Winning back the Public Spaces
The Reconquest of Europe
"The Reconquest of Europe-Urban Public Spaces 1980-1999" was the title for an extensive
exhibition presented in Barcelona in the spring of 1999. This exhibition aimed at giving an
overview of the developments concerning public spaces, which had taken place in the European
cities in the past two decades. After years of pressure from especially automobile traffic, the
exhibition celebrated the new trend towards winning back the Public Spaces, which in the
period 1980 to 1999 has become widespread in Europe. A similar line of argument has been
taken up in the book Nuevos espacios urbanos by Jan Gehl & Lars Gemzøe in the opening
chapter on “Winning back Public Space” and is the reference for the following text.
Three traditional functions of public space: meeting place, market place and access
/ traffic space
Looking back into the history of cities, public spaces have traditionally had three important
functions in relation to the life of the cities. The public spaces functioned as meeting place,
market place and connection /traffic space. People were talking, exchanging merchandise or
moving about. All functions were vital, and in traditional cities these three functions occurred
side by side in the same spaces in a fine balance.
In recent years we have seen how this balance in many cities has been greatly upset by a
number of factors especially the expansion of car traffic.
A physical dimension:
Invaded, abandoned and reconquered cities
Different cities have applied very different policies concerning people activities in the city
centers and the design concepts for their public spaces.
A number of cities with very different policies concerning public spaces will be examined.
*“The Invaded City” refers to the numerous cities which over the years have been inundated
with car traffic to such an extent that the pedestrians and the public life have almost been
squeezed out. (Examples: Naples, Madrid and London)
*“The Abandoned City” refers to cities were walking and public life has become completely
phased out. Many cities in North American are by now in a situation where public life is non-
*“The Reconquered City” refers to cities, which during the past 3-4 decades have striven to
achieve a better balance between traffic, market and meeting place issues. (Examples:
Barcelona, Strasbourg, Lyon, Freiburg and Copenhagen in Europe, and from other continents
cities such as Portland [USA], Curitiba [Brazil] & Melbourne). In many of these cities can be
found an impressive increase in the volumes of people activities in the improved public spaces.
A social dimension:
Changing street life in a changing society
In the reconquered cities and public spaces can be found a public life dramatically different
from the activities, which could find room in the invaded cities. In the automobile occupied
spaces only the most necessary activities were found. In the reconquered spaces a much wider
and joyful array of human activities can be found. This is quite understandable, because there
are better opportunities and more room for people now.
If however the activities in the cities are seen over a longer period, a distinct change in the
character of city activities becomes clear.
Four illustrations from the Main Street of Copenhagen illustrate this point.
- 1880. The Street as predominately work place; most people seen are working, transporting
goods, or selling things.
- 1955. The Street as predominantly traffic place; pedestrians are squeezed into the narrow
sidewalks where only walking is possible.
- 1968. The Street as predominantly shopping mall; the street is now pedestrianized (since
1962) following a basic concept of providing better conditions for the customers. Street life is
dominated by this concept. People are shopping and window-shopping.
- 1995. A Street where urban recreation plays an ever-increasing role; the City has more and
more become a place for leisure, recreation and entertainment. These activities are present
side by side with the traditional activities of working, transport and shopping.
1900 to 2000: from a public life you were forced to participate in, to a public life you
can choose to participate in (from necessary to optional public life)
Taking a closer look at present day life in public spaces it becomes evident that most of the
activities seen today have an optional character. In the old days ―as seen in the medieval
times or in less developed economies― most people on the streets and squares are present
because they are forced to use these spaces. They hardly have any choice.
In the present day situation nearly all the activities seen in public spaces are free-of-choice
activities. People do not have to walk; they can use cars and other means of transport. People
do not have to shop in the streets; there are many other options. People do not have to meet
and socialize in the public spaces; many other possibilities are offered. People do not have to
use the urban public spaces for recreation; there are private gardens and parks, amusement
centers, beaches, landscapes and rural areas a.s.o.
When people use the cities today it is not because they have to, but because they like to. The
public spaces can offer something attractive and meaningful to the citizens ―if not they would
Invitations to the City / the Public Spaces.
This important change in the character of life in present day public spaces underlines the
importance of creating high quality spaces, which in a convincing way invites the citizens to
come and to participate. The demand for good quality public space design is becoming
increasingly more important.
When this demand is not met, people will not come. This can be seen in many sterile and
uninteresting new towns, in shiny office parks and certainly also in public spaces created
primarily with aesthetic concerns and few concerns for the invitation and comfort of the
visitors. These spaces tend to become deserted, show pieces only.
A careful approach to a people oriented design is needed. However when the design is carefully
done, when the essential basic qualities are met it can be found that the citizens responds very
eagerly. Good public spaces are almost universally also very loved and well used public spaces.
Many examples can illustrate this connection between quality offered and impressive public
The sidewalks on Champs Elysées in Paris have been widened from 12 to 24 meters on each
side of the Boulevard and refurnished, resulting in a marked increase in the use of the
In Denmark the city of Aarhus has opened up its city-river, which was covered in the 1960´s to
make room for a traffic street. The result is one of the most attractive, populated (and
economically viable) spaces in the Kingdom.
And one of the more impressive examples is found in the city of Copenhagen where in a
gradual process over 40 years the streets and squares of the central city have been freed of
traffic and upgraded concerning the quality offered for people activities. In 1962 there were
15.00 square meters set aside for people. By 2003 the area available as good quality public
space is 100.000 square meters.
In this city have been documented that life in the public spaces has increased by a factor of 4
from 1968 to 1995. The more space and the better quality the more people can be found to
choose to walk, to stand, to sit, to enjoy.
Improving conditions for life in the city
Though it can be found that the quality of public spaces plays a dominant role for the character
and the volume of walking and other people activities, the methods for securing a good quality
are generally very poorly developed. A much better effort must be called for.
A two-step plan can be suggested.
On a city level much better information about the quality and the use of the public spaces must
be collected. “Public-Space ― Public Life” Surveys as the ones carried out in Copenhagen over
a 35 years can be recommended. They are simple and cheap to conduct and give an overview
concerning how the city is used, how the use is changing over time, and where improvements
are called for (and provides feed back concerning previous improvements).
Nearly all cities have a traffic department that collects data about the traffic, makes policies and
models for the future and generally makes sure that the traffic of cars are very visible in the
city planning process.
It is about time that every city has people, who systematically look after the pedestrians, the
public life and the public spaces, collect data regularly, provide policies and make sure that the
life of the city becomes equally visible.
On a more detailed design level each individual public space must be designed and furnished
very carefully following a number of very simple keywords, which ensures that the spaces
becomes comfortable and inviting.
We need the city as a meeting place
With regular intervals the viewpoint is put forward that public space and public life is redundant
in our modern time and age. The electronic global village, e-mail, Internet and contemporary
means of communication bring modern day people in contact with each other. There is no need
for the city as meeting place any more it is suggested.
These theories correspond very poorly with the actual findings from all over the World.
Wherever good public spaces have been provided public life has been found to increase
markedly underlining that the meeting in the public space also today is very attractive and
needed in the modern, electronic society. One may even suggest that the growth in the indirect
communication and the simultaneous increases in the activity levels in the (good quality) public
spaces could be linked to each other.
Broadly speaking two opposite directions in city planning can presently be identified. In some
cities (most frequently seen in North America) walking and public life is disappearing,
emphasizing that life conditions are becoming more and more privatized: private homes, -cars,
-work places, -IT-communication and privatized and highly controlled shopping environments.
In other cities public life is being carefully supported ―by introduction of good pedestrian
environments― in order to supplement the private life spheres with a well functioning public
domain offering a wide range of attractive public activities.
The fact that people ―in all parts of the world― respond enthusiastically to these new
opportunities for partaking in public life in public spaces, underlines that public spaces where
people can meet is an important asset in the present day society.
And possibly more so than 20, 30 or 50 years ago.
In a world being steadily privatized the public spaces are gaining in importance, but also being
more demanding to design because life in the public domain is optional and not ―as it used to
be― a necessity.
(Conference lectured at the symposium “(In)visible Cities. Spaces of Hope, Spaces of
Citizenship”, Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, 25-27 July 2003)