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Walking around the city, you pass by numerous elements of public space design, such as outdoor furniture, chess tables, areas for breast-feeding mothers, street and park benches, and bookcases. Are you aware of their potential? Do you realize how they impact the life of city dwellers? Dr. Anita Basińska, sociologist from SWPS University’s School of Form writes about the impact of public spaces on social life in the cities.

It is 2016 in Poznań. The city is hosting the annual Malta Festival at Plac Wolności, which has become a bustling center of activity. Residents and tourists are relaxing on colorful hammocks. A man and his child are sitting on big cushions covered with astroturf. Young people are chatting, others are napping or relaxing on deckchairs, reading books and magazines or sunbathing. Various types of outdoor furniture, such as round and square tables, benches and waterproof cushions, mark different functional areas, including a playground for kids, a temporary cafe and restaurant, a concert and theatre stage, and a workshop area. Simply put, the space is designed for people, although it is just a temporary setting.

Festiwal Malta 2016
Festiwal Malta 2016
Festiwal Malta 2016

Photos: Maciej Zakrzewski | Malta Festival in Poznań 2016, Plac Wolności

Space is a social product - it is continually developed and transformed by people who not only live there but also co-create it by their sheer presence and activities in the space. From the sociological point of view, the way people perceive the space, their needs, expectations and preferences become crucial elements of design. If the space fulfills users’ requirements (even the needs they are not aware of yet), then they will happily use it and take advantage of everything it has to offer.

Examples of human-centered design in common public spaces may include playgrounds for kids, benches placed in a conversation distance from each other, trees and greenery that provide shade, and conveniently located trash cans that prompt people to keep the area clean. Public space design must align the space with the needs of people who live there. It must be functional and comprehensive. Unfortunately, not all designs are successful.

Residents Have a Voice

People assign not only measurable, but also symbolic value to places. Additionally, the way they use a given space determines its character and function, such as entertainment space, living room or office. While designing municipal spaces, it is crucial to include the inhabitants of the city in the planning process, so that they can indicate how they use common areas.

A novice designer and graduate of School of Form designed the indoor and outdoor shared spaces of her tenement building, as part of her thesis project. She began by talking to the residents about the problems they were facing and expectations they had of the common areas. She used fragments of these interviews to communicate with the residents and to make their voices heard. She designed tablecloths, doormats, name plates, and outdoor waterproof cushions, which incorporated quotes inspiring people to treat the space as a common good, for example: “Close the door”, “Home should be a safe place”, “It’s great that people keep the space clean”.

While building a public space (e.g. a local park or a square), a designer may plan walkways according to the already existing treaded paths or may observe how people behave in the space or may decide to impose a completely new layout. However, the third option does not guarantee that people will change their habits and will start walking on the newly charted walkways instead of cutting across the lawn as they did before. If the designer involves residents in the design, he will find out how they would like to use the space and what their expectations are. The designer may also show the residents some new possibilities that the space could offer, he or she may help them realize what is missing, and may test their readiness for change.

Moreover, the designer-resident relation adds an educational dimension to the design process. It shows that transformation can be achieved no only through the focus on architecture, but also by including the local community in the process of change. Nowadays, numerous examples of this type of cooperation can be observed across Poland. Seemingly small changes, introduced at housing estates and common courtyards, lead to bigger transformations that include whole districts and even whole towns and cities or vice versa - big metropolitan revitalization projects influence residents of tenement buildings and housing estates to improve their surroundings. For example, a housing estate Nadodrze in Wrocław that used to be perceived as a low-income and high crime rate neighborhood, has been transformed into an attractive area for residents, entrepreneurs and investors. Public consultations were a crucial part of the gentrification project. Thanks to a large-scale information campaign, which included surveys, community meetings and advertisements in the media, project leaders collected numerous e-mails, opinions and ideas, related to the problems and expectations of the local residents.

Another example is the revitalization project of Księży Młyn, a housing estate in Łódź. The project included workshops for adults, which resulted in the list of highlights and lowlights of living on the estate, which in turn helped to develop various revitalization scenarios. The team also organized workshops for children to include their input and point of view in the project.

Warsztaty Future City Game

Photos: Janusz Prajs | Future City Game Workshop with residents of Księży Młyn housing estate, 16.04.2011

Osiedle Krzywy Młyn w Łodzi
Osiedle Krzywy Młyn w Łodzi

Photo: Adam Brajter/Association for the Preservation of Antiquities, Łódź branch| Księży Młyn housing estate in Łódź

It is important to build a relationship with residents to include them in the process of change. In this case, the initial distrust of the residents, caused by previous disappointments resulting from promises that had not been kept, were offset by a photo exhibition organized in collaboration with the residents. The exhibition focused on the problems that the residents had been facing, living on the estate, as well as their expectations related to the future they were hoping for.

Another good example, illustrating small changes impacting not only the quality of life of the local residents, but also of the whole district, is a revitalization of courtyards situated by tenement buildings. Designs of some courtyards in Katowice improve and strengthen neighborly relations, by providing spaces conducive to socializing, which were sorely lacking before. Residents are involved at every stage of the project, from the concept (through workshops and building of models) to the implementation.

Members of the community who are involved in the design process feel engaged and invested in the transformation. They not only accept the new design, but they also take care of the space, because they understand that it is a common good. When residents are engaged, common spaces become their shared property, which can be enjoyed by everyone and which is ruled by certain social norms.

Well-Designed City

Public spaces are supposed to serve as meeting places for people and be conducive to communication and dialogue. Streets, squares, parks, courtyards, and rooftop terraces - all serve the purpose of public spaces, where people can develop and maintain social relations. A good example of a people-friendly public space is the courtyard of the Poznań City Hall, designed by Atelier Starzak Strebicki. A former parking lot has been transformed into an open multifunctional space with trees and greenery, portable seating, a bench surrounding a flower bed, a drinking water fountain, a water mist feature, and a bike service station.

Dziedziniec Urzędu Miasta w Poznaniu
Dziedziniec Urzędu Miasta w Poznaniu

Photo: Mateusz Bieniaszczyk | Project: Courtyard of the Poznań City Hall | Implementation: Atelier Starzak Strebicki

A designer shapes the city, assigns new functions to spaces, and makes improvements. For example benches equipped with baby changing tables for mothers and pieces of outdoor furniture that are placed in public places, surrounded by flower beds and greenery, encourage local residents and tourists to stop, sit down, relax, read a book or to talk. Public spaces must be inviting, increasingly multi-functional and comprehensive. For example, a park should not only include a playground for kids, but also spaces and objects for adults (e.g. hammocks, swings, outdoor exercise equipment - anything that will help grown ups to relax), but also offer good access routes to the park, such as bike trails, bike stands, and a car park. Ultimately, projects must be aligned with people’s needs - chess tables might not be useful in a culture, where chess playing is not very popular and people are not used to playing with strangers.

The role of the designer in shaping public spaces encompasses not only the provision of solutions for the given area, but also co-creation of social norms, behaviors and even a lifestyle - sustainable consumerism, focus on ecology, recycling and upcycling. For example, a designer may design infrastructure that promotes ecologically-friendly behaviors, such as bike trails, bike stands and bike service stations, outdoor furniture that incorporates flower beds, community gardens by tenement buildings or on their rooftops, hanging gardens and also more utilitarian objects, such as recycling bins placed in flower beds. The role of the designer also includes leading by example, for instance by using specific materials, such as eco-friendly and people-friendly building supplies or recycled objects with a new lease on life, such as outdoor furniture made of recycled pallets or wooden crates and flower pots made of old buckets.

It seems that nowadays public spaces require more planning and engagement of all parties (i.e. designers, users, and municipalities) than ever before to actually be conducive to social interactions and relationship building, while being functional at the same time. Spaces in the real world must compete with the virtual world. They must tempt people away from the Internet, social media, and the Virtual Reality, which eventually will enable people to meet in any place in the world.



258 anita basinska bw

dr Anita Basińska – sociologist at the Department of Design of SWPS University’s School of Form in Poznań. Her professional interest include applied sociology, social research and research methodology. She participated in numerous research projects focused on design in group homes for children, children’s competencies, business organizations (e.g. organizational culture, research and development activities), and social responsibility in organizations.