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“…there is nothing more innovative, nothing more present, subtle, technical, and artificial (in the positive sense of the word), nothing less rustic and rural, nothing more creative, nothing more contemporary than to negotiate landing on some ground.”

Bruno Latour (1)

The events of 2020 have been definitely challenging for humanity, in our traditional understanding of how to inhabit the planet, in all fields of knowledge and production, and in how to continue to live together. As architects, quarantine should give us an important chance to reflect on the production of spaces during the last several decades, evaluating our work with its successes and failures, undoubtedly redefining what it means to make architecture for the twenty-first century. Moreover, it should force us to think about how to make meaningful efforts as designers in a world that has to be definitely restructured. On the one hand, humanity has been condemned to maximize private spaces, particularly evident where the private never really is that, instead being the place where the extended family lives, sharing rooms that often have several different programmes throughout the day. On the other hand, an obvious consequence is an unavoidable need to leave the private sphere and inhabit the public domain, calling for these spaces to be designed as places where some kind of balance can be established, safely using services that are often denied in the private sphere, giving meaning to the daily lives of at least a billion people living in slums in the emerging world.

For several decades now, sights have been set on public space as an urban component that not only provides a place for leisure and recreation, but also re-establishes the balance between social classes. Public spaces usually come late to the informal city and are the result of the community’s pressing need for recreation areas in a severely dense urban fabric. When they are finally built according to the traditional typology of open landscaped areas with grass and trees—probably a children’s playground and, at best, a multiuse sports court—several issues arise. The most relevant is their very conception, which usually falls short of the long-term performance that these interventions need to address. (2)

In the case of Mexico, which we are best acquainted with, building public space is usually a short-term electoral bid for local and national politicians. Although not a copycat intervention, this scenario is repeated in other cities and towns around Latin America. The local governor in turn spends large amounts of money on a public “park”, which, mimicking the informality of the city, involves no professional planning or design, ignores the economic, social, cultural, political, urban and natural context in which it is set, and can be replicated as a government brand—always walled for security—with an enormous colourful logo of the current administration and no plan for future viability. In time, these places become derelict, closed areas, prone to crime and concealment, losing their value as outdoor recreational areas for a highly underserved community. However equivocal, the tactic has produced political results, raising an important question for the designers of space: in today’s worldwide conditions, where public space is a pressing need for the survival of the human race, particularly in the informal city, what strategies are needed for its permanence as an everyday service in neglected urban fabric? We now have an unprecedented chance to cautiously define what public space is and what it should become as we advance towards an understanding of how we build and live the twenty-first-century city.

In today’s worldwide conditions, where public space is a pressing need, particularly in the informal city, what strategies are needed for its permanence as an everyday service in neglected urban fabric?

We see public space of the twenty-first century as the most powerful part of the urban realm. It not only has to meet the need for healthier outdoor areas and create stronger links with its urban, natural and cultural contexts while continuing to provide places where people immersed in a digital world can physically meet; public space also has powerful, unexplored possibilities, such as the capacity to become infrastructure. In keeping with Rahul Mehrotra’s assertive statement on infrastructure as the notion by means of which “we relate to each other as a community, because it becomes a shared asset, it is an extension of the idea of the commons” (3), we think that infrastructure, together with public space, should form an indissoluble partnership that stands the test of time for its capacity to unite the community and remedy today’s inadequate waste collection, water and sanitation, and transport systems (4), mainly in informal urban settlements around the world. The type of public spaces addressed here are usually derelict areas, urban wasteland, neglected landscapes or, at best, abandoned parks, squares, and outdoor playgrounds and sports courts.

Over the last several years we have had the chance to research, design and build some public spaces in informal urban settlements around Mexico City, Nogales and Tijuana, in Mexico. Although each case has its particularities, in our experience there are major recurrent strategies that have proved beneficial for the communities living in the surrounding areas.

1. Public space should be an infrastructure that serves more than one need, mitigating problems related to the misfunction of traditional infrastructures such as water, sanitation and waste collection, requiring maintenance by the community. This must be accompanied by a conscious design that allows for the least maintenance, thereby promoting the idea of contemporary commonality, and encouraging local people to watch over and take care of the intervention without much effort or investment.

2. Public space must offer the surrounding community dignity and identity, especially in areas devoid of these qualities due to their recent creation, limited resources and informal nature. It must continue to be a place for people to meet and share, reinforcing social values.

3. Public spaces can create a framework to highlight the natural context and show the benefits of caring for the local ecosystem, in some cases including reintroduction.

4. Public space must link surrounding urban fabric, enabling wall-free access and free circulation that connects roadways, and suturing the intervention to the surrounding city.

5. Public space should aim to ensure user safety 24 hours a day, with open vistas during daylight hours and appropriate lighting at night, overlooked by surrounding neighbours.

Public space not only has to meet the need for healthier outdoor areas and create stronger links with its urban, natural and cultural contexts; public space has powerful, unexplored possibilities, such as the capacity to become infrastructure

Researchers and designers around the world have identified similar aspects to successfully reintroduce public space as a fundamental element of urban life in contemporary cities by understanding that “there is a systemic potential that needs to be assessed and fostered, so as to enable spatial and functional continuity in fractured urban fabrics” (5). This phrase is pertinent when thinking about introducing designed programmes and architecture into informal settlements and shantytowns in forgotten urban areas or places that have suffered human or natural disasters. To make this happen, we as designers need to become active mediators, capable of connecting social and political needs by means of the design of space, making it easy for the community to participate and for funding to arrive. In these circumstances, design has a huge potential to be a defining element in the structure and meaning of the everyday life of millions, becoming a tool to create model interventions that restructure the natural, urban, social, cultural and economic contexts.

The potential for public space design in the wake of the shock to humanity that coronavirus represents opens doors that were much less likely to be opened before. Today, public space can and should be infrastructure, a symbol of identity, dignity and safety, a place that enhances connectivity and the territory where we have landed. It places us on a different layer of thinking, where we have the opportunity and the responsibility to create interventions that become restructuring agents with differing levels of impact. The current world situation, with the pressing need to reactivate the economy, in some cases through construction, offers an unprecedented chance for designers to intervene and demonstrate that we are able to inhabit this planet differently.

(1)

Latour, Bruno, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Polity Press, 2018)

(3)

Mehrotra, Rahul, “Our home in the world. Conversation with Rahul Mehrotra” in Transfer Next. https://www.transfer-arch.com/transfer-next/our-home-in-the-world/. 18 October 2020.

(4)

Ibid 1

(5)

Brandão and Brandao discuss the need to address public space, infrastructure and landscape as complementary elements when thinking about the design of the public realm. Brandão A. L. and Brandão P. (2017). “Public Space, Infrastructure, Landscape: an interdisciplinary matrix for urban spatial continuity”, The Journal of Public Space, 2(1), 129, DOI: 10.5204/jps.v2i1.55

Posted
03.Dec.2020 862 views
Author
Loreta Castro Loreta Castro Reguera

Loreta Castro Reguera is co-Founder of Taller Capital in Mexico City with José Pablo Ambrosi and Professor in the School of Architecture at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (FA UNAM). She studied architecture at FA UNAM graduating with Suma Cum Laude (2004). She holds a Master of Architecture from the Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio (AAM) (2004) and a Master of Architecture in Urban Design with Distinction from Harvard GSD (2010). She was awarded several scholarships and prizes including a Fulbright Scholarship and CEMEX Marcelo Zambrano prize. Her focus is on the design of infrastructural public spaces to better manage water through urban design. She was the design director and technical coordinator of the UNAM project Hydropuncture in Mexico City, which received the Global LafargeHolcim Awards Gold 2018 and LafargeHolcim Awards Gold 2017 for Latin America. She was head of the LafargeHolcim Awards jury for region Latin America in 2020. She has written essays and articles for several magazines and books. She is a member of the editorial board of Bitácora (FA UNAM magazine) and TRANSFER.

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Posted
03.Dec.2020 862 views
Author
José Pablo Ambrosi

José Pablo Ambrosi (Mexico, 1979) studied architecture at the School of Architecture, UNAM, with an one year exchange program at UPC Barcelona where he was part of Carlos Ferrater’s studio. From 2003 to 2008 he worked at Fabric, an architectural firm founded by Lorenzo Farfán and Jorge Ambrosi, acting as Senior Architect. From 2008 to 2010, after the death of his father, José Pablo took his place as CEO of a housing development business, restructuring the firm to face the 2008 crisis. In 2010 this firm became Taller Capital, the design studio he founded together with Loreta Castro. From 2012 to 2014 he did an Executive MBA at the Instituto Panamericano de Alta Dirección de Empresas (IPADE). The studio he leads has been awarded with several prizes and recognitions, as a gold medal in the 2017 Mexico City biennial and, more recently, it has been shortlisted for the Architectural Review Emerging Architecture Awards 2020.

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