Book Review: The Public Chance

The Public Chance: New Urban Landscapes by Aurora Fernandez Per and Javier Arpa
a+t, 2008
Hardcover, 420 pages

After four issues of a+t's In Common Series, which focused on urban public space, the Spanish publisher follows with a large-format book analyzing 30 "urban landscapes of opportunity." Grouped into four sections (Industrial, Peripheral, Infrastructure, Waterfront), the projects exhibit this characteristic of taking advantage of the given conditions, be it from the use of a roof over a library for public space or linking once separated urban areas. The variety of the projects presented (most in Europe, but reaching from North America to Asia and Australia) is structured within a+t's usual consistent, comparative graphics. It's an image-rich collection that goes beyond design to enable the reader to think about the urban conditions of the 21st century.

After illustrating the grouping of the various projects, the authors outline the opportunities for public spaces in the city, from "promoting mixed uses" to "introducing sustainable habits in city life." They are also clear to point out how these design decisions relate to and influence the public that actually uses these spaces, be it feelings of safety or having the opportunity to escape or even experiment. Then come strategies for addressing and achieving these and other opportunities, keyed to the 30 projects that immediately follow. For each project two aerial views locate the project, the authors diagram and comment on six layers of landscape and program (activities, rooms, routes, buildings, vegetation, water), and then the designer's text, drawings and photographs. The consistent format of the first two allows the reader to compare and contrast the various projects, in terms of scale, urban fabric, programming, landscape features, etc. Unfortunately it seems that landscape architects are afraid of water, as in most cases this layer is empty. This is unfortunate, since water management is one of the most important considerations for designers in cities today.

The projects range from the well known (Olympic Sculpture Park by Weiss/Manfredi) to relatively unknown (Marsupial Bridge by La Dallman -- this week's dose), from large-scale (Boston's Central Artery by various actors) to small-scale (Ring Walk by Durboch Block Architects), and from dense urban conditions (the High Line in Manhattan) to relatively natural settings (Centenario Park near Gibraltar).

As mentioned, the variety is commendable (unfortunately no South American projects are included), but most of the designs share one trait: they are executed. Given the scale of some, partial realization is the case, but a focus on built works means that the authors want to disseminate ideas that have responded to "real world" conditions, not just rendered and filled with people in Photoshop. This brings us back to use and its important. The activity layer stands for this, and it's clear that designers and clients (public or private) are increasingly incorporating programmed activities into public spaces, from outdoor theaters to wi-fi. These and other tactics are evidence of an attempt to reinstill life in public spaces, at a time when lives are increasingly spent in private; to give the public realm, if you will, another chance.