Retaining the Core of Our City Centres
In today’s fast-paced and technology-driven world, the importance of the high street and public common spaces in city centres cannot be overstated.
From providing a gathering place for community and social interaction to boosting the local economy, these spaces are essential for creating vibrant and liveable cities, promoting the well-being of all inhabitants. Yet, in recent years these areas have become increasingly under threat, highlighting the need to protect and nurture community spirit and vital social hubs in urban areas. Delving into the cultural, social, economic, and psychological benefits of preserving access to quality public spaces, Anton Wessels of GAPP Architects and Urban Designers stresses the necessary interventions for retaining the core of our city centres.
Urban public spaces and high streets provide a concentrated variety of activities where the lives of many people play out. They should include a night-time economy, be safe, well lit, and comfortable for all people to navigate, whilst connecting us to the outdoors and responding well to changing behavioural patterns. Beautification happens naturally, as a by-product of successfully combining the right elements.
However, there is an ongoing trend of investments outside of city centres, in private suburban office parks and along metropolitan development corridors. The decentralisation of city-functions results in functional separation, which greatly impacts our public spaces. If cities lose their civic anchors to a sprawling hinterland where essential services are spread far and wide, people lose access and are thereby excluded. We shouldn’t give on our concrete jungles, though. Perhaps the best place to start reviving our cities are the very arteries that flow through them: roads. But what do we do when they’re in the way?
When private car ownership became an ideal in the 1950s, taking precedence over more efficient forms of shared transport, communities were evicted from cities, high streets, and public spaces to make way for roadways incapable of supporting pedestrian life. As Robert Moses demolished massive parts of New York City, communities with vibrant streets were displaced to housing ‘projects’ that were inconsiderate of the full spectrum of urban elements.
The same argument decided highways locally — in District Six. Cape-Town’s so-called ‘unfinished’ highways remind us of this destruction to community and public space. Even today, only an estimated 30% of South African households own a private car, yet public realm design is dominated by the presence of these dangerously-fast moving, exclusive objects.
Road design is still governed by inflexible, largely unchanged, and archaic requirements from around 70 years ago. But their obtrusive design hasn’t exactly been proven to make cities work better. In fact, there’s a global movement to dismantle them and restore healthy public spaces. Two examples from North America and Asia have inspired me to rethink how we approach these white elephants in our public spaces.
Embarcadero Freeway, San Francisco, USA
The 1950s saw an obsession with monstrous highways soaring across famous cities. One case study, which resembles Cape Town’s Foreshore quite uncannily, is the double-decker Embarcadero Freeway built to connect San Francisco’s Bay Bridge to the renowned Golden Gate Bridge.
For 32 years, the eyesore barricaded locals from the bay waters and shrouded the Ferry Building in smog. It took a divine intervention to alter San Francisco’s public community belt. In 1989, an earthquake destroyed the raised highway, reconnecting the city’s downtown with its historic port. Traffic had no choice but to disperse back into its street grid – it was never re-built. Today, the almost unrecognisable coastline has been transformed into a four-kilometre promenade, offering residents recreational access to the bay area.
Cheonggye Overpass, Seoul, South Korea
In 1968, an elevated highway covered up Seoul’s Cheonggye Creek. However, after the area’s congestion and noise pollution reached the highest levels in the city, it was decided that the only way to improve the situation would be to remove the highway entirely. The major highway dismantling was completed in 2005, successfully reopening a concrete-covered natural river and re-instituting a linear greenbelt which rapidly became a major social and economic asset.
Today, an artificial creek flows through the city, creating a nine-kilometre swath of green corridors along the rediscovered waterway. Researchers found that the natural pocket provided additional benefits beyond community interaction and recreational well-being. The waterway handles flooding rains better than buried sewers, has transformed the nearby streets, boosted the economy through tourism, and brought a 3.3-degree Celsius drop in average summer temperatures in the area adjacent to Cheonggye Creek.
Our high streets and public spaces are important conduits where massive infrastructure investments have already been made — which is why we shouldn’t abandon them. Their zoning rights permit a wide and flexible mixture of use along a transformable public domain that can support density and various scales of the economy — including street trade. Ultimately, to ensure the greatest number of people have access to essential services, it is vital that town centres retain government facilities, educational and health institutions, and economic opportunities.
Think of the city as your own body – if blood flow is restricted and filled with excess junk you have a problem. To optimise health, you increase flexibility and reduce the frictions causing the deterioration. The most important trend we can possibly set in 2023 is to understand — from a very young age — that we share a delicate body for a short period of time before leaving it to another generation.
Urban Designer and Architect
GAPP Architects and Urban Designers