What Happened to Public Space? A Quick Guide Through Europe’s History

Public spaces make cities. They are the spaces of visibility and sociability, the areas where the invisible boundaries that separate us socio-economically are temporarily contested. The availability of quality public space is one of the varied characteristics that define the city. Citizens recognize themselves as members of a community only when they can equally access and use the public “place”, which also presents the result of evolution and growing up of the urban fabric. Why is public space such an essential area of cities and how it is translated in terms of equality and democracy?

The Beginning: The Greek Agora

Reconstruction of the Ancient Greek Agora in Athens

The Agora was the central spot in ancient Greek states, the focal point of the political, economic, and social life in the Greek polis. Its literal meaning is “gathering place” or “assembly”. It is where the idea of Western democracy was born, the arena of political deliberation and participation which are the fundamentals of democratic governance. At first, the Agora was surrounded by private houses being the extension of the home. Later, temples and sanctuaries were build bordering it with stoas, covered walkways, and porticoes.

The Roman Forum

Reconstruction of The Roman Forum

It is the parallel of the Greek Agora and probably influenced by it, as there is no trace of a similar public space in the earlier Etruscan cities. Forums usually have a geometric, basically rectangular shape, in a proportion of 2 to 3, surrounded by porticoes. They blended both religious and civic activities as they housed temples, basilicas, shops and markets. It was also common to find a theater and a public bath, as well as the curia (used for city council meetings) and comitium (political meeting). In later stages the Forums became more defined and enclosed, forming a series of separate spaces.

The Medieval Market Square

The Middle Ages Marketplace

The medieval city was a place of trade. One or more marketplaces were devoted to trading, as the main public spaces of the city. The cathedral was the main institution of the growing city of the Middle Ages, and the marketplace could often be found in an adjacent space, to take advantage of the constant activity. However, this is a time when the tension between public and private space started to emerge. Cities were walled for protection against invaders and the availability of space within the walls was limited, so there was a continuous pressure for claiming space for private use.

The Renaissance Plaza

The San Marco Square in Venice, Italy

The Renaissance and the Baroque square was carefully planned, formally and symmetrically designed. The importance of proportion and harmony was visible in the uniform facades of the buildings surrounding these squares. This is when a new designing tradition begins: residential quarters around squares – primarily for the upper class – forming a semi-public character. Apparently, this ability to restrict public access to the use of these squares made them more popular among developers of new residential districts.

The Public Space in Modernism

Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris

The era of the modernism is stigmatized with the motto: “Form Follows Function”. The functionalism of modernists, therefore, gave priority to cars and fast movement urban space, a notion that undermined the close relationship between open spaces and the building surrounding them. The city and its public space were designed as an organized system, where development ensued according to functionalist rules. Despite their emphasis on the primary of public interests in the city, the modernists paid little attention to the historically created public spaces. The new vision of the city was expanded open spaces where high buildings were erected, but with no other connection to the rest of the city. A “lost space” where sociability was impossible.

Public Space and Social Activism

Students protesting in Paris, May ’68. Photograph: Serge Hambourg. Courtesy of Hood Museum of Art

During times of political instability, the public space is charged as a vortex of social discontent. In the 1960’s social and political turmoils were frequently played out in public spaces, which were decorated with the language of protest (banners, murals, graffiti). Protestors frequently appropriated public spaces, and sometimes private ones, to voice their dissent. The notion that citizens can and should take control of open spaces was very vivid in these times, establishing the “right to the city” movement.

Contemporary Public Spaces

The Grand Central Shopping Mall in Birmingham

Public spaces in contemporary cities are under the pressure of capital and privatization. This is gradually transforming their social and physical form, leading to a significant reduction of the public realm and the loss of public space. Green parks, open-air squares, and riverside paths become victims of private ownership. A place of a hybrid character starts to emerge. It’s a place where there’s no clear distinction between public and private, a “gray area”. These non-places don’t bear any symbolic expression, they are devoid of identity and usually places of consumption, such as coffee shops and shopping malls.

The proper shaping of an urban public space reflects the proper functioning of a democratic governance. After so many transformations over the centuries, we are now at a point where we need to deal with these leftovers of public space. They are the key focus in the transformation of the cities. The success of a particular public space is not solely in the hands of the architect, urban designer or town planner; it relies also on people adopting, using and managing the space – people make places, more than places make people.


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