By John Prevc
Cities throughout the world are locked in battle with each other as they try to attract capital investment from both private and public funders. Their focus is to try and attract new jobs and they are happy to entertain both the well-established and the new start-up businesses to help kick start their generally static economies.
Significant financial incentives from both local and national governments tend to be the biggest deal makers, but as businesses try and attract the best people, the quality of the city’s built environment is seen more and more as a significant factor in this extremely competitive decision-making process. This has meant that the role of urban designers and architects has grown significantly over the last ten years. They are seen as being the people who are best able to refresh a city through sometimes small interventions which can really help to change people’s perception and therefore help attract investors.
Very much linked to economic investment is the real opportunity of repairing the social ills that seem to ravage certain areas of our inner cities. If we are to design socially cohesive, well-used, popular cities we need to better understand the relationship between streets and spaces, and the buildings that form their edges.
Public spaces can often feel anonymous – nothing more than connections between buildings. They should, however, be places of substance which add to the interest and excitement of city life. If designed well, they can instil a sense of ownership, pride and wellbeing, as well as promote economic growth. If designed badly, they can produce ghettoes, social tension and communities which may well fail.
The role played by buildings cannot be underestimated; their uses, especially at ground floor level, are critical in defining the nature of the spaces they spill on to. The edges between inside and outside spaces are often where much of city life is to be found; the broader the edge, the better the relationship between the building and the public realm.
Urban edges have a number of characteristics; they have different “thicknesses” relating to their level of accessibility, both physical and visual; they can be external or internal spaces, or both – such as shops, cafes and markets; their use and character can change depending on the time of day, the day of the week, the season and the weather. An appreciation of both the context and the culture of the place in which the edge exists will better ensure the success of the urban realm and the community which occupies it.
Successful cities operate at a very simple level. They need to take the ultimate building block which determines scale, the human being, and measure life accordingly. Having successfully attracted new businesses into our cities, the real challenge then is to have them stay and expand and attract others to join them. I believe that the quality of the public realm and its interface with the buildings that enclose it is so incredibly significant in the success of city economies that if it were to fail, the city would ultimately fail too.