For those looking to learn more about current developments in the planning of urban public space, the new book Human Cities is an excellent guide to a different approach towards designing cities.  Rather than focusing on a “definition of what is (or is not) urban public space,” Human Cities offers new methodologies for thinking about and creating public spaces and features a number of initiatives that are being implemented worldwide.

The Human Cities project, founded in 2006, seeks to promote and transform urban planning processes in order to enhance sustainability and build human capital through civic engagement and grassroots movements.  As contributors Anna Meroni and Paola Trapani attest, “public space is the accessible field of opportunity and interaction, where people can meet to share experiences and visions, where they can try out new paths to solve their own problems and improve the quality of life.”

Human Cities is a collaborative effort among four different research institutions in four European capitals – Brussels, Milan, Glasgow, and Ljublana – and serves as an invaluable resource center for individuals and organizations looking to transform their communities from the bottom up.  They also host an annual festival, which features a number of representatives in the fields of architecture, planning, design, academia and public service discussing a variety of approaches and case studies for thinking about and fostering sustainability and quality public space.

This focus on public space reflects a growing understanding of the need for places that encourage people to congregate and ultimately enhance the lives of citizens.  In the introduction to the book’s second section, “Public in Place,” PPS Senior Vice President Kathy Madden advocates for a different approach to designing public space – specifically through observation and community outreach – in order to influence the work of designers, government officials, and others who make decisions about the public realm. “Only then,” she writes, “will public spaces achieve their full potential to positively impact the lives of citizens in every community in the world.”

Traditionally, planners and architects have aspired to create eye-catching designs that focus on the physical structure of the city.  However, Human Cities reflects a shift in European design culture from an aesthetic-oriented approach towards a place-based, civic engagement model.  Contributing author Ezio Manzini maintains that while communities and social networks cannot be engineered like material infrastructure can, planners can craft the urban environment to encourage a “convivial, welcoming, safe city created by its own inhabitants.”  By encouraging a holistic, interdisciplinary way of thinking about public space, “the material city and the social city generate each other.”  This concept of social design is a key component to bridging the gap between the physical nature of a space and its functionality.

Human Cities: Celebrating Public Space is now available for purchase.