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6 | Public Urban Spaces</br>Frame from the film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, 1979

6 | Public urban space: places and uses

Leonardo Ciacci

Let's imagine that you have to represent a public urban space. First of all, you will find yourself in front of a large number of unexpected paradoxes. In opposition to the city, the imagine of the countryside is connected with the idea of vast and accessible, freely practicable spaces; only our own experience might makes us discover that usually those spaces are almost all private spaces and, in most of cases, not legally accessible.


In everyday life on the other side, we discover that the city, narrow and dense, consists in a territory which is fully practicable through a variously repeated sequence of open and accessible spaces. Indeed, we use the street - a public space par excellence - for private purposes when we occupy it with our car, parking it nearby the sidewalk. But, in the same way, the local administration transforms the meaning of the public space simply by changing the color of the lines which define parking areas (from white into blue), renting those spaces which are not any more assigned to free public use. In different eras of urban history many different and various meanings, all usually accepted, have been given to what is public in opposition to what is private. Those meanings are the result of a conflict which has never been definitively solved.


Different ethnical and religious customs arrived with immigrant populations represent the latest impact with Italian cities and propose every single day a reinterpretation of what in a city have to be considered available for public use. Today it seems that this topic is the most usual and radical argument of changes in the shape and in the meaning of urban public space. Consumer's expectations for what concerns public spaces have rapidly assumed the shape of "private" spaces inside big shopping malls: occasional visitors, baby sitters and retired persons can find there free parking and free heating. In spite of the "square-shape", those places are under cover, artificial, finalized to the consume and in any case subordinated to limitations that are supposed to organize the access into too structured and too "furnished" spaces. The real squares, like those that the medieval tradition (market places, parvises, town hall) and the nineteenth-century uses (roads equipment and the representation of national identity) have established like spaces destined to public use, are disappearing under the weight of commuted motor traffic; but there is also a rarefaction of social life's occasional rituals and a polarization of classes and social groups' distribution in the territory. New, radical forms of public space use are emerging, mostly during the night hours, when periodical occasions of cyclists' spontaneous aggregation, passionate roller bladers and rave music's followers invade peacefully but energetically entire parts of the city, conditioning its use and its character.

The whole of those and other events which seems to us new and which continue to make the nature of urban space mysterious, have occupied for more than a decade (the 70's) the studies of an interesting and complex American researcher of social matters: the result were a book and a documentary, both named "The social life of small urban spaces". Those were the first step toward an operative program which should involve public American administration in projects for public urban space. Whyte's example gave birth to an association called Project for Public Spaces, which is still active mostly in New York but also in other North American cities. Some initiatives of the same sort are appearing only now in Italy and their methods are quite similar to the American experience: the use of video imagines for both research and representation, the interaction with frequent visitors of urban spaces, the pressure on public local administrations. Those initiatives are arousing more and more interest among both citizens and technicians. The use and the project of urban spaces are the main aim for those new born associations. We are talking, as it can be seen in this updated edition, about associations with different characters and aims, but in spite all, as it can be seen it the shown examples, those initiatives are proposing us a reinterpretation of the meaning of citizenship in order to produce, through the use, the recover of what everyday routine has taken away from places and persons.