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Everyone in the world uses public space: as soon as you leave home and walk into the street or square or path outside you are in the public realm. In this sense the public realm is one of the few services that every single person benefits from: whether rich or poor, young or old. Urban centres of large cities of the world are densely populated due to the availability of opportunities/connectivity with other places and hence it is crucial to have a well designed and adaptable public realm for the city to keep ticking. Well designed urban areas recognize the importance of public realm which is the network between the spaces of building that determine the layout, form and connectivity of the city. When it's well designed as in a traditional compact city it links people and places. When fragmented (due to reasons like automobile invention, zoning and urban renewal, privatization of public realm, changing landuse) like in many contemporary port cities, it contributes to social segregation, alienation leading to high crime rates, insecurity and broken society. It has left the public realm at ground level barren, disconnecting people from it. The inhabitants in such conditions are devoid of a sense of belonging to a society which is very much crucial for a city to work well and be culturally and socially sustainable.
Urban Qualities of Public Realm
Our life is a formless, discrete yet well ordered balanced entity. Every dot, a place, space and activity even though located and created by a particular coincidence is never a same experience. The connections, episodes, their intensity or duration in time and space is not of the same value. Some continue for very long time as if regulated like and some for short and sporadic time spans. We just don't notice it. Sometimes even a chance encounter, momentary and casual at that time becomes most eventful after several days, years or decades. It reopens, connects and directs our faith. And it is in a place like the public realm that they criss-cross, overlap join together, interact, separate, hide, diffuse, and spread. It is this awareness that needs to be created and this purpose to be resolved through the public realm consciously, unconsciously or sub consciously. Hence it should contain gathering spaces for one to one interaction, group exchanges, and spaces for solitude. It would nurture and provide a conducive environment for all sorts of creative activities resulting in chance encounters, communication, and sharing of knowledge between people which would then gradually form, a strong network amongst people and newer ideas would develop that will eventually make the city come alive and become creative. It needs to be a part of one's daily life enmeshed within the fabric of the city as a whole in terms of its spatial organization and social order which is a quality that transcends from the rich culture, traditions of life and collective wisdom from time immemorial.
Although good spaces are difficult to achieve in one sense it is surprisingly easy to know when they are successful. To put it very simply, a good public realm is that which is full of people, a place where people and activities are assembled by placing the individual buildings and functions so that the system of public spaces is as compact as possible and so the distances for pedestrian traffic respond to the walking radius and sensory experiences respond to the range of limitation of the senses. This principle can be found in nearly all pre 1930 areas and in a few recent building projects. In its simplest and most well arranged form it can be found also in small towns where all buildings are arranged and assembled around a square. Therefore, good public realm is a place that tempts to slow down people, to stop, to chat, or to simple watch the world go by, a place that enriches the lives of those who use it.
Since it is the common man that uses the public realm it is worth considering what he needs from the public realm. He needs to be able to move about easily and confidently, to be able to linger in public spaces and take pleasure, enjoyment and a good experience and he needs to be able to get together with people. So, they want spaces where they would like to talk, walk, stand, sit, see, hear etc. that forms the basis for development of other activities.
Qualities of Public Realm helping to achieve its purpose
Over the past 20 years, the concept of urban design that has become dominant is one of making places for people. Synthesising the earlier traditions, contemporary urban design is simultaneously concerned with the design of urban space as an aesthetic entity and as a behavioural setting. It focuses on the diversity and activity which help to create successful urban places, and, in particular on how well the physical setting supports the functions and activities taking place there. With this concept comes the notion of urban design as the design and management of the 'public realm' - defined as the public face of buildings, the spaces between the frontages, the activities taking place in and between these space, and managing of these activities, all of which are affected by the uses of the building themselves i.e. the 'private realm'. In recent years, 'official' definitions have also embraced the concepts of place making, and of the public realm. In England, for example, planning policy guidance states that 'urban design' should be taken to mean:
'the relationship between different buildings, the relationship between the buildings and the street, squares, parks and other spaces which make up the public domain itself, the relationship of one part of the village, town or city with the other parts, and the pattern of movement and activities which are thereby established. In short, the complex relationships between all the elements of built and unbuilt space. (DoE Planning Policy Guidance Note 1, 1997, para.14).'
Hence, urban form inevitable has an essential and a dual influencing relationship with the public domain. Therefore, the attempts to identify the desirable qualities of successful urban places and/ or good urban form relates directly with the quality of the public domain as a result. Hence it is useful to note the key content of such attempts, in order to understand the desirable qualities that need to be there in a good urban environment resulting inevitably in a vibrant public realm.
Elements of Public Realm
The question that often arises is that which spaces conventionally makes up an attractive public realm? From literature review (based on the urban qualities summarized earlier), the elements have been listed and summarized as below.
pavements, sidewalks, traffic spaces, promenades complementing activities happening along the articulated edge.
pavilions, piazzas, plazas, rinks, skate parks, public forums, marketplace, space for hawkers, where festivities, fairs, carnivals may be organized and would cater to people of all kinds of sensibilities
arcades, shades, porches, balconies, steps, pergolas, street furniture, cafes, workshops, studios, street entertainment, public art exhibition, kids play areas, etc. Height of the built edge and the sense of enclosure it provides (human scale)
Spaces for green linkages
neighbourhood parks and play areas, gardens, sports fields, woods, nature reserves, wildlife corridors, community gardens or spaces for urban farming
Spaces for blue linkages
Water features and edge of river, canal, streams within the public realm
Ferris wheels, clock towers, statue, monument or building of historic value Public and civic buildings, town halls, exhibition spaces, museums, theatres, bus stops, metro/train stations, airports, schools, bazaars or shopping arcades, malls, indoor sports facilities, health facilities, reused buildings turned into bars and restaurants or other public amenities
These elements of public realm may be categorized further as follows:
I. Streets: includes transitory spaces and articulated edge
II. Squares: includes open spaces, green and blue leisure areas and landmarks
Therefore it might be concluded that by using these elements one may achieve the urban qualities ideal for a vibrant public realm.