The jury is in. Over the next fifty years, the world’s cities will face unprecedented stresses from a changing climate, growing populations, and issues of security, resource scarcity, and civil unrest. In the design professions, we like to think our work can help resolve these issues. In the U.S., over the past century, we have debated the role of public space to ease the challenges faced within our urban environment. This conversation will not end anytime soon, nor should it. However, if we continue to place our trust and faith in urban public spaces we must re-examine two fundamental questions: how will we define success within these spaces, and who will we allow to shape them?
Demo:Polis, an exhibition at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, brings these exact questions under the spotlight. Through a diverse set of examples, we see traditionally-successful projects commissioned by powerful institutions – grand urban plazas and lush, popular parks – juxtaposed with smaller and less familiar spaces made publicly valuable by a handful of ordinary people. The contrasts force us to question the assumptions that shape our understanding of public space: Is a space less valuable if it supports democracy and community but isn’t popular? Who is allowed to shape the character of a space – its boundaries, capabilities, and purpose – and who ultimately decides its worth?
Whatever the viewer takes from the exhibition, at least one theme became clear among the examples presented: the urban public will not wait for its invitation to shape the space it inhabits. Where there is a need to organize, cooperate, be seen or heard, people will find or create spaces to fulfill these goals.
Such “by the public, for the public” projects are the real strength behind Demo:Polis and remind us the spaces we design do not stop changing after they have been constructed. Rather, our grand and expensive projects exist within a countless network of daily human interactions and interventions – some adversarial, some unifying, many completely benign – that continuously shape the meaning and character of a public area. Despite their small or nonexistent budgets, informality, and frequent messiness, these individual actions and reactions refuse to be subordinated.
By leading us to these observations, Demo:Polis suggests something that we have known for many years but often struggle to remember. The cities of 2050 will not be shaped solely by powerful governments, deep-pocketed investors, or high-profile design firms. They will not strive for beauty or popularity alone. Rather, they will be formed by powerful forces: communities unwilling to – or unable to – withhold their influence on public space or remain passive in meeting their own needs.
As we consider the role of urban space in creating tenable cities, and our role as designers in shaping urban space, we must also choose whether to acknowledge this public influence or ignore it.
This guest post is by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, CEO of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) and Joseph Bivona, senior project manager, MVVA.