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While most people have been generally obsessed for the past 15 years with buildings and the starchitects behind them, the “public realm,” for lack of a better term, went into hibernation. Now, with the economy stalled and the amount of new buildings – and their architects – stalled, the forums of our cities are getting some much deserved attention. Hey, we’re architects and we support the construction of new and renovated buildings as a matter of livelihood, but that has not ceased our intense interest in the care and development of successful urban places where these buildings live and where people move and breathe between buildings. Where we can stand back and look. And talk. And eat. And play. If our cities were just buildings, we’d be living on the Death Star. The buildings may define a city by it’s skyline, but it’s the public spaces between buildings that define a city by it’s people, their culture, and how they inhabit and move through it.

“We’ve been so fixated on fancy new buildings that we’ve lost sight of the spaces they occupy and we share,” Michael Kimmelman says in his report on New York’s amazing public spaces. He spent an afternoon walking through some of New York’s famous – and infamous – public spaces with the urban planner and architect Alexander Garvin. Earlier this year I took a class of NYU students on a very similar walking tour. The point of both walks was to point out the canvas that our building icons sit upon. How do buildings hit the streets? How do the spaces around them support human movement, transportation, relaxation, urban enjoyment? I argued on my walk that most buildings do a rather poor job of transitioning to the sidewalk. They look great from a distance and from aerial photographs – the postcard shots – but often fail at negotiating the all too important human scale at the ground. The Seagram building is seminal architecture, to be sure. The plaza in front (and on the sides) has much to be desired.

Call it “ground up” architecture instead of “trickle down.” Kimmelman writes about how the Dutch begin their urban design projects thinking about granular aspects like subway entrances, bike paths, crosswalks, and storefronts before handing off building sites to architects. here in the States it’s most often the reverse. The developers design their buildings, and the public realm has to adapt to what is given them. I am always struck in Europe with the prevalence of “square,” or, “plaza, piazza, place, ter, trg, torg, plein, platz,” or any number of translations that make open space in the city so loved and respected. It’s hip to be square.

Mapos is all about better, smarter, more sustainable design strategies for our cities (and buildings, and homes, and parks….) What is happening in Europe is a fabulous example of more pedestrian friendly cities. As the author of this recent NYTimes article points out, businesses in car-restricted districts actually thrive with more pedestrian access, countering the long held argument by car-first advocates that businesses will suffer. All good stuff. We would be remiss, however, if we did not point out a strange oversight in the logic of the non-car set. they promote “people over cars” but seem to forget that people are driving those cars. Alternatives do exist. This is a model to celebrate. But let’s not dismiss a viable and sometimes necessary transportation alternative for many people.

Seoul1Some years ago, my old boss and professor Fred Koetter told me about a project they were working on in Seoul, Korea. His firm, Koetter Kim & Associates, was re-designing a huge portion of central Seoul around a soon-to-be-uncovered river. His plan featured new housing and commercial districts, yes, but also a new waterway and park, running straight through town. It was like cracking the window in a stuffy car. Like many waterways in many cities around the world, the Cheonggyecheon had become an open sewer and pesky barrier to traffic and commercial growth. The solution was to relegate this unruly natural phenomenon to a dark and murky tunnel beneath the buzz of progress. It became a myth. A story. A home for alligators and creatures of the night that thrive out of sight and in the dark.

And then something funny happened on the way to the Forum. We started to value our resources. We realized, surprise, surprise, that we are human beings, and as such, are part of the natural world. By banning all things green and breathing and flowing and growing from our man-made utopia we were putting ourselves in concrete cages and ignoring a critical piece of our DNA. The Times reported yesterday of the amazing success that Seoul has found in letting their river see the light of day again. Sure there were naysayers, arguing about parking problems and road constriction. But the response has been exuberant and exalted and, well, expected. It should come as no surprise that humans like things that flow and grow. As the assitant mayor said, “we’ve basically gone from a car-oriented city to a human-oriented city.” It’s like a taking a deep breath. What a novel idea.

Los Angeles has been thinking about this for years. As has Hartford, CT. And Rome. And Paris. And Peekskill. Seoul has shown us there is immense value beyond the $384 million construction cost. Sitting by a river? Priceless.

kka