Urban planners, architects, artists and political representatives from around the world came together in the Dialogue Collective Public Space: New Perspectives held on September 8-12 within the framework of the Universal Forum of Cultures – Barcelona 2004. Participants exchanged ideas, projects and strategies for the management of new city planning models that include the concept of collective space, a new social phenomenon that includes institutionalized forms of interaction, and free relationships between citizens. As a result of the change of scale taking place in cities and rapidly changing ways of life, greater emphasis is now being put on collective spaces than on public spaces. This new orientation needs to be reflected in urban development projects.
The Universal Forum of Cultures – Barcelona 2004 brought together specialists in city planning, architects, politicians, artists and philosophers to discuss the need for cities to reorient their planning strategies in order to facilitate collective interaction in both central and peripheral areas. In this process, it is essential to focus on the need for collective urban space as a framework within which cultures can come together, a stage for conflicts, and an important symbol of democratic regeneration. Collective urban space is a complex social phenomenon that goes beyond the traditional notion of the public by incorporating private elements. The new concept encompasses institutionalized forms of interaction and free relationships between individuals. Within the framework of the Dialogue, collective urban space was seen as central to city development and was analyzed in this light.
Cities have an obligation to generate public spaces that citizens can then take possession of and transform into collective spaces through the uses they put them to.
Cities and fragmented space
Public space in cities is in crisis. The symbolic elements constructed in public spaces in the past no longer serve to represent the flows circulating through them. The progressive weakening of public space has two underlying causes: the weakening of the political dimension of the city (the polis), and the fact that the very notion of shared urban life is going through a profound crisis. According to François Barré, "The public dimension of cities can no longer be reduced to traditional places such as old quarters of cities and downtown areas: this space represents only 10% of the city." Barré added that this crisis is due mainly to the prevailing individualistic approach to life: 90% of people no longer live in city centers, and the day-to-day relationships that tie people to each other are being eroded. He said these developments are also reflected in architectural approaches and in the privatization of public space.
In terms of the fragmentation of cities, reference was also made to the time-related crisis arising from the provisional nature much of what goes on in the urban environment, which makes it difficult to take any action that marks the history of the city in a significant way. This crisis of temporality is linked to the rupture of narrative structure. Contemporary cities are characterized by instantaneous flow, and as a result it more difficult to develop a long-term narrative. François Ascher, professor at the French Institute of City Planning in Paris, made reference to a contemporary paradox—the fact that slowness has now become a luxury that is difficult to find. Contemporary city planning has come to be largely dependent on major events to drive long-term planning. This is seen, for example, in urban development projects linked to the Olympic Games. Barré called this kind of city planning "the architecture of pretext."
Fragmentation in cities makes relationships between subjects and object important, but in most contemporary cities such relationships do not exist. In order to make sense of this situation, we need to understand the change of scale that has taken place in societies. Today individuals have a plural nature: they belong to various places and move in various real and virtual spaces. Old dichotomies—private-public, individual-collective, interior-exterior—no longer apply. Given that citizens are immersed in these constant and multiple flows, an architecture of mobility should be developed. Such an architecture would play an essential role in responding to this plurality. The city should become a mechanism for bringing different systems into a coherent relationship with each other, and architecture should act as the interface. Metaphorically speaking, cities can be seen as a kind of hypertext, where individuals live on different scales and planes, constantly moving from one space to another (employment text, neighborhood text, domestic text), either by communicating at a distance or physically moving from one place to another. The result is a form of multi-mobility within a dimensional hyperspace. An understanding of this new form of interaction is crucial for urban architecture.
Architecture and city planning should take an approach that respects public space, environmental sustainability and the cultures that distinguish each city.
Intermodality has an important role to play in this new form of collective space. Cities should facilitate connection via different forms of transportation. Joan Busquets said that the way to achieve this is by eliminating express roads from the urban area and replacing them with ring roads so that highway connections are outside the city. He also said that urban surface space should be reserved for public space, and that rapid transport systems should be located on other levels (citing Barcelona as an example). In addition, public transport networks should be further developed in city centers and, crucially, in peripheral areas. "Urban culture must take precedence over the culture of the car," he said.
What city model?
Cities need to undergo a profound change in response to existing fragmentation. One the questions addressed within the framework of the Dialogue was how to define a model that integrates spaces, and in which higher density reflects development.
"We cannot think about public space the same way we did 50 years ago. Today collective space has been transformed," said architect and academic Josep Antón Acebillo, stressing the need for a profound change in cities.
In terms of way that urban planning approaches the integration of spaces, discussion focused on the need for land recycling and the importance of constructing spaces that can be adapted to meet new needs in the future by accommodating new flows or rapid changes in existing ones.
The mayor of Barcelona, Joan Clos, stressed the importance of density in cities and referred to two different contemporary city models: the compact city and low-density suburbs. He said it was important to work towards achieving a space where density involves a constant interchange of flows and where the periphery finds the right relationship to the center. Clos presented plans for two new neighborhoods in Barcelona's Zona Franca and Nou Barris districts. Plans for the two areas put into practice key concepts for development based on a process of ordered densification with optimal use and recycling of land.
For this project, 60% of the land will be dedicated to public space, and 40% to buildings, of which 70% will be for housing and the rest for retail spaces and private activities. Different levels of urban density are found in Barcelona, from 150 housing units/ha in the Eixample district to 60 units/ha in the Vila Olímpica area. The Nou Barris–Zona Franca project will include approximately 20,000 housing units.
Participants also referred to the importance of developing cultural policies. Giuseppe Pericu, the mayor of Genoa, discussed the reorientation of urban planning to focus on developing an active, cultural city, rather than simply highlighting historical heritage.
Global city, local government
Within the global context in which they are immersed, cities should act as spaces for the articulation of future-oriented policy. Cities have become the setting where tensions, development and new forms of social expression are concentrated. They should, therefore, have access to political instruments that give them sufficient autonomy to plan and implement urban policy.
In view of the fact that cities do not take part directly in discussions that affect the planet, participants drew attention to the need for a change in the relationship between the city and the state. Such a change should involve greater decentralization, so that cities can take a broader approach to managing local issues, drawing on their own resources, generated by globalization, to do so.
Another issue examined in the Dialogue was security in urban spaces. Participants considered how security threats—whether related to global issues such as terrorism, or to violence at the local level—affect institutions. The perception of such threats is often distorted, generating fear among citizens despite the fact that in many cities there is no statistical basis for such a reaction.
Discussion over the course of the Dialogue Collective Public Space: New Perspectives—organized by the Universal Forum of Cultures, the Mies van der Rohe and Gaudí Foundation, and the European Union's Culture 2000 program—centered on the need for a profound change in cities and local management. This change should reorient the thinking of city planners, architects and political representatives, focusing on the city as a place of exchange that embraces new forms of institutional interaction and unconstrained relationships between citizens. Collective urban space has a key role to play in the development and integration of cities. The Dialogue provided a framework for the presentation of various public and private projects that seek to structure all of the flows that touch on the lives of citizens.
The five round tables held addressed a broad range of issues: integration of the periphery and the center, use of public transport, problems and benefits of high density, construction of apartment blocks, land recycling, construction of a framework for identity, and issues related to security and violence in cities. The overall aim was to seek a new approach to territorial government that will allow cities to move ahead in the process of dealing with the critical situation in which they find themselves. The creation of collective urban spaces based on principles of coexistence and tolerance is an indispensable prerequisite for this change.