William Whyte, in his book ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’, explains why some public spaces work and others don’t. The example in the previous post of AlRaya made me wonder how we can adapt his ideas for Kuwait. I highly recommend, if you haven’t already, for everyone to see the video. We obviously don’t have the same density as Manhattan, but in a few years Kuwait City will hopefully be a lot denser than it is today. Here is what Whyte had to say:
What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people. If I belabor the point, it is because many urban spaces are being designed as though the opposite were true, and that what people liked best were the places they stay away from. People often do talk along such lines; this is why their responses to questionnaires can be so misleading. How many people would say they like to sit in the middle of a crowd? Instead, they speak of getting away from it all, and use words like “escape”, “oasis”, “retreat”. What people do, however, reveals a different priority.
This is because of both a desire for safety and is a method of peer-approval. People naturally feel safer in crowds. You see the opposite in our public parks. Most of them are fenced off and gated. The intent was to ensure safety and security, but in reality what this does is put people off from going in. It becomes a ‘destination’ instead of an impulse. If the walls weren’t there you’ll start to see kids playing inside, which in turn attracts more kids and families, which attracts more action. It’s sort of counter-intuitive, but the walls actually make the parks less safe. The only people who feel safer because of them are the people hiding inside, doing things they’re not supposed to be doing. I say we tear down the walls. I know, that seems like my solution to every problem.
Benches are artifacts the purpose of which is to punctuate architectural photographs. They’re not so good for sitting. There are too few of them; they are too small; they are often isolated from other benches or from whatever action there is on the plaza. Worse yet, architects tend to repeat the same module in plaza after plaza, unaware that it didn’t work very well in the first place.
Benches are useless. They force strangers to sit unnaturally close together. A better solution is to have a long ‘decha’ or built mass all around the space that is easy and comfortable to sit on. The more options people have to organize themselves as a couple, or a group, the more accepting they will be of that space. In Kuwait, as with most places, we see far too many benches that have just been plopped on the edge of the sidewalk, facing the street, and away from the shade. Instead of benches everywhere, why not have trash bins? There are too few of those, and I often find myself needing to throw something but not finding anywhere to put it.
Distrust and “Undesirables”:
Many corporation executives who make the key decisions about the city have surprisingly little acquaintance with the life of its streets and open spaces. … To them, the unknown city is a place of danger. If their building has a plaza, it is likely to be a defensive one that they will rarely use themselves. Few others will either. Places designed with distrust get what they were looking for and it is in them, ironically, that you will most likely find a wino.
The ‘courtyard’ space of AlRaya is a great example of this (though i’ve only rarely seen a wino). The space is so controlled and isolated that it is simply rejected. The fear of ‘letting it go’ and allowing anyone to use it has condemned the space to being cold and neglected (no matter how clean and well maintained it is). There is never anyone there, so people aren’t attracted to it. The fear of attracting laborers or loud youth often sanitizes the space to a point where it becomes boring and forced, like AlRaya.
Guards and Plaza mayors:
…it is characteristic of well-used places to have a “mayor”. He may be a building guard, a newsstand operator, or a food vendor. Watch him, and you’ll notice people checking in during the day. … One of the best mayors I’ve seen is Joe Hardy of the Exxon Building. He is an actor, as well as the building guard, and was originally hired by Rockefeller Center Inc. to play Santa Claus, whom he resembles. Ordinarily, guards are not supposed to initiate conversations, but Joe Hardy is gregarious and curious and has a nice sense of situations. … Joe is quite tolerant of winos and odd people, as long as they don’t bother anybody. He is very quick to spot real trouble, however.
We sort of have those in Kuwait, but in the private malls. They’re those serious guys in dishdashas with the walkie talkies. I think the way they usually go about their job is counterproductive as they seem more interested in breaking up groups than in creating a pleasant atmosphere. Their primary job should be to facilitate a free, happy and safe environment. Every major public space should also have it’s own little mayor. They’re not really police, but a cross between security and a tour guide. The best ones are those that feel a sense of pride, ownership and responsibility for the place that they control. They should also have authority to demand that shop owners and such are well regulated and everything is clean and tidy. They will also be held responsible if things aren’t safe, clean and busy. It should be a well paid job, because the results are very important and the only way to ensure accountability is if the person is well compensated.
The ultimate development in the flight from the street is the urban fortress. In the form of megastructures more and more of these things are being put up – huge, multipurpose complexes combining offices, hotels, and shops… Their distinguishing characteristic is self-containment. While they are supposed to be the salvation of downtown, they are often some distance from the center of downtown, and in any event tend to be quite independent of their surroundings, which are most usually parking lots. The megastructures are wholly internalized environments, with their own life-support systems. Their enclosing walls are blank, windowless, and to the street they turn an almost solid face of concrete or brick.
Again, AlRaya is a perfect example of this, but almost every other mall is guilty of the same sin. The only exception is probably Marina Mall. They attempt a sort of public space at the Salem alMubarak end, but the lack of any real pedestrian activity softens the impact. Hopefully once Salmiya Park is finished (and isn’t fenced) things will be different. Marina Crescent is very successful. It’s a great example of a public (kind of) space that works really well. There just aren’t enough places to sit (where you’re not expected to buy something). I don’t know how comfortable those giant bumps are, but they seem pretty useless. The point is that successful projects are not the inward-looking ‘megastructures’, but the ones that engage and interact with their context. There really isn’t anything to fear, and if done right, all parties benefit; the developer, the city and the citizens.