Those of us associated with the building of cities are often asked to do tricky things. Build a 632-meter-high skyscraper and give it the world’s tallest and fastest single elevator, traveling at speeds of more than 40 mph so folks can soar to the top in fewer than 40 seconds with no transfers. Build a data center in Houston that makes its own electricity (handy during a hurricane) and turns rain water into an asset. Design an office building that makes people happy to come to work.
But one of the biggest challenges facing us today requires, perhaps, one of our best magic tricks of all time: Creating open space when there seems to be none left.
How do we give people in cities public spaces (parks, gardens, squares, even wide tree-lined streets) to gather and room to breathe in our increasingly built-up and built-out urban environments?
According to data from the United Nations, by 2050 nearly 70% of the world’s population—some 6.29 billion
million people—will live in cities. That is up from just over 50% today. Where will all those urbanites find places to breathe, to pause, to share ideas, to gather and be productive as social animals, which is why cities came to be 9,000 years ago? How do we avoid replicating the urban planning and development problems that we have in our modern cities, and in particular, our penchant for not placing enough value on the "people factor"? How do we avoid transporting those problems to the fast developing cities of the world?
As a leader of a global design firm, I believe we need a different kind of vision to "see" potential high-quality, public open space where others do not. We need to create, reclaim, and just plain squeeze it out of our existing cities and then turn that essential space into spectacular places designed for the promotion of our humanity. The High Line on New York’s West Side does this brilliantly, but it has been everyone’s best example—and model for imitation.
Last year, we set out to unearth and re-imagine unexpected open space (which is what we should be replicating about the High Line) in cities around the globe. We asked all 43 Gensler offices to participate in a conceptual project that we’re calling the Gensler Town Square Initiative. The idea was simple: find what we haven’t yet seen. Identify open space in your city and re-imagine it as a town square, which we used as a metaphor for all kinds of gathering places, not just the traditional civic square.
The ideas ranged from wild to pragmatic.
In New York, the team took to the streets of Manhattan—quite literally—and realized the wasted space in some of our streetscapes. It saw potential in the oftentimes generous central medians and the opportunity to create important neighborhood amenity spaces there.
But here’s the kicker: It then combined that potential for community space with another thing New Yorkers need badly in light of their post-Hurricane Sandy reality: a sense that something’s being done to integrate resilient infrastructure solutions into New York’s urban fabric.
Creating a kit of parts geared toward coupling community amenities with resilient strategies, the New York team proposed that a net-zero park be created within a three-block-long stretch of central median running down Allen Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Each block of that (prototype) linear park would be designed to test—via its amenities—a particular resilience strategy: waste disposal and biomass generation; solar/renewable energy; or storm water retention.
Among the amenities: lounge areas shaded with solar PV canopies; public charging stations powered by that park-generated solar electricity; rain-fed ponds; bicycle racks that also collect rain and double as hydroponic planters; solar-heated showers for bicyclists; organic waste collection bins; and a community organic waste and methane processor. A series of "plug-in" special event spaces could also be available on demand in the park and include a methane-powered community sauna and a pop-up library.
In Las Vegas, the team developed a strategy to transform the streetscape of this city’s (in)famous strip into an ad hoc town square shared by Vegas’ 40 million annual visitors and the 2 million people who live in the city’s metropolitan area. It developed modular pop-up structures designed to accommodate a wide variety of activities and services. Dubbed the "Urban Mosaic," the modular cubes can be combined in any number and configuration to turn the strip’s streetscape into a meaningful public space for events both big (i.e. New Year’s Eve) and small.
The team in Bangalore—a city that seems to have turned its back on the many polluted and misused lakes that dot its landscape—proposed turning one underachieving, neglected pool of liquid into a "lakesquare" by improving the lake’s ecology while developing a meaningful lakeside experience for residents. It enhanced the lake’s connection to the city by activating its edges and, thus, created a prototype for a green infrastructure that is both sustainable and deeply rooted in the local culture.
Although London has many well-established public spaces, the successful ones tend to be located in the heart of the individual boroughs—and rarely do those boroughs consider the public spaces beyond their boundaries. The London Gensler team recognized the greater potential of considering urban open space as part of a network of spaces. It looked at combining individual spaces across district boundaries to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
In Washington D.C., the Gensler team considered specific interventions to build stronger connections across its riverfront—not more bridges, but more people-focused spaces and opportunities to gather and breathe as they cross the Potomac River and move among the city’s key sights. Among those interventions: a series of pedestrian pathways across the car-dominated Key Bridge that allow people to dwell within the bridge’s crevices and arches; a new water-facing terrace for the The Kennedy Center; and Paddleshare, a boat-sharing service similar to Zipcar.
The glories of open space and the town squares they inspire are big and small and endless.
The Arab Spring, Occupy movement, and recent announcement of the new pope in Rome all played out in town squares. People’s memory and attention span improve after spending time interacting with nature, according to a study from the University of Michigan. And if nothing else sticks with doubters, this one generally sways opinions: there’s money to be in made in urban open space. The published literature suggests very strongly that people will pay a premium to be near open space—and that can be a very good thing for a city’s tax base.
Some 95% of those surveyed (real estate developers, public sector workers, and investors across Europe) said they would pay 3% more for commercial property in close proximity to open space, according to a joint research effort by Gensler and the Urban Land Institute. In London that could equate to approximately £1.3 billion in added value. In Chicago, the opening of Millennium Park in 2004 is credited for sending condo values in the surrounding blocks up $100 a square foot, with the additional value of all residential development in those blocks reaching $1.4 billion by 2014.
The bottom line is that open space and town squares humanize and invigorate cities and are essential to the health and welfare of the people who live and work in them. It’s that simple.