How to design public spaces to make us enjoy our daily movement?
The perception of architecture is an experience. We can sense the space with every step we take if we are open, receptive and observant. The surrounding environment can offer us unexpected discoveries, if we let go of our usual patterns of thinking. A great public space inspires to take action, it busts myths and leaves the loose ends positively untied. Active mobility supports our mental, physical and social health. Cycling and walking are the ways of movement allowing us to perceive the environment most directly. Disruptions on our daily routes, unsafe environments, monotonous paths, lack of stops etc obstruct our movement. A good public space functions as an uninterrupted network while also supporting the daily movements, roaming, exercise and play.
The Public Space Network
The entire urban space can be considered an environment that invites people to move, create, play and discover. It does not mean that the created environment should not consider the possible safety issues or risks that may occur if the hidden activities are not skilfully designed or placed in suitable spaces. The potential highlighted in the right location helps to add value to the regular route from A to B, by providing opportunities for a slight detour or a longer stay. If in urban ecology we speak about networks of urban nature ensuring the cohesion of biodiversity, then we could similarly talk about networks of public spaces providing a well-functioning urban fabric with a supportive infrastructure – abstract small design elements inciting creativity, meaningful pauses on the way etc.
A Monofunctional Notion of Space vs Cross-usage
When combining the terms outdoor space and play or outdoor space and movement, it is usually associated with a playground or a skatepark which are a fraction of the possible typologies of public space. Unfortunately, the design of daily routes – streets etc – does not consider the fact that also these could offer playful and enjoyable opportunities for activity. Movement is not limited to sports. It should and must be considered as a substantially wider concept. The public space network can provide daily pleasure of movement for wider amount of users than the monofunctional playgrounds and ball pitches allotted in isolated fragments.
The monofunctional notion of space and the overexploitation of catalogue products is a safe way to design spaces – the streets are meant for cars, people should walk in the parks and children should play on playgrounds. This is the way of thinking in a compliant world with softened edges and risks lowered to a level where safety equals boredom and activities are strictly prescribed, depriving the users of the “need to think for themselves”. The client, that is the local municipality, provides a set of rules and a heap of standards to follow. Each function is placed in the best and safest location. In designing playgrounds, for instance, it is easier to select catalogue products passing the responsibility to the manufacturers whose certificates and declarations are to ensure the product’s safety and functionality. It is considerably more complex to create cross-usage which means skilfully mixing the functions. And to entrust people to think for themselves and evaluate the risks. The space for mobility, creativity and extremity does not always have to be labelled and firmly settled, a good public space opens the door to fantasy and spontaneity.
Affordance, Creative Use of Space and Spontaneity
In case of spaces that are not designed merely for a narrow group of users, we can speak about affordance and cross-usage. A well-considered public space does not have to prefer or exclude anybody, similarly, it does not have to lock all functions or strictly zone the activities. For instance, street sports enthusiasts can make use of the space very creatively, often seeing opportunities in places where regular users would not know how to spot them. When talking about street sports, people primarily think of various disciplines of urban street sports that employ the experimental and abstract urban spaces to find expression. When designing steps, inclined surfaces and street furniture, it is worth considering durable materials and solutions allowing youngsters to perform tricks. In this regard we have an unfortunate example of the barriers installed at the foot of the Victory Monument on Freedom Square in Tallinn barring skateboarders from the otherwise ideal environment. As commented by the representative of the Estonian Skateboarding Association Antti Sinitsyn, the square is paved with granite slabs providing the right grip for the wheels and with their edges perfect for performing tricks, in other words, there are almost ideal conditions for skateboarding.1 However, here lies the paradox and behavioural pattern that needs to be broken. On the one hand, we want children and youngsters to move, on the other hand, we fend them off or scold them when they find a way to exercise. We will next look at some diverse spaces that address street sports enthusiasts and other people in the street space alike, providing all of us with the opportunity to be “street sportsmen” in our own way, that is, enjoying our walk or ride.
Small Design Elements in Kolde Avenue in Pelgulinn district in Tallinn (2016)
The pigmented concrete elements designed and constructed by the Estonian Skateboarding Association and (the street sports architecture consultancy office) Manual: Urban Sports and Architecture in Kolde Avenue do not only speak to skateboarders but also to young families who take their children out to play on the square.2 The design of the square and small elements provide the former car park area with a whole new social and sports dimension for the urban space that has become a kind of a landmark of shared memories for street sports enthusiasts and people who love to move around the city. Such places in cities allow young people in the increasingly digitalised world to get a more versatile experience of the physical realm. And most importantly, such simple things in life are free and highly important in the physical and psychological development of a growing organism.
The Concrete Ocean Wave in Clichy-Batignolles Park in Paris (2012)
The park featuring one of the most unconventional examples of landscape architecture in Europe is in the district Clichy-Batignolles in Paris with its rich texture of urban ecology requiring an entirely separate analysis. However, I hereby focus on the concrete landscape of the park marked by remarkable organic design. The park is designed by Atelier Jacqueline Osty & Associés who, among other things, are also behind the renewed landscape of the Paris zoo and the Pointe à Pantin canal-side promenade. Jacqueline Ostyt has the unique skill to combine high culture urban ecology and experimental landscapes. The concrete ocean wave extending over about 50 metres is a multifunctional landscape that accentuates the upper and lower relief of the park, while also adding dynamic and elegant aesthetics to it. Skateboarders adore it, but not only they. Children consider it as a practically endless slide suitable for any age. Such creative places give people pleasure no matter what their social, cultural, economic or religious background, and Estonia needs a similar synthesising urban design allowing a versatile use of space.
The Small Design Elements at Place de la République in Paris (2017)
République or the Republic Square with its almost daily cultural events, campaigns or protest demonstrations is one of the best-known squares in Paris. Also skateboarders love to use the square dating back to 1879. Its dense usage and the experiment of multicultural and subcultural urbanism have made it well known and loved all over the world. It was further enhanced by the mobile architectural small elements brought to the square in 2016. The setup designed by Sterling Projects was installed on the square in cooperation with the city government of Paris and the local skateboarding community. The design of the forms on steel frames is more complex than that in Kolde Avenue. The architectonic of the largest object on the square, for instance, was derived from a pyramid and a street sweeper snowplough, thus providing endless possibilities for doing creative street sports. Almost all the design elements also have asymmetric nuances and curves that you do not come across anywhere else in European urban space design.
By taking together the Estonian and Parisian practices of the cross-usage of space, we see that a creative small design element in a coherent public space provides an important spatial experience. The functions of classic small elements such as a park bench with a backrest, a swing or slide have already been rather firmly established and leave little room for the user’s fantasy and spontaneity. When looking beyond the catalogue products, it is possible to create abstract environments and clever “street furniture” catering for both seating and play, observation and tricks, relaxation and balancing acts etc. In order to do (street) sports, it is not always necessary to construct large isolated and monofunctional squares with poor access. The small design elements woven into daily paths contribute to the density of the urban space, creation of different usage and social security, allowing diverse possibilities for creative and physical activities. With such solutions, it is possible to leave the loose ends positively untied and make room for fantasy and non-regulation.
TERJE ONG is a passionate flaneur and one of the founders of the landscape architecture office TajuRuum specialising in public space design.
RISTO KOZER studied urban governance at the Estonian Institute of Humanities and is a city enthusiast and skateboarder impressed by experimental and organic urban design.
PUBLISHED in Maja’s 2018 summer/autumn edition (No 94).
HEADER photo by Emerson Siimer.
1 Madis Vaikmaa „Riik keelab noortel vabadussamba juures sportimise.” Postimees, 28.07.2017 https://www.postimees.ee/4192951/riik-keelab-noortel-vabadussamba-juures-sportimise
22 Risto Kozer “Lugu sellest, kuidas rulatatavad väikevormid endale kohta otsisid” Postimees, 18.10.2016