It Takes Great Places to Create Great Cities

Feb 29, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

What kind of cities do we want to have?

Over half the world population now lives in cities, and while these cities are changing and growing at an unprecedented rate, there seems to be little discussion about what we want our cities to be like, or what the public realm can do to make cities great places to live. After all, it is the public spaces-squares, parks, streets, markets and public buildings-that define people's experience of any city. It is in these destinations where we most authentically experience a city, where we feel most connected to something larger, and where we participate most directly in the creation and preservation of culture.

Inevitably, these public spaces shape the stories we tell about cities; they reflect the character and personality of a city’s people; and they determine a city’s ultimate creativity and resilience. Increasingly, however, the growth of many cities is haphazard, and ignores the public realm, which is so important in people's lives. Many cities today, both rich and poor, old and new, are failing to reflect the needs, values, and aspirations of the people they are meant to serve.

This may be one root cause of the world's current social, environmental and economic woes. When people do not feel ownership over their community's public spaces, it affects how they view broader global concerns. For example, when the public realm of a city is challenged by problems like pollution, traffic, privatization, gentrification, and soulless monoculture, it sends a clear message that we are not in charge of our own communities. Efforts to reclaim and revitalize public spaces show that we can make a difference in our neighborhoods—and in the wider world.

Places all around the world—from Paris to Bogota to Hong Kong—are proving that improving public spaces can be a powerful way of  creating cities. These cities realize that one of the major reasons people are attracted to a city is the simple desire to be around a wide range of people and communities. There are countless things that draw people to cities, from the desire to live in a neighborhood that fosters walking to a commitment to live in a more environmentally-friendly way.

The world’s great cities didn't happen overnight. They did not materialize because of any one visionary project or inspirational person. They are the cumulative result of people taking bold actions to make improvements. These actions, both large and small, helped cities evolve over time to become more desirable and livable. Throughout the upcoming year, PPS is initiating dialogue about what makes public spaces and cities themselves great - paying particular attention to the people who have taken bold actions to make good things happen.

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