Public space in the 21st century More space for everyone

Urban psychologist Cornelia Ehmayer at the “More Space for Everyone” conference in February 2014 in Tutzing.
Urban psychologist Cornelia Ehmayer at the “More Space for Everyone” conference in February 2014 in Tutzing. | Photo (detail): © Karo Knote

Metropolises such as Munich have a problem: because the population is increasing, urban planners are frantically looking for new living space – even at the expense of greenbelt areas and parks. People are opposed to this. What is the importance of public space in the 21st century?

Geometrically arranged and functionally separate – that’s how top architect Le Corbusier envisaged the ideal city in the first half of the 20th century. His urban vision consisting of straight lines and right angles is divided up into zones for living, working and relaxing. Between these zones is a tight network of tarmac streets around which the cars move.

Le Corbusier left nothing to chance in his thoroughly rationalised new-town concept. It was supposed to function reliably, like a machine. But that’s precisely where the problem lies, reckons Berlin architect Jörn Gertenbach: “Le Corbusier has forgotten that people live in his city too.” A city is not created on the drawing board of an omniscient planner – it’s the result of a dynamic collective process, in his opinion. “The users are the producers of the city of tomorrow.”

From a city for cars to a city for people

Designing the city of the future together – that was exactly what they were talking about at the “Mehr Platz für Alle!” (More Space for Everyone!) conference at the Evangelical Academy in Tutzing, Bavaria. 120 attendees came together there at the beginning of February 2014 to discuss how the public space in a metropolis like Munich can be used creatively. Their goal: to shift priorities from car-friendly city to people-friendly city. It isn’t “gas guzzlers” and “parking lots” that Benjamin David, co-organiser of the conference, wants for public spaces: it is “quality of residence, communication and face-to-face encounters”.

In the past, public spaces were “heavily regulated” by bans, says Austrian urban psychologist Cornelia Ehmayer. But people have a basic need to establish a relationship with their environment. It creates identification. Ehmayer calls this process appropriation, and one aspect of this is that the citizens “have their say, are involved in decision-making and designing their own environment”. For instance Urban Gardening: if communal gardens are suddenly created between house walls and paving slabs, in which city-dwellers cultivate fruit and vegetables, that is more than just an expression of a new culture of doing-it-yourself. “A personal sense of belonging to a place is also created as a result”, says  Ehmayer: “Look everyone, I planted this tomato here.”

More participation: the example of the Danube Canal

To make sure the transition from passive urban utilisation to active urban design is successful, the key word is: participation. In 2007 Ehmayer worked with the city of Vienna to develop a concept to redesign the Danube Canal: a local recreation area 17 kilometres long, running through the city centre. During the course of this project she questioned the residents of Vienna to find out their needs and wishes. A central result: many people were bothered by the increasing commercialisation of public space. “Zones free from the pressure of consumerism for which there is no charge are very important to people”, according to Ehmayer.  A further strategy was to introduce the so-called fairness zones. Because conflicts frequently arise between cyclists and pedestrians, the different groups of road users are being conditioned for a better co-existence with the help of discussion and campaigns.

According to the opinion of urban researcher Juliane Pegels, more and more people are becoming actively involved in the design of public spaces: public administration, investors, clubs and associations. The best example of this co-production is the High Line Park in New York. There, over the past few years, a disused railway line owned by the city was transformed into a huge green space. The result is a paradise on stilts, 1.6 kilometres long, in the middle of Manhattan. The project was started up by a citizens’ initiative, which is still responsible for the public park’s administration today.

Growing metropolises, shrinking regions

“You have to try and involve the citizens in their feeling of responsibility”, says Pegels. This is a challenge, particularly in smaller communities within Germany. The thing is, whilst the population in cities like Munich, Berlin or Hamburg is growing incessantly, and with the influx the competition for the public space is increasing, 85 per cent of the regions in Germany are currently shrinking. The consequence: economic problems, empty buildings, desolate towns. Empty space that comes into being like this must “not become wasteland and fall into decline, it must be utilised as a result of the citizens’ commitment”, reckons the urban researcher.

Another concern of the conference attendees in Tutzing was to understand the public space as “scope for creativity”. At the end they published the “Tutzing Declaration” – a catalogue of ideas detailing how the public space in Munich can be made more attractive for its residents. According to the Declaration, the number of streets and junctions should be reduced, and replaced with plazas and relaxation areas. Trees and green areas should no longer give way to luxury new buildings, instead they should create affordable housing. In keeping with the motto: more space for everyone!