We explore the history and relationship between long term sustainable solutions and ethical responsibilities in public space design and development.
By Lilly Miller
Within the past few decades, sustainable architecture has taken many different interpretations. Sustainable development might include anything from recycled materials to renewable-powered building systems. By adhering to sustainability principles, architects can create environmentally savvy and energy-efficient buildings that combine environmental principles with historical preservation. It’s impossible to observe the economic and environmental impact of a building without including its origin and life cycle of its structural elements.
In the pre-industrial period, urban spaces were necessary for the ease of communication, trade, and social developments, which gave every township its distinctive character. In the western part of the world, the industrial revolution changed the face of old cities forever, at the same time changing the way people experience the public realm. The need to accommodate an increased amount of traffic after World War II, initiated several strategies aimed to create zoning restrictions. These changes deeply fragmented the urban landscape, as now public spaces ceased to promote urban interactions and took a strictly utilitarian role.
Unprecedented increases in urban populations from 2000 onward, combined with globalization and dwindling industrial activity changed the character of public spaces once again, socio-cultural and environmental concerns gave ways to the promotion of urban spaces through retail development and tourism.
Realizing that public spaces are a major asset for the experience of urban areas, city developers started emphasizing human-scale spaces, as integral parts of economic growth, encouraging a café-culture, where fresh investments are encouraged by attracting private rather than public businesses.
For example, the city of Jeddah, which was radically re-planned to accommodate people’s everyday needs and aspirations, added to our understanding of the importance of considered, planning initiatives in a rapidly developing economy, such as Saudi Arabia.
Visual and qualitative surveys showed that city planners may be able to create abstract landscapes that can be easily constructed and maintained, however they sometimes fail to provide spaces that improve the public experience and respond to local contexts and people’s aspirations.
Many of the survey respondents expressed dissatisfaction with poor management and maintenance for most spaces. Residents pointed out that city-wide initiatives for eco-friendlier public amenities like energy-efficient public lighting would also encourage visits and promote social activities, as well as footpaths, bike lanes, recreation areas, and shade trees.
Building sustainable public spaces
Constantly balancing between the objectives of density and quality of life might seem impossible in the long term. Still, experience has shown that Transit-oriented Development (TOD) and Public Space Management are complementary approaches that can be combined effectively to transform cities into more sustainable spaces.
By defining economic activity and houses near along public transport hubs and transit routes, TOD promotes density and productivity through the accessibility of jobs, opportunities to create and capture new land value, inner-city mobility, pedestrian areas, and economic dynamics.
On the other hand, by implementing exceptional public space management, cities are developing open spaces that support higher density, promote innovation, retain talent, improve safety, and enhance asset value. Actively supporting TOD approaches, the World Bank has helped over 35 cities to transform their public spaces towards greater safety, inclusion, as well as historical preservation and ecological integration.
Organized by the World Bank’s Tokyo Development Learning Center, a week-long experienced sharing event that took place in January 2019 attracted national and city-level government representatives from 13 countries. This technical deep dive allowed participants to share experiences and learn more about city planning and development through TOD principles. A global leader in the successful application of TOD principles, Japan showcased the Tokyo metropolitan area and the city of Fukuoka.
On both locations, carefully planned development and all levels enabled dynamic high-quality urban areas and unmatched ease of commuting. Many investments in these urban revival initiatives were made possible by land pooling schemes and innovative financing channels aimed at increasing land value and using some of it for reinvestment. Drawing from Japan’s experience, we can conclude that TOD and public space management need a comprehensive approach that includes legal, institutional, and regulatory environments instead of focusing solely on infrastructure development.
Responsible use of land
Sustainability in public space design is a concept that is much broader than conserving energy and improving indoor air quality through the use of non-toxic materials. A well-rounded sustainability strategy also includes protecting the land through architectural design, rather than working against it. Such an approach includes several principles like using less land for construction, leaving more land for recreational purposes, as well as minimizing the environmental impact of individual construction projects.
Land is a finite natural resource, so indiscriminate construction without regarding how quickly we use the resource is neither economical in the long term nor sustainable.
By fostering open communication and knowledge sharing, we’re beginning to understand the relationship between long term sustainable solutions and ethical responsibilities in public space design and development. By developing sustainable public areas, we can both improve the urban environment and save resources for future changes, as people’s needs and experiences evolve.