The beauty of public space

Who would have thought that this pandemic would so ruthlessly expose the failings of car- and consumption-centric urban planning? As soon as we were caught in our four walls, it became clear how directly our well-being is related to the goodness of public spaces in our place of residence. The longing for space, air and nature on your own doorstep was rarely as great as it is now. But we found that our cities were streamlined to be streamlined to functionality and consumption, rather than to the quality of stay and experience. Unfortunately, this is not a coincidence. The beauty of urban places does not arise naturally, it is the result of forward-looking urban development policy and the resulting investment decisions.

Looking into typical German inner cities, one wonders these days whether one of the messages of the ‘Reclaim the Streets’ movement, popular in the 1990s, has actually become entangled in urban development. The goal of this superdiverse conglomerate of artists, globalization critics and urban ecologists was the reconquest of urban habitats. They called for “consumer protection reserves” and a “right to non-colonial freedoms.” Sounds very left-wing and very activist, no question. But if you depoliticize the content, they have only asked an elementary question, the unpleasant answer of which falls on our feet on every street corner today: who actually owns the public space?

In times like these, many of us have painfully realized that the freely available public space is very limited in many places and is mostly monotonous. The condensation of cities has led to a narrowness that leaves us little room for individual development. The Corona pandemic has made it clear to us that our cities are actually quite unattractive as a habitat right on their own doorstep.

The artist Gretta Louw also examines the question of how public space could be revived and transformed for the benefit of the general public. Her current poster campaign ‘The Commons’ in Munich invites us as a city society to reflect. Intensifications such as “Imagine every parked car is a tree” or “The less private space you own, the more public space you need” are at the heart of the debate that needs to be fought. We need to debate how we manage to create enough places in cities that define themselves not through consumption, but through free space. Places where we don’t have to buy the stay by buying things. But even this freedom needs infrastructural framework conditions in order to be able to function. Seats, the absence of prohibition signs, drinking fountains and free public toilets, to name a few. Which common German pedestrian zone has more to offer than an unconditional shopping culture?

The involvement of the population in the design process of new spaces is essential. How many times have parks, playgrounds, pedestrian zones and open spaces been planned to meet the needs of the local population. There is a lot going on in the municipal administrations, the muff of auto-centric urban planning is blown out of the heads in many places by fresh wind in the municipal administrative apparatus. Green City Experience GmbH was commissioned by the Department for Urban Planning and Building Regulations with a publicity campaign for the comprehensive concept report “Freiraum München 2030“. Something is happening.

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In the end, there are always two things that matter when designing public spaces: the quality of stay for the widest possible range of people with different needs and the beauty of places themselves. Both are mostly mutually dependent and exclude the presence of cars and parking spaces. Because quality of stay is usually associated with green and water areas, in the extended sense with ‘urban nature’. The same applies to places that we generally find beautiful and pleasant. So it is no wonder that the icons of urban oases are greening projects in many places. The New York ‘Highline’ or the revitalization of downtown Cheonggyecheon in South Korea by demolishing a city highway and creating a recreational area with a river are striking examples. Green City is also working on the opening of the western Stadtgrabenbach in Herzog-Wilhelm-Straße between Sendlinger Tor and Stachus. Thus, a parked place would become an oasis in the heart of Munich.

It needs people who don’t accept the status quo

However, it does not always have to be such large and complex projects in implementation. Especially now, when the need for urban recreation is so immense, fast and temporary solutions are needed. Here, too, Green City shows how it can be done. With the “Palmengarten” on the Theresienwiese, a place with a quality of stay was created on an inhospitable area. What it takes are the ideas, donations and funding as well as helping hands. Such projects show that we citizens have the opportunity to transform our cities into more livable places. It is a pleasure to observe how gratefully people accept and use such created feel-good places in no time. It’s like a collective chuckle after a short break.

Cities need such investment in their quality of life. Only in this way do they remain attractive to their inhabitants and attract people who do not care what kind of environment they live in. Policymakers of all stripes should be aware of one thing: the beauty and quality of public spaces is also an economic factor. This applies on the one hand to tourism, on the other hand to the attractiveness of locations as such. The more beautiful and qualitative cities are in terms of attractions such as parks, green spaces, water areas, car-free inner cities, cycle paths and historic buildings, the more attractive they are for the economy and new citizens. And this has a massive impact on the financial scope of city governments. Another positive side effect is the reduction of leisure traffic. If recreation on your own doorstep is so attractive, you can save yourself the ride into nature.

What is more, special urban transformation projects are lighthouses with great radiance, they are identity-creating and groundbreaking for the self-image of urban societies. They show the character of a place and are a promise for future generations. In short, we need more of it!

Martin Betzold is Brand Manager of Green City AG. His column “This is how it looks!” deals with socio-political issues in the context of the energy andtransport change and the associated changes.

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