Pandemic adds greater urgency to outstanding challenges in humanisation of public space

Cities are on the lookout for solutions to real estate profiteering and the climate emergency

Antoni Ribas Tur
6 min
La 'Crown Fountain',  de Jaume Plensa, envoltada de gent

BarcelonaThe relationship between Jaume Plensa’s works and public space is critically important: the Catalan artist has brought beauty to cities across the world and, in projects like Chicago’s Crown Fountain and Dream, the giant head of St Helens —a former mining town in the UK—, Plensa got the local community involved in the creation process. In other cases, like Carmela (the head displayed outside Barcelona’s Palau de la Música Catalana), he was moved by the people’s demand that the sculpture be kept in the same spot. This social angle in Plensa’s work highlights the challenges that cities are currently facing with their public spaces. “Public space challenges predate covid-19, but the pandemic has exacerbated them”, says Judit Carrera, the director of Barcelona’s CCCB and a member of the team behind the CCCB’s European Prize for Urban Public Space, awarded jointly with the German Architecture Museum, Ljubljana’s Museum of Architecture and Design and Vienna’s Architekturzentrum, among others. She emphasises that “if there is one thing that characterises European cities, it is their complexity, density and the number of simultaneous different uses”.

Barcelona is no stranger to these issues and to the re-naturalisation of the city, according to architect Vicente Guallart, the City’s chief architect and general manager of Hàbitat Urbà from 2011 to 2015. “Some of the transformations we are seeing as a result of tactical urbanism”, says Guallart, “should in fact allow us to explore what solution is required for Barcelona. In my view, the mid-term challenge is that private vehicles will be banned from the city and, therefore, projects that revolve around the bus network, superblocks and the fifteen-minute city should allow us to untarmac part of Barcelona and re-naturalise it. Planting a tree on the axis of a street is a statement that signals that we have broken the rule of mobility on wheels and given it a new meaning. In fact, public space reflects the way a city is organised”.

Catalan architect Ildefons Cerdà masterminded Barcelona’s Eixample district at a time when traffic was much lighter and Guallart believes that the fact that we can superimpose tactical urbanism onto Cerdà’s original design shows “how flexible” his project was. Architect Olga Subirós, who will represent Catalonia in the upcoming Venice Biennale of Architecture, with a project that underscores the need for clean air in cities, says it is extremely urgent to lower CO2 emissions through measures such as bringing in low-emission areas: “We mustn’t forget that Barcelona is the European city with the highest motor vehicle density: 6,000 per square kilometre. And over 50 per cent of the city’s public space is reserved to surface parking and motor vehicle traffic”. The situation is critical because even if this solution is combined with other measures, like superblocks, “they [still] fall short of the standards of air quality set by the EU and the WHO”. As shown in Plensa’s work, artists are concerned with all these problems and contribute solutions from their particular discipline: Albanian artist Anri Sala was a member of the 51N4E firm that designed Tirana’s reformed Skanderberg Square and was awarded the latest European Prize for Urban Public Space. The prize was to be given out again this year but, as Carrera points out, the covid pandemic “has altered” the conditions and, therefore, it has been postponed until 2021.

The economic dimension

The Amazon effect is one of the factors in urban transformation

After losing their industrial heft, reflecting on the main source of production for European cities is one of the most urgent challenges. “Cities in the post-industrial era need re-thinking at a time when digitalisation is altering the means of production and generating an economy”, Carrera explains. While retail is at the heart of “a European city’s identity”, the online shopping boom —known as the Amazon effect— is not without consequence, like “the transformation of historic city centres”. Tourism, which arrives when the industrial base is gone, is another industry that has been “badly hit” by covid-19. As opposed to farming tourism as a single crop, they argue for “a range of economies that do not rely exclusively on a single source”.

The climate emergency

Cities must adopt measures to counter it

According to the UN, three in every five cities are at risk of experiencing a natural disaster and, unless predictions are wrong, by 2050 summer temperatures in Mediterranean cities will exceed 50 C. Carrera warns that “the climate angle must be taken into account when managing the city and public space. The awareness that the city is part of a slightly larger ecosystem, instead of being self-sufficient, will have a bearing on the way public space is perceived and created”, he says.

Paradoxical as it may seem, global warming has had a mostly positive effect in that people in northern countries are able to spend longer outdoors and in recent years they have taken onboard the public space tradition of southern countries, claims Peter Cachola, the director of Germany’s Museum of Architecture. “Globally, it is terrible, but the effect on colder climate countries has been somewhat positive”, he says, and he emphasises that “climate change is not so easy to predict, it is more chaotic”.

An ongoing fight for space

In Eastern Europe real estate developers pose a threat to neglected spots

The problems that plague public space vary from one part of the world to another. Eastern European countries, like Slovenia and Croatia, have a long-standing tradition of public space. However, during the 20th century they lost the aim of contributing to people’s well-being and now citizens must “fight” to get that back, says Matevz Celik, the director of Ljubljana’s Museum of Architecture and Design. “There is a great deal of public space, but it is not seen as something to invest in, it remains neglected. People keep using it, but it is much more vulnerable because local governments do not see the point of spending money on it”. This means that “some public spaces are eventually lost and then you’ve got real estate developers who come in, buy up the space and build on it”, he explains. “It is important to understand that there is a permanent need to fight for public space because it is essential for democracy in Europe. If there is a lesson to be learnt from the covid crisis, it is the value of face-to-face meetings and green spaces in cities. I believe these issues might become more important nowadays”, Celik says.

Angelika Fitz, the director of Vienna’s Architekturzentrum, is adamant that “smaller public spaces are important, too, not just the iconic ones”. She remarks that “you must have all the facilities close by, including public space, so you don’t need to travel across the city to find them”. Fitz believes that the 2008 recession had “a very negative impact” on European cities because real estate inflation sent housing prices through the roof and threatened public space because land became “very expensive”. Fitz stresses that “we must be very careful and learn from this global crisis as a society, because we learnt nothing from the previous one”.

Looking after people better

Human relations are renewed through interventions in what already exists

Angelina Fitz believes that the political and social dimensions of public space are key because “the public varies greatly, even among those who live in the same neighbourhood. A square might mean something to some people, but something else to others”. Cities are growing increasingly diverse due to immigration and the different lifestyles and, like Judit Carrera, Fitz claims that you cannot expect a “consensus”, idealised public space. “The idea possibly never worked and I am certain that it won’t, now or ever”. Instead, she advocates “a different niche” for everyone in the public space.

Angelina Fitz also points out the different histories of public space in the various European countries and remarks that the authors of the renovated Skanderberg Square in Tirana turned an existing military space —built mainly under an authoritarian regime— into a civic space. “That is the greatness of the project”, she emphasises. These humanistic ideas applied to the architectural configuration of the environment culminate in Fitz’s drive to bring in “cures” in urban planning, architecture and public space. There is no need for new buildings that will do that; instead, we should “fix” the existing ones, like the Skanderberg Square we mentioned earlier. It was Fitz who hosted an exhibition about this issue in the museum she directs: Critical care. Architecture for a broken planet. She explains that “I think the attitude of avoiding a blank slate approach and, instead, modernising and renovating existing buildings is very interesting because it brings together a number of actors: civil society, the community and political bodies”.

According to Fitz, renovating buildings and spaces that already exist is about healing because it creates new “interconnections” —which she deems necessary— between local residents, the administration and the people in charge of urban planning. Precisely one of the works shown in the Critical Care exhibition won the 2016 European Prize for Urban Public Space: the restoration of the orchards in the Catalan spa town of Caldes de Montbui. The project, which was developed by architects Elena Albareda Fernández, Jordi Calbetó Aldomà and Marta Serra Permanyer, included a participatory process with contributions from the tenants of up to seventy allotments.