for all. An architect from Graz, for example, noted that public land all over Austria has been redistributed from direct public ownership to ownership by publicly controlled holding companies. This makes it much easier for these properties to be sold to private interests, where they're forever lost to public use.

Other participants noted the common practice of public spaces being rented out as pay-for-admission events. A cited case involves a public park and playground in a poor neighbourhood in San Francisco that is frequently rented out to IT millionnaires from Silcon Valley. Perhaps it's not enough for a park to be publicly owned, one participant suggested -- maybe it has to be redesignated as a public commons that's never off limits to local children. Garau agreed there needs to be a balance.

"There's nothing wrong with the temporary use of public space to raise money to support its maintenance," Garau said. "But when it becomes a habit, then we have a problem."

A full report on the discussion of public space regulation, together with recommendations for policy and future urban research, can be downloaded here.

Along with theoretical discussions, the Forum included four different site visits to inventive public spaces around Brussels. They included an abandoned and repurposed abattoire that's being used as a market and community gathering spot in a neighborhood of new immigrants; a vacant, almost wild area near the EU Quarter that's being used for community gardening and other temporary purposes; a giant private development (Tour & Taxis) on a disused rail station in the Canal District; and the recently pedestrianised section of Anspach Avenue.

One common lesson from the site visits was the importance of public participation in the planning of public places. This was particularly well illustrated in the confused public relations concerning the ambitious new pedestrianation project, as well as what seems to be an arm's-distance approach of the Tour & Taxis developer toward the neighbouring Molenbeek District. The development is mostly walled or fenced off from Molenbeek, a relatively poor residential area, and the question of future access is unresolved and the debates not publicised.

However, Molenbeek itself has a very good example of a well planned urban regeneration project. L'espace Saint-Rémi, once a haven for drug selling and other criminal activity, was recently rehabilitated as a skating park, football pitch and playground. The key, according to local youth organiser Caroline Claus, was a long consultation process that also involved local gang members who had made the area their turf.