a multidisciplinary perspective
The research project “Anatomy of Public Space: A Multidisciplinary Perspective” is a collaboration between Park Plus (the research unit of Park Associati), LAND Research Lab® (the research and innovation think tank of LAND Group), and Fondazione Transform Transport ETS (the non-profit research foundation launched by Systematica Srl). The project aims to study public space from the different perspectives of the three components of the working group (i.e., architecture, landscape, mobility) in order to present a multidimensional narrative of the role of public space in contemporary cities. The connection between the different components of public space and the human body is meant to define new perspectives with which to view public space through a multi-sectoral lens.
The aim of the work is to dissect the anatomy of public space from three different perspectives: that of the architect, that of the landscape designer and that of the mobility planner. Each expert approaches the same set of preselected public space typologies with a unique lens, with the aim of combining and contrasting these views to present a multi-dimensional narrative of the role of public space in contemporary cities.
The booklet utilises the communication style known as polyvocality. In contrast to univocality, the use of multiple voices is sometimes used as a narrative mode in order to encourage diverse readings/ perspectives of an issue or thematic topic, deviating from the rigidity of the singular view and opening up new avenues for interpretation and discussion. Each individual voice is retained separately to allow for cross-examination of expert views.
The Metaphor of Public Space as a Human Body has multiple objectives:
• Conceptual: to reflect on the notion of the public space system as a living organism with layered complexities, conceived as a connected system of interdependent relationships as opposed to discrete entities and ‘spaces’;
• Provocative: to push the envelope of the perception of public space as an intelligent, capable and, adaptive system of spaces, borrowing insights and symbolisms from the realm of human anatomy to generate a new language with which to observe the urban environment;
• Practical: to offer a starting point to extract lessons from advanced knowledge systems and apply them to the growing field of urban planning as a tool to inspire innovative approaches to contemporary urban challenges.
We tend to think about streets as obnoxious tools that, yet having a pervasive presence in our lives, stand in the background. The very existence of human civilization is based on the physical connection of people, information, and goods like streets.
Cities themselves are designed around the role of streets. Like we do with our nervous system we are prone to ignore the presence of the streets as something not understandable and dangerous if messed up with. Streets have not evolved in centuries the ways we implemented the urban have changed a lot, especially during the last decades.
As a hardware device, the road of the early XXI century is like the street of the early XX century. Why? What can we do to evolve the way we use this tool?
Streets should go from spaces of conflict to areas of attraction. We should evolve this paradigm by putting the user experience at the very center of the concept: streets should not be just fast-flow devices but spaces with clear connotations and atmospheres, with such a quality that people and not cars should become the main actors involved.
By putting human beings on top of the agenda, we should turn streets into physically and socially safer places, where flexibility is a must to create adaptable frameworks of operation to better cope with disruptive innovation of future mobility and the climate crisis challenges.
Our space perception has changed over time as the speed of our movements has increased. Quoting Richard Ingersoll in “Sprawltown”, when the pedestrian became a driver, the theatrical order of the urban street was converted into a cinematic one, composed of long shots, close-ups, panoramas, and an accelerated montage of jump cuts.
The fact that the streets have changed over time, turning into ‘car spaces’, does not exclude the possibility of reconverting them – even partially – into pedestrian or green spaces. Mobility has always characterised the life of urban centres, but the problem is given by unmanageable flows, heavy traffic, and saturation of every available empty spot by cars. Willi Hüsler states, “Cars are true ‘devourers’ of public space”. Each car indeed needs 50sqm of road space to be able to circulate.
If we move on foot or by bicycle, on the other hand, we need 2 or 8sqm, which becomes 10sqm if we use public transportation (calculating only the journeys, thus not considering vehicle parking which increases the values exponentially).
These data become interesting for those who want to rethink mobility and improve the city’s public spaces. If it turns towards sustainability and greater inclusiveness of pedestrians, cyclists, and green infrastructures, then the street should ‘make space’.
The streets, the city’s synapses, must be considered a public space network, just like our nervous system, generating new connections between buildings, infrastructures and open spaces. Moreover, in the growing challenges of the climate emergency, they should be conceived as urban ecosystems, able to provide benefits to citizens as well as nonhuman stakeholders within an increased and inclusive quality of life.
For transport and mobility, the street is the central stage. It is the nervous system of the public space body whereby all central motor functions originate and take place. In essence, streets are about connecting the city.
The denser the network, the more resilient and performant it is, ensuring multiple alternative routes for different users to get from one point to another. As with the human brain, the urban street network works as a totality: one event in one part of the network affects the entire system due to its complex structure.
This is why it is important to ensure that streets do not only respond to users’ desire lines and volume demand in different parts of the city, but that they do so equitably and sustainably. The human brain is capable of adapting itself to respond to new stimuli and behaviors.
A similar kind of flexibility takes place in the urban setting, albeit at a much slower pace. However, in times of emergency and massive mobility disruption, as with the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, the urban organism has shown to adapt much faster to impending needs than under normal circumstances. Though initiated as temporary street adaptations, some of the changes were made permanent as a result of proven functionality and compatibility with contemporary urban needs.
In order to effectively respond to sustainable mobility needs in current and future urban environments, a kind of neural plasticity of the urban street network is needed to ensure that the public space organism continues to connect people instinctively and intelligently.
The introduction of green spaces inside cities is a way to make them more livable since ancient times. During the XIX century, particularly in Europe, parks were witnesses of the noble cast opulence, an urban getaway to remind them of their rural residence more than leisure space for everyone.
Despite our new social evolution of urban greenery, we tend to decline it as we have always been used to: as leisure places. We should try to see green spaces as tools to fight the already tangible effects of climate change on human environments, instead.
The analogy with human lungs should be intended structurally: the pulmonary alveoli are capillary structures that pervade the whole lung system. Micro insertions of green spaces on a wider scale throughout cities, both inside the urban fabric and on buildings themselves, could represent a way forward to reduce a range of different problems spanning from the heat island effect to the biodiversity desertification of our city’s agglomerations.
We should try to break the barrier between buildings and the public realm, letting the landscape get inside our living indoor spaces. Biophilic design is the tool for designing urban and domestic environments that connect with nature itself, enhancing our quality of life and our personal experience of a place. The area of the planet occupied by cities is about 2% of its total land area.
This area alone produces 70% of all CO2 emissions and about 80% of all waste. We can quickly understand that it is the concept of the city, as it is structured today, that needs to be overhauled. Biophilic design is one of the design strategies that presents itself as a possible solution to this problem.
Parks are the lungs of cities. Like every aerobic organism that requires oxygen to carry out its metabolic functions, the city organism needs to breathe!
The primary function of the respiratory system is to deliver oxygen to the cells of the body’s tissues and remove carbon dioxide, a cell waste product. Indeed, urban parks perform this function, while buildings, roads, and other elements in concrete are inert objects that remain static in a biologically evolving world.
The spongy appearance of lung tissue and the elasticity of the entire system remind us of the idea of the “sponge city”, resilient to climate extremes because they are designed with nature instead of against it.
With this approach, cities and nature can co-evolve into one organism, responding to the need for adaptation to ongoing climate change. Humans and natural environments are separated by the anthropocentric concrete “jungles” in which we live.
Parks, ecological corridors in the city, and green networks implemented in a system have great potential for integrating nature, which has innate abilities to evolve, adapt, and survive through change. What would cities look like if there were no boundaries between humans and ecosystems?
With a global warming climate and in a rapidly urbanizing world, the role of greenery in reducing the urban heat island effect and safeguarding urban livability in the future is paramount. Natural landscapes provide thermal and environmental comfort in public spaces and along walking routes, and the placement of greenery goes hand in hand with walkability success.
There are many parallels to be drawn between the role of greenery in urban environments and the role of lungs in the human body: they both allow the (human/ urban) body to breathe through the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
However, in contemporary cities where heavy urban development often comes at the expense of pre-existing natural landscapes, specific attention is required to ensure the public space body has enough lung capacity for breathing equally across the territory.
Traditional transport planning has done little to try to preserve the lungs of the city, often replacing permeable green land covers with concrete, choking out the city even further. Today, nature-based solutions and context- sensitive design attempt to balance the ecological health of the environment in which a new infrastructure project is built.
Nevertheless, the road to a decarbonised urban future is intricately linked to a de-car-ed one: a transport planning direction where we gradually move away from the car-centric model and road-based design, giving back valuable road space to humans, plants, and the natural breathing environment.
Urban design guru Kevin Lynch questioned the identity of public spaces long ago asking: how open are our open spaces? Are they physically as well as mentally accessible? Are they largely available and accessible by the user? In an urban area, are they shared evenly or equitably? If they are not, are they all genuinely democratic or public?
Since the establishment of the first human settlements, squares have been used to represent gathering spaces with mainly practical, religious, and political purposes. Today, open spaces might operate as urban acupuncture (a term created by Barcelonan architect and urbanist Manuel de Sola Morales), easing tightness in a specific area.
Numerous activities, such as cultural, religious, recreational, touristic, commercial, social, artistic, and so on, can be adapted to one open space in the best interests of its users. As a result, squares, and open spaces play an important role in the formation of city character and the revitalization of cultural values.
We should always intend them as destination places. From an architectural standpoint, squares are the buildings’ parterre, and as such someone we should see them to ultimately design them better. Synergistically, squares and buildings must work together to bring actual quality to the urban environment.
Open spaces are the heart of a city while buildings provide them with a vital flow of people that keep them pumping with vibrant activities. A holistic design should always interlock buildings and their relative public spaces with shared strategies.
The central square forms the heart of the urban center, the gathering place where the city’s arteries and significant landmarks converge. However, nowadays, the great distances between people, events, and functions have created a new geography.
Automobile-based transportation has contributed to the decrease of “outdoor activities” that happen in public spaces (Jan Gehl). These activities are influenced by the quality of the square: the higher it is, the more time people will spend carrying out necessary tasks and the more optional activities will occur.
However, “Life Between Buildings” has been decreasing over time due to several reasons, transforming places from meeting sites to empty rooms. The significance of the social role of the square, from Roman times to the Renaissance and beyond, is now obsolete in modern cities, where gathering functions have moved elsewhere. Although the physical setting does not have a direct link to the quality and intensity of social contacts, designers are responsible for improving or worsening the conditions that influence encounters.
Cities need livable and inviting spaces: green infrastructure’s contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation is proving crucial in this changing era.
Families leaving the city demonstrate this need: they seek contact with nature, which, in many cases, the squares – the hearts of our cities and neighborhoods – have neglected.
Designing or redesigning with nature then becomes a key action to bring squares back to the center, to restore vitality to the beating hearts that pump and circulate life in our cities.
In public space, the goal is often to pump life from all ancillary paths and channel them into squares and piazzas – the gathering centers of public spaces. This requires a deep understanding of fluxes and traffic flows in and out of public squares to ensure safe and efficient access under different crowding scenarios.
As with the human heart, health and proper functioning of public squares depend a lot on the management and coordination of ‘blood’ flow through the main arteries and veins connecting this vital muscle to the rest of the body.
Thanks to emerging Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and particularly in the context of Big Data, urban data scientists are able to capture, code, and process movements in public spaces at a scale and with a granularity that could not be tracked at any point in history before.
In urban public squares, the possibility to gather continuous and ubiquitous mobility data using advanced sensors and cameras allows for the identification of previously undetected mobility patterns across time and space.
These patterns can, in turn, guide urban design strategies to ensure that the squares function well under different conditions and in emergency situations. Ultimately, the aim is to ensure that the hearts of public space remain open, accessible, and inclusive gathering spaces with healthy connections to the rest of the city.
Cities could be seen as systems of practical tools to support the relationships between buildings.
Buildings are indeed background “flat” scenographies to the public space, but they are essential for the city to exist. They are the main carriers of functions, and they are the place where things happen.
As we do not always perceive our skin, so we often take buildings for granted. It is a tricky “chicken and egg” situation. Is the infrastructure that allows buildings to exist or vice-versa?
If we look at buildings from the eyes of a casual passerby, they can be identified as background flat surfaces that interact with the urban environment from an aesthetic and from an energetic point of view. Focusing on the latter aspect, designing the buildings of the future means creating the precondition for them to be as efficient as possible.
We should look to façades as thermoregulator devices with the task to reduce as much as possible the heat island effect due to the mechanical fixtures necessary to run the building themselves. But only on a very oversimplified level architecture is just a sequence of turned-off screens to the city.
We should never forget that buildings are the true activators of public spaces. The infrastructure of a city is key for the system to work properly, but without a functional strategy nested inside buildings, the public space is doomed to fail.
Buildings are the shaping element of public space. They are the solids that make the voids stand out, creating the “open-air rooms” where outdoor life happens. These rooms are defined by the imprint of the buildings, with facades separating the interior from public space. In this sense, building facades are the “skin” of the organism-city, the place where interactions happen, where our senses come into contact with the outside world, touching surfaces, or detecting the external temperature.
Just as open spaces create discontinuities within the texture of the urban fabric, similarly, buildings should also be configured as porous elements that can allow nature to flow into and onto them.
Adherence to themes such as biodiversity, nature-based solutions, green roofs and facades that incorporate vegetation into the built environment is a condition for designing today. These applications help purify the air, regulate and reduce the temperature of the surrounding environment, and promote biodiversity in the city.
Indeed, buildings are increasingly called upon to respond to urban challenges related to emissions reduction and climate change mitigation. Their envelopes should become the skin of the city, with thermoregulation and protection against the harmful effects of UV radiation being just two of the functions that the epidermis performs for the human body.
In a very literal sense, buildings make up the outer skin layer of public space, i.e., the boundaries of the public space body. They are the structures around which and between which public space takes its physical form. As such, they have a very prominent role in defining the morphological shape of public space and, by extension, its users.
From a mobility perspective, the physical distance between buildings is an a priori factor determining where different modes can move.
These spaces tend to act as great hosts for pedestrians and soft mobility travelers who benefit from the intimacy of the human-scale environment, resulting in a completely different urban character of that public space.
In addition to its passive role as a boundary, the skin of public space also has an active role in shaping mobility through its impact on the local thermal environment. As the largest organ in the human body, the skin has a prominent role in thermoregulation via insulation and secretion.
In much the same way, the continuous building skyline that forms the outer envelope of public space has a prominent role in regulating thermal conditions for users of the public space.
Beyond the capabilities of any standalone shading devices, including trees and canopies, the building skin forms the largest shading and cooling feature stretched out across the city.
Despite largely being a byproduct of the system, walkability in cities is very much influenced by the silhouette of the building skin, dynamically shaped and reshaped by the intricate dance between building morphology, geographic location, seasonal climate fluctuation, and diurnal rhythms.
At the beginning of this new century, cities appear to us to have changed profoundly. Underlying this profound change is above all the drastic redefinition of the relationship between solids and voids within an urban condition in which the presence of emptiness becomes pervasive and characterizes large parts.
On the other hand, however, not infrequently, emptiness constitutes at least in power an important resource for cities, working with which it becomes possible to redefine urban welfare apparatuses, to produce innovation and environmental sustainability, to regenerate individual spaces reverberating positive effects on neighboring contexts, and to reconnect previously interrupted settlement plots.
In this perspective, it becomes essential to precisely identify the resources (often scarce and not immediately available), their possible uses, the timing of their activation, and the actors that can be involved or those potentially interested in defining some possible interventions.
Under these conditions, more and more frequently, landscape and tactical urbanism interventions prepare highly contextual solutions, defined from time to time – in the best cases – concerning local needs and ways of living. These are generally interesting experiences for the attempts at the innovation of urban space that propose.
Voids are perceived as inhospitable and inaccessible spaces, abandoned by the city that grew up around them. In their being a “non-place,” the voids appear suspended and undefined, often enclosed and hidden, unidentifiable from the outside.
However, materials and life still flow within them, interacting with the other functions of the city-organism. They can indeed be compared to those cavities in our bodies that are not visible externally but provide fundamental services such as the uterus, which accommodates the developing fetus during gestation, giving birth to a new life.
Voids can be identified as disused industrial areas where brambles and brushwood grow, wastelands, heaths, bogs, and swamps, or smaller and diffused areas.
The intangible essence that links these non-places is the absence of humans, allowing nature to develop and take possession. Weedy, wild, and unspoiled vegetation constitute great potential for the urban nature in the city of the future.
Like the uterus, these spaces assume new vital functions in the city-organism, regenerating themselves and configuring as new stepping stones in the urban ecosystem. The emptiness thus becomes a response to contemporary needs, an oasis in the city jungle, a resting place from hectic life, a cool island in summer, a biodiversity spot, supporting change within a resilient perspective.
Voids are therefore not really empty: this “third landscape” (Gilles Clement) is an opportunity for rethinking the human/ nature relationship and the importance of the landscape approach in contemporary cities to accommodate the flows of nature rather than overwhelm them.
Voids are holes in the fabric of the city that are cordoned off for public use for an indefinite period of time.
Depending on size and conditions, active mobility around voids tends to decrease over time as well, as regular users begin to reroute their trips to avoid passing by these dormant spaces.
In the public realm, voids both exist and do not exist at the same time: they exist in the sense that they occupy valuable physical space around which people inevitably travel – adding to their trip lengths and often reducing their sense of comfort along the way; but they also do not exist in the sense that they fail to take part in the common functions of public life and therefore, fail to contribute in any way to the aims of public space either as a facilitator of movement or as a destination for social encounters.
They are wombs awaiting the potential for transformation, reinvention, and the reproduction of public space. With the right plan in place and under the right conditions, voids have the capacity to breathe new life into the city, revitalizing whole neighborhoods in its course.
Liminal spaces represent identity-less spaces, unavoidable leftovers that only on a surface level can be considered as non-meaningful but that are, indeed, extremely important for the proper function and the look of the whole urban system.
Liminal space examples could be elements like sidewalks, traffic islands, crosswalks, multipurpose areas, and so on. They are spaces that live at the frontier of different identities.
The parallelism with vestigial organs, such as the appendix, is particularly interesting here because of the identification of liminal spaces as hidden features but with potential troublemaking powers. If not properly declined with an understandable meaning and a pleasing form, liminal spaces could elapse into an inflammation process that could potentially spoil their surroundings.
In this sense, a pop-like, playful interpretation of their formal expression, can lead liminal spaces to become strong discontinuities of the public space with a cool attraction potential. Nowadays, is plenty of examples where “guerrilla” urban design turned dead liminals into flourishing special infills that provide a highquality experience in a tiny range of space.
Pushing it to an extreme, we could even say that due to the ease with which they can be flipped into something new, they can act as real identity-makers, potentially for entire neighborhoods.
Liminals are standby moments, where the public space seems to stay between transitions and new identities.
Etymologically, liminality comes from the Latin “limen – minis,” which literally means threshold. Conceptually, then, liminal has the meaning of “boundary,” of the “just before,” evoking the concept of preparing for a passage. In this sense, liminal spaces are the vestigial organs of the city. As translated from the Latin word “vestigia,” vestiges are remnants of evolutionary history – “footprints” or “tracks.”
All species possess traits or organs that have lost all or most of their original function through evolution. Although they often appear functionless, a vestigial structure may develop new features. In this view, the unresolved spaces seem to be the “hidden organs” of the city-organism like our appendix, a remnant of an ancestral part of the intestine.
Therefore, there is a need to rethink margins and undefined areas, enclosed in the fullness of the built-up, as they are an important resource for the project, as long as they are the subject of a reconsideration that is able to capture and enhance their potential. There is no more space available to build again and again. We are asked to work in between, along the edge lines, in the vacant areas, at the margins of spaces that are barely or not recognizable. Liminal space then becomes material for composition, an element that can finally make its transition to a new identity.
They are unaccounted for in city plans. Unclassified, unmapped, and undervalued. The lack of design intention, however, does not necessarily mean a lack of use.
In fact, liminal spaces can become very active spaces from a mobility perspective if they provide better alternative connections between different points of interest in the city than those formally designated for circulation.
They can act as shortcuts for pedestrians and soft mobility users, who are willing to take the offroute path to shorten travel distances.
If the morphology allows, liminal spaces can also act as nodes in the city, points of contact between multiple users.
The shape of the liminal space can allow and even encourage lingering. This carries a social weight whereby the particular use of the space can have a positive or negative impact on local communities.
To follow the analogy of the appendix, liminal spaces are not considered to have a place in the system. However, liminal spaces may act as a reservoir for public space activity when the formal network is overloaded. They act as a buffer system that supports mobility in the city, even if that network goes largely unnoticed for the majority of its active life.
The connections between the components of public space and systems of the human body were deliberately produced and served the primary function of opening up new perspectives to observe the public space with prompting the revelation of new identities/ relationships/ features of public space from a multisectoral lens.
The work does not attempt to offer a universal anatomy of public space but is rather designed intentionally as a subjective interpretation of three distinct disciplines with shared goals and views of the city. It offers a unique perspective grounded in specific contexts (the three teams are based in Milan, Italy) – even if not directly influenced by it. In addition to this, the scope of the work was meant as an introductory, high-level contemplation of the subject matter: it did not propose solutions or strategies for enhancing the urban landscape. The work offers lessons for practice that could be developed into design principles in subsequent phases of the project.