What Makes a Great Public Space?

b_730_82467935-5807-445b-9193-13ece12c901aIt’s a question that’s often asked and answered by urban planners and placemakers. The current media debate about costumed panhandlers in New York City’s Times Square adds even more grist to the mill. Numerous physical and social qualities that make a great public space have been proposed. These lists often run into double digits. Numerous illustrative examples have also been proffered. Such an exercise, of course, is highly subjective. Scholars and citizens reasonably disagree over the extent to which size, scale, degree of physical enclosure, amenities, aesthetics, and other variables matter.

jpty-1-piazza-maggiore-interaOne source of insight is Ghigo DiTomasso’s recent essay about Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, Italy. DiTomasso notes that the Italian piazza has been much imitated in the United States in the last few decades of the 20th century. Much imitated, but rarely duplicated, the American forms don’t usually work in translation. They often have the “finishings” of the classic Italian piazza with none of the substance. They are, in effect, “placeless places.” DiTomasso suggests that American planners go back to square one—no pun intended—if they want to use Old Europe as basis for creating better public spaces.

DiTomasso focuses on the spatial characteristics that make a place great. His list is shorter than most. Considering his suggestions, they boil down to three essential qualities:

1. Centrality: Obviously, a great public space should be easily accessible to those communities whose lives planners hope to enrich and enhance. So it was historically with Piazza Maggiore, though of course multiple centers have emerged in Italian cities as they have grown in size and social complexity.

2. Connectivity: A great public space should serve as a nodal point for urban pathways. The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) identifies Piazza Maggiore as a textbook example of a public space that “reaches out into the surrounding neighborhood…like the tentacles of an octopus.” PPS celebrates Piazza Maggiore for “the way that streets, sidewalks, and the ground floors of adjacent buildings lead into it.” Bologna’s connecting sidewalks are often enhanced by the city’s famous colonnades, or porticoes. These covered walkways mediate a relationship between the public and private realms and help unify the city. The influence of Piazza Maggiore on pedestrians begins a few blocks away. For DiTomasso the prospect of pathways converging at the urban center creates a “sense of possibility” regarding who or what will be encountered. This sense is something that most American public spaces, and certainly the linear pedestrian mall, simply can’t replicate.

3. Cachet: This is probably the most important quality of a great public space. Cachet is produced by a combination of material elements—including adjacent architecture—that ground a visitor in civic culture and history and, ideally, prompt reflection and conversation. Piazza Maggiore has cachet in spades.

Camillo Sitte, the great town planning theorist who advocated for the use of artistic principles in urban design, including irregularly shaped public spaces and decentered monuments consciously positioned to serve as backdrops for social activity, would likely approve.

Bologna-piazza-maggiore-veduta-aerea-copia-1140x763Piazza Maggiore’s surrounding civic buildings are material elements that enrich the piazza as much as they are enriched by it. Most significant is the Basilica of San Petronio, one of the largest churches in Christendom. Begun in 1390 to celebrate the victory of the Bolognese over the Florentine pope, the Basilica’s façade was never finished. San Petronio belongs to it’s citizens and symbolizes the city’s freedom and independence. It is very much an archetype of the “civic temple.” The unfinished façade not only adds character but also symbolizes the nature of every city as perpetually unfinished, always in a process of becoming.

Centrality, Connectivity, and Cachet are the three basic spatial and physical qualities that make a great public space. A fourth quality might be added that goes to the process of city building. Call that quality a commitment to the Urban Commons. Bologna is notable for its formulation and approval, in mid-2014, of a Regulation on Collaboration Between Citizens and the City for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons.

The Regulation is a set of principles and provisions designed to empower all citizens to take an active role in planning, managing, and improving common civic “goods,” including public spaces, streets, buildings, and services. The Regulation grants citizens a genuinely broad-based right to, and ownership of, the city. Bologna’s Urban Commons initiative also makes good sense given current European austerity measures and the fact of Bologna’s cultural diversity: only 30 percent of current residents are native Bolognese, and nearly 120 different ethnic groups live in the city.

Bologna’s Regulation is a pioneering model of civic collaboration in urban governance that promises to raise the bar for quality placemaking. Cities everywhere are challenged by a volatile global economy, rapidly disappearing public space, and increasing cultural diversity. There is clearly plenty to learn from what Bologna has already accomplished in terms of the design and use of urban public space.

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