“Urbanization is the defining trend of the 21st century; by 2030, 75 percent of the world’s 9 billion people will be living in cities. And urbanization is occurring most rapidly in places with the greatest lack of planning for urbanization.” — UN-HABITAT Executive Director Joan Clos i Matheu

According to Project for Public Spaces, cities and towns are growing at unprecedented rates. In 1950, one-third of the world’s population lived in cities. Just 50 years later, this proportion has risen to one-half and is expected to continue to grow to two-thirds, or six billion people, by 2050. In many cities, especially in developing countries, slum dwellers number more than 50 percent of the population and have little or no access to shelter and other basic services like electricity, clean water, and sanitation. These conditions are unacceptable. They can, and must, be changed. Streets, squares, and parks, especially in the informal city, are often chaotic, poorly planned and maintained — if they exist at all.

The West Harlem Art Fund will make 12th Avenue a public space for Under the Viaduct, 2015. We will close 12th Avenue down to vehicular traffic with the help of NYC Department of Transportation and their Weekend Walks program. 12th Avenue will become a destination where people can meet, talk, bike, skate, dine and enjoy art. The organization has been studying various possibilities since 2005 when we 1st collaborated with the State of New York, Division of Coastal Resources and produced the study Take Me to the River and then again in 2008 with Take Me to the River II. Now, we are finally able to experiment with fresh ideas. And the use of light-based technology and design is making this happen.


What are some of the challenges?

Lack of Public Space. Especially in informal settlements, public spaces can be lacking altogether, increasing tension and stress for people who live in crowded and inadequate conditions. In other cases, new commercial and residential development can destroy traditional public space, as older neighborhoods with well-established social patterns are wiped out to make way for high-rise development, resulting in a profound dislocation of the population and disruption of centuries-old ways of living together and sharing resources. Streets, in particular, have for millennia been a vital part of the public realm, providing a place where merchants can sell their wares, children can play, and people can stop to talk. The growing prevalence of the automobile has squeezed out these uses. Reclaiming streets as places for people can strengthen cities in a variety of ways – economically, environmentally, as well as socially.

Lack of Planning for Public Spaces. All over the world, sprawl development is allowed to spread without any plan for public space. Sometimes, builders create “public” space that is actually private — behind the walls of gated communities, inside malls that are patrolled by security guards, or within exclusive club like recreational areas. All of these types of spaces create the illusion that public space exists, but in actuality function to separate people by class and income, as well as sometimes by ethnicity and religion.

Lack of Public Spaces That Bring People Together.  The best public spaces bring together people from all walks of life and all income groups. The presence of multiple types of people ensures that no one group dominates, and that the space is safe and welcoming for all, including women and youth. Where public space is absent, inadequate, poorly designed, or privatized, the city becomes increasingly segregated. Lines are drawn based on religion, ethnicity, and economic status. The result can be a dangerously polarized city where social tensions are more likely to flare up and where social mobility and economic opportunity are stifled.

Lack of Participation and Poor Design. These are not only matters for planners, designers, and bureaucrats to decide in a void. Only with full public participation in the creation of public spaces can truly great places come into being. Building a city is an organic process, not a simple recipe or a one size-fits-all pattern. Local customs must always be considered and honored. Maintenance costs must remain within reason for the community involved.

Source: Placemaking and the Future of Cities, PPS

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