This article presents the concepts of the public realm, public social life, outdoor rooms, walkability and place-making, before summarising the work of the UDAL Design Charrette on the Gabba.
About the Authors
Mel Jones is an Associate Director of Urban Design at Urbis. She is also a Board Member of the Urban Design Alliance, Queensland.
This article is with Dr John Montgomery an urban planner and regional planner, urban economist and strategic designer and Executive Officer of UDAL.
- Why the Public Realm?
A town or city’s public realm is simply defined as the network of spaces and corners where the public are free to go, to meet and gather, exchange, and simply to watch one another. In fact, the public realm in a town or city performs many functions, not only as meeting places but also in helping to define the built environment, providing spaces for local traditions and customs such as festivals and carnivals, and representing meaning and identity. It is therefore as important to think through the design of the public realm – its sequences, proportions and dimensions – as it is for city blocks and individual buildings.
The public realm in towns and cities performs a number of ‘functions’:
- as an integral part of the built form, morphology or townscape;
- as neutral territory where everyone has a right to be;
- as a place where historical events occurred, and where collective memory resides;
- as places where public forms of social life can occur.
Urban Morphology: Figure ground of the Manchester Northern Quarter, late 1990’s.
- Spaces, Walking Routes and Public Social Life
Successful urban places tend to have a range and variety of the public space: outdoor rooms, civic spaces, promenading routes, night-strips, quiet gardens, little corners to rest awhile, favourite meeting places. This is not simply a question of quantity or setting space standards (so many acres to population bands), but a rather more complex understanding of the attributes of spaces, their delineations, psychology and symbolism.
Successful public spaces must either be on the way to somewhere else or are in close enough proximity to established activity nodes to attract a share of footfall. It is vitally important that people are able to walk – with some comfort and in safety – from other parts of the town or city to any activity node. This means that there must be a network of established pedestrian routes (pavements, paths, streets) along which people will happily stroll. Such routes must feel safe, and this requires there to be good frontage activity.
Good urban places are judged by their street life and by the presence of social activities in public space[i]. For it is in the public spaces that all the ingredients of city life are combined: public contact, public social life, people-watching, promenading, transacting, natural surveillance and the everyday culture and traditions of a place. Streets and spaces bring together people who do not know each other in a less intimate, social sense, including strangers. Such places allow people to be in contact with each other, but simultaneously for individuals to remain private they wish and to respect other people’s privacy. The public realm is a subtle balance of essential privacy and varying degrees of public and private contact[ii].
The Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl[iii] has argued convincingly that the public realm in towns and cities performs three important functions in the everyday lives of townsfolk and citizens. He refers to these as the three M’s: Markets, Meetings and Movement. Markets covers not only regular indoor and outdoor markets, but also the interaction more generally between businesses and the public[iv]. Movement should be considered more widely than the flow of road traffic or even mode and grade separation, Gehl sees that spaces must have activity along their edges, otherwise they will hold little appeal. This underlies other established urban design concepts such as legibility (whether an urban environment is simple to understand) and permeability (the degree to which it is easy to move around an urban area).
By Meetings, Gehl is referring to all the human things which people do when they meet or watch each other in public places. He refers to these as optional, necessary and social activities.
- Necessary Activities: where participation is required (going to work, waiting for the bus, buying groceries)
- Optional Activities : where participation is voluntary (walking, standing, sitting,)
- Social Activities: where others are present in public space (watching, talking, hearing, meeting, touching, exchange)
- Outdoor Rooms
In The City Assembled, Spiro Kostof[v] shows that urban spaces come in many shapes and sizes, and perform many functions, often simultaneously. Spaces in cities and towns are not uniform, either in their scale, shape, proportion or in terms of the activity they accommodate. Rather like appreciating that rooms in houses have different roles and varying degrees of flexibility as to the use they can be put, it is important to recognise that ‘outdoor rooms’ ought also to have differing characteristics. Not all spaces should be kept for Sunday best, not all spaces should be large and very formal civic spaces. We can also have a few parlours and waiting rooms, outdoor recital rooms and galleries. Thus, any good public realm will consist of or contain:
- formal meeting spaces – the town square;
- quiet corners for reflection;
- outdoor rooms to meet friends and acquaintances;
- streets and edges for watching passers by;
- spaces where temporary events and exhibitions can be mounted;
- street markets;
- transitional spaces linking the indoor private realm to the outdoor public realm;
- meeting points and landmarks;
- historical and environmental references.
Late 19th Century formal Public Square, Barcelona
Public Social Life: Wenceslas Square, Prague, 1997
A Mental Map: Glasgow’s Merchant City 1993 by John Montgomery
Urban Strategy for Sunniside in Sunderland, 2000: A mid Victorian inner city in NE England. David Lock Associates and Urban Cultures Ltd
- Brisbane’s Public Realm and the Olympics
Our starting premise is that those parts of the city that can be seen and loved outside of the events venues themselves will create a very specific memory of Brisbane for those that visit and explore. There is a real and important opportunity to create an emotional connection to the city through the public realm and placemaking opportunities. These will elevate Brisbane as a world-famous international destination and create a legacy that will continue long past the games. Generating experiences in the public realm that resonate with people, create an attachment to place, and ensure the broader city canvas for Brisbane becomes the most memorable piece.
This importance of the public realm and placemaking opportunities was the key question for the workshop charette. We focused on two scales: the whole of city centre and its surrounding 2km; and the more specific and immediate priorities of ‘The Gabba’ precinct and its surrounds.
- Inner Urban Brisbane
Looking at the inner 2km, we asked a series of questions, including ‘what is the experience that we are wanting to create for the city’, and ‘what do we want to be famous for’?
Key discussions and ideas for the inner city included:
- Our unique climate and subtropical outdoor lifestyle – we should be known and remembered for our lush vegetation and shade; our focus on outdoor living and play, and a culture of creating ‘something for everyone’ of all ages and abilities
- Celebrating our river as a central part of our city centre – activating our waters edges, incorporating events and activities on the river itself, lining our river edges with flags from all participating countries during and in the lead up to the Olympic Games, and ensuring the South Bank / Queens Wharf edges and the City Reach / Kangaroo Point edges read as one engaging and connected experience.
- Embedding our Cultural Heritage – the city must really embrace our First Nations and Indigenous Culture and ensure we have this right in time for the Olympics. This might include incorporating duplicate signage throughout the city centre with First Nations and Indigenous names.
- Creating more postcard moments – we want to have many places across the city that people will stop and remember, such as the existing Brisbane sign at South Bank.
- Ensuring a walkable city – the focus must be on creating more spaces for people, more shared zones and reducing private vehicle uses. The group discussed the idea of a completely carless city across the inner streets from Adelaide to Charlotte and George to Edward.
- Many new experiences and activities – whilst the investment in new rail and metro infrastructure will ensure transportation across the city centre is fast and reliable, ultimately, we want city users to walk as much as possible. Key to this will be creating engaging experiences and activities along the key journeys that will make people want to walk between destinations, rather than catch public transport
- Activating through arts and culture – creating these engaging experiences through public arts, culture and events
- Creating a 24/7 experience – changing mindset to increase operation times for food and beverage venues to create more nighttime activation, on par with other major cities around the world
- Prioritising pedestrian thoroughfares – major connections between the Gabba and Suncorp were highlighted as key pedestrian thoroughfares including through South Bank, along Albert Street and the groups biggest and boldest move was to turn the Riverside Expressway into its very own New York Highline experience. Noting the obvious implications around traffic considerations that would need to be addressed.
- Identifying major new precincts – the group identified the need for revitalization of some significant precincts along these journeys that would help with creating new activities and experiences, and these include the revitalization of Kurilpa, the Maritime Museum, Musgrave Park and the Albert Street connection.
- Creating a memorable arrival experience – a distinct sense of arrival at all new and existing stations throughout the city centre and surrounding suburbs
- Promoting environmental and sustainability opportunities – including better utlisation of active transport including bikeways and e=scooters
Woolloongabba is home of the Gabba cricket ground and has a mix retail and commercial streets, at Logon Road and along Stanley Street. Behind Stanley Street and up a ridge sits an old inner city residential neighbourhood of some charm, characterized by Queenslander houses and two or three orthodox churches. To the north of Stanley Street to Vulture Street and west of the Gabba, the area has been a muddle of government depots, an office block and vacant sites for many years. In the past decade or so, new residential towers and a shopping development have sprung up along the south side of Stanley Street. Although Woolloongabba has a fairly good mix of activities it does not gel as a place. This is due to Stanley and Vulture Streets forming an inner gyratory system dominated by three lanes of one-way traffic in each direction. This road system connects south via a motorway to the Gold Coast, and north west to the CBD, the airport and the Sunshine Coast.
In recent years a new railway station was approved and is being built connecting the Gabba under the river to the city by tunnel. This is a considerable undertaking, As well as serving rail users, it is intended to link the Gabba (sports event and concerts) with the existing busway station and the wider rail network. Coming right up to date the Gabba has been identified as a potential development location for one or more aspects of the 2032 Olympic Games. Possibilities are that the existing stadium may be redeveloped, or that some other facility will be co-located there.
Key discussions and ideas for this precinct included:
- A green pedestrian bridge – creating a new pedestrian bridge connecting the Gabba stadium with the new Cross River Rail station, burying Ipswich Road and avoiding the need to cross at the busy street intersection
- Going underground – by creating big and bold moves that begin to tunnel traffic near the Princess Alexander Hospital, connecting into an underground network that relieves the Riverside Expressway from its use as a major arterial
- Reestablishing the Riverside Expressway – as a new ‘highline’ connecting people between stadiums and the city along the river’s edge, with greenery and new activation
- Closing roads – closing or removing lanes along Vulture and Stanley, reducing the dominance of private vehicles and providing more cafes, restaurants and activities for pedestrians and users to congregate
- More of the Logan precinct – expanding on the existing Logan Road precinct of cafes and restaurants and bringing more of this out into the surrounding areas
In this way. a major space for pedestrians and match-day attenders would allow people to walk from the new station to the stadium. This would act as a catalyst to place-shaping – a formal space to help define the built form and the new buildings. New development would include ground plane hospitality around the stadium and, less densely, in the surrounding streets. The key would be mixed use residential development, and some commercial spaces for offices, studios and retail. Traffic along Stanley and Vulture Streets, Logan Road and Ipswich Road would be calmed or even re-routed to some extent. Much better crossings for pedestrians is essential. Other smaller and even intimate public spaces would be designed, connected to each other and the major space at the Gabba and rail station. Carefully thought through walking routes, as connection, would establish a walking space network. It is not impossible to see much better pathways linking with South Bank for example. Some of this may be anchored by new arts facilities subject to feasibility and future demand in much the same way that the New Performing Arts Venue was analysed ten years ago.
Thank you to all who contributed to the UDAL Charrette Table on the Public Realm, July 21st 2021
Notes & References
[i] The urban design literature is well developed. The early writers were Jacobs, Lynch, Whyte and Calthorpe in the USA, Leon Krier and Christopher Alexander. In the UK a new interest emerged in the late 80s by people like Bill Hillier, Francis Tibbalds. Academics such as John Punter, Montgomery, Matthew Carmona et al made good contributions
[ii] Public social life – this subject requires a paper all to itself. Following from Simmel, Lyn Lofland defines public social as distinct from private social relations. This point was taken up by Bianchini and Montgomery in the early 1990s. See Montgomery, J. Making a City, Journal of Urban Design, 3,1, pp93-116, 1998.
[iii] Gehl, J. Life Between Buildings (Copenhagen: Arkitekens Forlag, 1996)
[iv] Montgomery, J. R (1997) “Cafe Culture and the City: The Role of Pavement Cafes in Urban Public Social Life”, Journal of Urban Design, 2,1, pp83-102.
[v] Kosto, S. The City Assembled, London, Thames and Hudson, 1992