Space and place

Famous Danish Urbanist Jan Gehl after a nine month study of central Sydney in 2007 called for the addition of three new public squares along George Street:

“His report paints a picture of a city at war with itself – car against pedestrian, high-rise against public space. “The inevitable result is public space with an absence of public life,” he concludes.

His nine-month investigation found a city in distress. A walk down Market Street involved as much waiting at traffic lights as it did walking. In winter, 39 per cent of people in the city spend their lunchtimes underground, put off by a hostile environment at street level: noise, traffic, wind, a lack of sunlight and too few options for eating.”

If the City of Sydney was to implement his vision how would the addition of public space improve the perception of place in Sydney?

The City of Miami is also feeling the lack of a public centre. In considering the attributes of good public squares they describe a few of the most successful spaces in the US, including Union Square and Madison Square.

Feel free to nominate your favourite public square and tell us why it is so good!

9 thoughts on “Space and place

  1. Tom Turner

    Very nice to see a photo of Jan Gehl in Sydney.
    I can imagine that Sydney is not well suited to an extensive rapid transit infrastructure, because of its low-density suburbs. So if the centre was to be extensively pedestrianised then there would have to be a popular park-and-ride system on the periphery of the central business disctrict. Unless something like this could be done I think people would still want to drive their cars into town. Could there be a Colin Buchanan-type ring road round the centre with the car parks beyond? My feeling is that something bigger would need to be done before new squares could work.

  2. Christine

    One of the most interesting exercises I did as an interior design student was an analysis of the use of the Block Arcade in Melbourne. [ ] Although the analysis wasn’t seasonal, like Jan Gehl’s study, it was done over an eight hour period and considered light, pedestrian traffic (including speed of walking), directionality of travel and different uses of the arcade etc.

    It would be interesting to read Jan’s full study and observations of the centre of Sydney. For example where the people stopping continually at lights on only one side of the street or were they crossing intersections continually in a diagonal direction?

    How is the highrise effecting public space? It is true noise is a huge problem in the centre of Sydney, however Hyde Park [ ] is a relatively accessible and relaxing space within the CBD.

    It would be interesting to know: what do people do with their lunch hour? Do they even have a full hour for lunch?

    Why is the city centre windy? Is it because of the wind tunnel effect of highrises and wind funnelling down streets or just particularly because of naturally high speeds of winds? Ditto with sunlight: is it due to shadowing of highrises and spaces where the sun penetrates or merely a lack of sunshine because of overcast days or smog?

    It is hard to imagine a lack of eating options in Sydney, so perhaps they are inconveniently located or too expensive or perhaps not fast enough in their service?

    In this instance the micro could inform the macro (ie transport infrastructure)!

    1. Tom Turner

      Jan Gehl also dis a study of Central London, which is available online as a .pdf file He also has a download for Sydney I don’t see why all reports of this type, paid for by taxpayers, should not be made available in this way.
      Designers should spend much more time observing how people use space and should interview them too. To give my axe another grind, I see part of the reason as ‘the curse of the master plan’. As you say, it is wiser to proceed from micro to macro.

  3. Tom Turner

    I agree about stairs: they are wonderful invention and a constant delight – and very useful places for storing books. But when they use stairs to create a ‘pedestrian underpass’ or a ‘pedestrian overpass’ then it is annoying that the interests of motorists are, in reality, being given priority over the interets of pedestrians. They should be described as ‘car priority intersections’.

  4. Christine

    Tom I am a bit fond of cars and roads…[ ]…so my idea is that the two – pedestrians and cars – can be treated with equal consideration and concern for a beautiful experience.

    This one is not beautiful, but it is conceptually interesting…[ ]

    This one however has potential to be good for cars and good for people. [ ]

    And this one is contemporary in its aesthetic and particularly beautiful. [ ]

    Here is a drawing of a beautiful overpass with stairs with a garden aesthetic (ideally in a heritage area) that would be a joy for pedestrians and cars.
    [ ]

    Something similar exists in Brisbane. [ ]

    No one doubts the appeal of the bridges of Venice! This one of course has stairs.
    [ ]

  5. Tom Turner

    The Zoji La is another road to dream, or nightmare, about.
    I am all in favour of motorists having a good experience but (1) it is easier for them to negotiate over- and under-passes than it is for pedestrians (2) OK, it costs more, but they should pay for it. It is inherently more virtuous to travel on foot than to travel by car. Please don’t ask me to justify this but this video may convince you. Surely any enlightened despot would ban the activity.

  6. Christine

    Yes in questions of design following from your point (1) the maxim form follows function assists in ensuring that motorists and pedestrians are given equal consideration if that is the starting intent (2) in terms of costs the pollutor pays principles would allow that if there were any environmentally harmful effects from an activity being considered (ie motoring) the person with the benefit and causing the environmental harm would pay the costs.

    Each activity, motoring and pedestrians can be viewed in terms of social and individual goods and social and individual harms to give a balanced perspective.

    Here is some examples of top pedestrian experiences.
    [ ]

    It is interesting to look at the issue more comprehensively as not just a question of alternative modes of getting from Point A to Point B.

    Where there is seen to be a conflict between the two modes of travel it may actually be about a conflict of activities;

    ie. between the idea of transport (moving between places) and creating useable living spaces (destinations).
    [ ]

    Or it could be about points of conflict where the two modes of transport cross one another.
    In which case an analysis of the particular situation/s would be interesting:
    [ ]

    Perhaps the intersection itself has reached its maximum designed capacity limits and this is causing safety issues?

    1. Tom Turner

      I was a late convert to the form follows function principle, probably having become a sceptic because the first examples I came across (modernist slab blocks) were not functional: too much glare, too little insulation, bad microclimate, poor detailing etc.
      The examples of top pedestrian experiences make me want to visit an outdoor shop, and then head for the hills. They have a function, in the sense of providing an aesthetically and spiritually uplifting experience, but they lack the normal function of being a convenient route from A to B. So they give a fresh perspective on ‘functionality’.
      The history of traffic calming is very interesting. From a ‘traffic engineers’ perspective I suppose all the measures diminish the ‘functionality’ of the ‘road’ (given that a road is a place to ‘ride’ and not a place to walk.
      So do these perspectives on ‘form follows function’ enhance or diminish the value of the principle? I think they enhance it by enjoining us to have a very broad-minded conception of ‘function’


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