Public: The Forgotten Realm

A clubhouses, large swimming pools, wading pools, health spas with large exercise studios, jacuzzis, steam, sauna and Turkish baths, table tennis, and billiards are the typical amenities that future residents will enjoy in thousands of new apartment units that were featured at a recent real estate and finance exhibition in Mumbai.  These units will also be equipped with the best gizmos money can buy.

At another extreme, newspapers are filled with inner-city redevelopment schemes that tout tall buildings, wide streets, and over 50% of green space in areas where little or no open space exists today.

What’s not to like about the private amenities, iconic buildings, and generous percentage of green space?  After all this is what the public aspires for and wants. There is nothing wrong with a rich private realm.  The same richness should also extend into the public realm.  The public realm that is defined by the private buildings and the design of public streets and the open space.

Buildings designed as icons in the landscape fail to spatially define a place.  Traditionally, buildings in the urban core line up to create a continuous street wall that supports an active street life.  In stark contrast, contemporary tall buildings sit as freestanding icons in green buffers or parking lots.   The open spaces are left over, dark and desolated spaces that does little more than add distance between the buildings and compromise a coherent street life.  Contemporary buildings should be placed on a human scaled contextual base that preserves the street wall with publicly accessible activity at the street level.  Above the base, the tower can be iconic creative expressions of design.

Streets designed solely to move traffic is a no-win proposition that are destroying many wonderful places in urban cities.  Peak demand will always outpace supply.  Flyovers and grade-separated skywalks progressively create unpleasant places at the street level and in relatively short time they too exceed capacity and fail to satisfy the driver or the pedestrian.  In urban cities, transit and pedestrian experience should trump driver’s comfort.

Open spaces when provided as abstract and numerical computations by individual projects seldom come together to promote communal life.  If we dig deeper and start to evaluate the functional types of open spaces, we can design these spaces for its intended purpose, whether it is a small pocket park, a large community green, an urban plaza, or a square.  These spaces can begin to serve as organizing elements for individual development.  Studies have shown that units that front open spaces generate a 25% premium sale and rental price.

In the past, loss of open space meant a gain of urbanism.  With each new development the city progressively became a better place to live.  The same cannot be said of development today — with each development the city gets slightly worse than before — the public realm gets compromised, and the infrastructure is more strained than before.  Walls, gates, and guards have become common responses to the public realm.

The development proposals at the real estate exhibition in Mumbai and the scores of redevelopment schemes have their share of iconic buildings and these buildings sit within meticulously landscaped areas — some proudly gated and guarded against the public realm.  Twisted, warped, and turned in every way humanly possible, these buildings may be great as icons but collectively they cannot sit next to each other and deliver great urban places.  These buildings are buffered from each other by landscaped areas so their architects can design in perfect freedom from its context.  Everyone likes landscaping — landscaping ends up covering the inadequacy to design an urban building that will create or add to a place. Sadly, these projects are now being marketed as eco- green- or landscape-urbanism.

Vibrant urban cities are the most climate-friendly human proposition to house the growing population.  If we neglect the public realm we impair a key reason why people live together in urban areas.  New- and re-development schemes that heal and reinforce the public realm is good business and good for the city and the environment.

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