Urban Design: the city and its public spaces is the crucible of civic life in a democratic society
April 3, 2018 \ Studio
by Isabelle Uszynski
Urban space in the city is the most public forum that we have – and something always worth fighting for.
It’s not surprising that our urban designer Isabelle knows a lot about the history of the built environment of Paris, having studied at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-Val de Seine. From the works carried out by Haussmann through to the adjustments of the present day, Paris presents an unusually rich urban history – from ‘grands projets’ to surgical interventions. Urban design itself is a field rich in interest due to the complexity and multiplicity of reasons for interventions. Due to scale and publicity, it is a discipline that requires an unusually high mix of political will and financial investment, all to create a frame on which public life is played out.
As with many fields, necessity is typically the mother of invention in urban design – as it was with Haussmann’s reorganisation of medieval Paris in the 19th century. The population of the city had doubled to over one million, and its narrow, unplanned streets had become overcrowded, unsanitary, confusing and the focal point of revolution. Large swathes of the medieval city were removed to make way for new boulevards – in part to facilitate the movement of troops – city parks, and an expanded sewer system. Haussmann’s ‘grand projet’ was made possible by the presence of the four key ingredients required for significant change in urban design – need, political will, finance and technological progress.
Haussmann’s grand project is today probably most closely associated with the tree-lined streets and boulevards that have become synonymous with Paris. As it was in this restructuring, the street is the most fundamental tool of urban design simply because they represent the majority of public realm in a city and are the first feature experienced by people in a city: streets articulate and link destinations, they are the spaces where people go, meet, interact, they are what make the city work. From this point of view, they are valuable assets in a city, providing vitality, ease of movement, amenity and joy when designed correctly and well-integrated into the surrounding built environment. A careful balance needs to be struck – to facilitate the quick and efficient movement of people and goods around the city while also providing healthy and stimulating environments for people’s circulation and amenity.
One of the key urban spaces consolidated during Haussmann’s period was the Place de la Republique – organised around a large statue of Marianne, one of the symbols of the French Republic. In the 20th century the square was compromised by vehicular traffic, turning the statue into a roundabout with two isolated – noisy and unattractive – pockets of public space either side. This square, altered in 2013, represents one of the most successful reconfigurations of urban space in Paris in recent years – by docking the square back into the pavement along the northern edge, the space now prioritises people over vehicles. With this relatively minor urban adjustment, the square has been restored to its appropriate civic function as a square and public place in a city: a key location used every day by thousands of people, satisfying people’s needs, gathering all the necessary, optional and social activities described by Jan Gehl. Street furniture, places to sit and activities give sense of comfort and safety and encourage people’s actions of staying and socialise. With its new design, this place is, more than ever, a place for people.
Which touches on another fundamental role of public space in civic life – of providing spaces for people to meet, interact, gather and congregate. The city and its public spaces is the crucible of civic life in a democratic society – from Athens, with the life of the polis in the agora where philosophers used to meet and discuss about happiness and well-being, to the present day. Public spaces are meant to provide small-scaled opportunities for us to interact with one another – friends and strangers alike. The physical dimension of the public realm has to support and encourage the public life and social interaction: more important, it can improve the quality of life, happiness and well-being in the urban environment. This is something that we need to keep in our minds and remain advocates for : urban space in the city is the most public forum that we have – and something always worth fighting for.
Five things in five minutes: what inspires me?
April 2, 2018 \ Studio
by multiple authors
Sarah Jane was next in our series of 40 Voices, where she presented ‘5 things in 5 minutes’, a quickfire visual run through of things that encapsulate her approach to architecture and design.