The Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning

Publication Public Spaces

BBR-Online-Publikation, Ed.: BBR, Bonn October 2002

Series: BBSR-Online-Publikation Published: October 2002

Project management BBR: Bernd Breuer ,
Mechthild Renner , Claus-C. Wiegandt


The interest in public spaces has increased again over the last few years. This can be seen in the technical literature as well as in political discussions, programs and means of action by the municipalities. The focus is on "traditional" public spaces (such as squares, parks and streets) and also on "new" spaces (like city malls) that can be used by the public.

Public spaces have a considerable influence on our picture of cities and are of great importance
for the quality of city life. They are places of communication and social life. Not without any interferences they are occupied by different uses like traffic, shopping, entertainment, recreation or just walking.

The background of our work involved research into the perceived problems with public spaces and possible strategies to overcome these problems.

The research was supposed to

  • record and analyse various situations according to the specific perception of the problems;
  • show the action required by the participants involved in the planning processes.
  • show possibilities for promotion by the federal government.

Therefore we worked from the end of 2000 until mid 2002 on

  • screening new specialized literature;
  • interviewing local authorities of 16 municipalities, who are involved in planning processes;
  • doing case studies in five municipalities;
  • meeting up with experts (like investors, policemen, parsons and so on) to discuss different aspects of this topic;
  • organizing two conferences with about 20 experts.

With this explorative study the field of research and action is to be structured so that it becomes clear how far further research should be taken.

Central Results

From the variety of results and observations - which the final report will describe in more detail - some central results shall now be pointed out as abridged thesis.

The importance of public spaces

Public spaces are one - if not the one - central field of action of town planning. This importance is increasingly recognised.

The importance of public spaces within cities and as a central field of action for town planning is confirmed by literature and experts from many countries. Two functions of public spaces became particularly apparent during our interviews, those of communication and encounter. The representatives of the economy also point out that public spaces are one of the factors that determine the value of adjacent property.

While outside the expert circles of those who work with different public spaces, it has to be considered that the term "public spaces" is not used and that its implications are not even known. Therefore the topic "public spaces" has to be mediated in public and politics by handy names and hints to concrete tasks.

Need for action

Changes in the functions of public spaces are manifold and sometimes critical. This calls for the necessity to act.

It is remarkable that experts in the same city describe the situation of public spaces as "good", "problematic" or "unsatisfactory" at the same time. That could be seen as an indication for an unsimultaneous and opposite development. Concerning this there is an obvious difference between intensively designed places and representative parks in the town centre and neglected areas in other districts. The desolate financial situation of most municipalities makes it necessary to set priorities.

Experts at the face do not agree with the thesis of reduced use and as a result an increasing drain of functions of public spaces. On the contrary, nearly everyone talks about an increase in the use and a change of social expressions in public spaces.

One statement of the original thesis of our research was that the social function of public spaces is endangered because of privatization. Our interview partners did not agree with this thesis. They remarked that former public spaces were put into private ownership without resulting in tensions between social requirements and the needs of commercialisation.

Means of action

The communities have developed and are still developing a broad spectrum of means of action - ranging from drafts for single problematic spaces to overlapping strategies.

The emphasis of municipal activities is mainly put on the town centre; though the need of action
in other districts is mentioned in programs as well. At the same time the interest in public spaces as a part of systemic and integrated drafts for the whole city is increasing. Overall it becomes obvious that public spaces cannot be reduced to single stereotypes like quarter space, market place, park and so on. On the contrary, they are a complex system of functions and spaces that is changing dynamically and needs to be designed as such.

For the development of practice, it is furthermore of great interest to learn more about the means of action which face up to these changes.

Since the perception of the topic by the municipalities is not satisfactory, the existing means of action need (scientific) support, furtherance and propagation.

Therefore - according to our interview partners - a "marketing for public spaces" is needed. At the same time public spaces can serve as a contribution to city marketing. In addition the co-ordination within the administration has to be improved. This can be realised by different means - for example by a cross-section responsibility for public spaces. Therefore enough resources for the means of action have to be assigned or the resources have to be used more effectively. In this context the co-operation with private partners is described as sensible and necessary. It holds the problem of selectivity, however: the activity of the private partner is binding the scarce public resources. It is commonly agreed that measures in public spaces need intensive public mediation. It is pointed out that next to local interests superior concerns have to be considered in the discussions.

More knowledge

There is an almost total lack of empirical data concerning the development of public spaces.

Even the immediate demands for use by different groups in public spaces - for example teenagers or immigrants - are almost unknown. And there is even less knowledge about medium-term trends of use to tackle the current problems, considering possible requirements in future. There is also confusion regarding the actual overlapping of the rights of use and the disposal of public spaces. The question of the effects of this present-day trend is as unclear. At the same time there are indications that present-day perceptions of the problems need to be differentiated.

Possibilities of support and assistance through the government

The government can support the municipalities through imparting and exchange of informations
and also by specific measures of support.

The municipalities call on the government to make good examples public and to support the exchange and the development of good practice. According to our interview partners existing and future supporting programs should ask for and support the quality of the process, especially regarding co-operative approaches.

Furthermore, there was a discussion about the question whether changes in the planning law (like separate categories of use for special public spaces) could be helpful for the local practice. Another question is in which way (new) assignments like the handling of spaces after rebuilding measures could be financially and instrumentally supported by the government.

The trends of migration to the edges of the cities and suburbanisation have to be reversed. Therefore and in order to support the mixed use in existing public spaces the necessary instruments for assistance should be used. Counter-productive subsidy should be changed accordingly.

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