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03.12.2020 - Ausgabe: 6/2020

The importance of public spaces

© RTH Aachen University, Fakultät für Architektur

Playground@Landscape: What is in your opinion a livable environment?

Christa Reicher: A livable environment must above all give pleasure to the people staying there. Talking about that, we are already in the topic of urban planning: urban planning is first and foremost committed to man and must pursue the goal of improving the quality of life in our neighbourhoods and cities or simply secure at least parts of it. 

Whether an environment is worth living in depends mainly on its design and the usage options it provides. Against this background, both the planning process and the identification of requirements and deficits as well as participation are important aspects to be considered. In my opinion, participation is based on a serious consideration of the local people's needs. It is not about the implementation of vociferously expressed individual interests, but rather about constructive discourse with civil society with the aim of developing the substantive foundation for a concept which is then transferred by experts into a design concept and implemented accordingly. 


P@L: Why are public outdoor spaces so important for our cities?

Christa Reicher: Public spaces are both the business card and the backbone of a city. They determine the attractiveness and identity of cities while at the same time serving as places of "social bonding". When public space is neglected, most people's reaction is to leave the city, either because they no longer feel safe or because they fear negative social developments in their neighbourhood. The public space is therefore a very central seismograph for confidence in a functioning neighbourhood and in a perspective quality of life. 

And it is especially now in times of the Covid-19 pandemic that the diverse functions of public spaces are becoming even more obvious, because our society is obviously divided into those who own and are able to use private open space and those who depend on the use of public space with all its restrictions and constraints. The use of and participation in public space thus takes on a new meaning - as a place of encounter and exchange and thus of "social bonding". 


P@L: To what extent can public space influence use and behaviour in a city?

Christa Reicher: The design and the condition of the public space have an immediate effect on both aspects, which should not be underestimated. This connection can be impressively demonstrated using the example of water and trees, which are becoming increasingly relevant in times of progressive climate change and the heating of our cities in the summer months. Water evaporates and thus needs the relevant energy. The water draws this energy from the air and thus cools it down. Trees also produce coldness through their evaporation and also provide shade. So the way they are designed either promotes or prevents people from staying in public spaces. 


P@L: Which quality criteria characterise attractive public areas?

Christa Reicher: In general, it can be said that the quality of public space - from the aesthetic design to the climatic conditions and the availability of places to relax and sit - is a decisive factor in determining its vitality and thus its attractiveness. 

However, not all public spaces are the same. We have to differentiate between public space in prominent inner-city locations such as the pedestrian zone and the city square on the one hand and in the residential quarter in a decentralised location on the other hand. In the inner-city location, the quality requirements which should strengthen the identity and character of an urban space are the main focus, and the design has a direct effect on pedestrian frequency and even the turnover in retail trade. In the context of residential neighbourhood, public spaces must be more open in terms of their functions and provide considerably more appropriation opportunities, always depending on the structure of the residents. While in one place the aesthetic design is extremely relevant, in another place the flexibility of usage options provided is the main focus, i.e. the opportunity to appropriate space and use it without too many restrictions. 


P@L: How can existing grown cities be redesigned so as to meet the new challenges of urban development?

Christa Reicher: Even if we often have the feeling that our cities are already built, there is a considerable change rate, which is between 2 and 4 percent of the already built structure. So we have a lot of scope for design and intervention. It is here where we must use our influence and set new priorities. Moreover, every single building that is newly constructed is a partial transformation of the city. The same applies to open space. 

The crucial challenge we face is to continue developing the existing city by focusing on a high-quality density, which includes both open space and mobility as equal concerns. Translated into practice, this means that at one point or another, it is possible to achieve compatible re-densification, perhaps even to decide in favour of higher buildings if the conditions for accessibility or sustainable forms of mobility are guaranteed, and at another point, climate-sensitive areas which are consistently kept free of development. 


P@L: What should new urban neighbourhoods look like in terms of designing a resilient public space?

Christa Reicher: The fact that resilience helps to cope with crises and to independently renew our neighbourhoods and cities gains an absolutely new meaning, especially in current times of the Covid-19 pandemic. A good concept of urban resilience is based on at least five skills: robustness, flexibility, the ability to learn, multidisciplinarity as well as holistic approaches to solutions. However, I don't mean that existing concepts and strategies are becoming obsolete, but I would like to emphasise that it is becoming increasingly important to take an integrated view and create dialogue-oriented planning processes with the local population.


P@L: City for everyone = city with everyone: Living space in the city centre for children and young people - is that even possible?

Christa Reicher: In the end, planning must satisfy the needs of different users and, above all, leave room for personal initiative. The street as a central public space must be re-conceived as a place of "agreement", of agreement between very different interests. This is not a new demand, because it was already made in the 1960s by Jane Jacobs, an American, in her book "Death and Life of Great American Cities", but this demand is still valid today more than ever. We must think about new forms of multi-coding public spaces. These do not necessarily have to be "all-round spaces", but open spaces in the sense of allowing different uses at different times of the day and year. Although certain user groups have their own needs, such as the desire for peace and quiet, there are many aspects from which children, adults and seniors could equally benefit.

I am convinced that we will only come decisively closer to such a "city for everybody", in which the ever more differentiated needs and interests of all parties concerned are taken into account in the best possible way, if a constructive and high-quality urban design is possible "with everybody" - and if urban planners do not have to plan "for everybody", but are enabled to design "with everybody".


P@L: Are the requirements for open spaces close to housing, such as the number and dimensions of playgrounds, still up to date?

Christa Reicher: Especially at a time when cities are coming under increasing pressure because re-densification and the creation of living space are top priorities in many places, the requirements for open spaces, playgrounds and sports grounds close to housing are of utmost importance. What I am missing, however, when it comes to quantitative targets, is a closer look at the quality and innovative ways of implementing such open space concepts. Why should a public space not be located on the green roof of a building? Or what prevents us from overlapping development, rain retention and play areas? Overall, such innovative ways could help to generate several large open spaces, merging into one another. As a result, more spaces for physical activity and encounters would be provided, which is of utmost importance.


P@L: How would you plan the city of the future?

Christa Reicher: The city of the future must be green AND urban. These two aspects must be implemented in the right place while at the same time considering the highest standards of design, usability and sustainability. Because the city of the future will be the same as it is today - and yet completely different! 



The interview was held by Thomas R. Müller (Playground@Landscape)

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