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Flowing through the City: Continuity, Ecology and Production

  • Image: Jordi Surroca
“Streets, squares and parks in our cities can be renaturalised and connected up with the agricultural and natural spaces we still conserve. This means a network of urban spaces with every possible kind of connection, and ecological, urban and metropolitan continuity wherein productivity is made compatible with their public use.”
The European Prize for Urban Public Space has become a privileged observatory of the problems and solutions which presently concern European cities. As David Bravo remarks in “The Flâneur’s Surprise”, the total set of projects presented for the eight awards of the Prize demonstrates that the concept of urban public space transcends the typology, scale and place where it is produced. If its condition of space and its urban nature are not always evident, neither is its public ownership.

Curated by Albert García Espuche, “The Reconquest of Europe: Urban Public Space, 1980 - 1999”, the exhibition on public spaces recovered over the last two decades of the twentieth century, showed the reconquest of a feature that has most profoundly characterised European cities: “the public nature of urban spaces, and their capacity for social cohesion”. The typological and topological diversity of the projects presented for the Prize prompts us to think that this “reconquest” is slowly spreading into the totality of the “spaces” of our cities, in such a way that – whatever their origin, use or ownership – we are now able to explore their multiple capacities for being public spaces as well.

Two very different examples of the prize-winning projects clearly demonstrate this blurring of frontiers in what we might define as urban public space. One is a project designed in my studio, the landfill and recovery of the landscape in the metropolitan area’s Vall d’en Joan rubbish tip (Begues, Spain 2013), winner of the 2004 award, while the other is the Oslo National Opera House, designed by Snøhetta and winner of the 2010 award. One project involved some seriously degraded landscape, a long way from the centre of Barcelona, while the other was a great cultural centre in the middle of the old port of Oslo. These are very dissimilar public spaces which, independently of their regulation, play a most important role in the composition of a united city which seeks to encourage its own appropriation by citizens.

For almost forty years the Garraf rubbish tip was a dumping ground for all the garbage of the metropolis of Barcelona. The project was initially envisaged as a way of solving some environmental problems, which required a degree of intervention in the landscape as well, but we wanted to approach it from a more holistic perspective. We saw it as urban public space which needed infrastructure that would turn it into an educational space, a space that would produce new forms of energy, and that would be a new gateway into the Garraf Natural Park.

The National Opera House in Oslo is located in part of the city’s fiord which is separated from the remaining urban fabric by large-scale infrastructure constructed during the twentieth century. The aim of the government was to transform the zone into a representative neighbourhood that would become the main focus of Oslo’s cultural facilities as well as structuring a new relationship between the city and the fiord. The project of the new building develops the idea of extending the city’s public spaces across the roof of the opera house which gently rises from the water of the port to offer splendid views of the city as a whole. The building then becomes topography and, as Rafael Moneo explains, it is a clearly symptomatic example of present-day architects’ desire to make architecture dissolve into, and become landscape.

In recent times, growing ecological awareness has led us to wonder if this wide-ranging set of public spaces of such greatly varying uses and regulations might have a second shared objective: that of constructing a metropolitan environmental network that infiltrates every corner of the city. Public spaces, understood as an environmental network as well, could become the organising principle of metropolitan regions. Streets, squares and parks in our cities can be renaturalised and connected up with the agricultural and natural spaces we still conserve. This means a network of urban spaces with every possible kind of connection, and ecological, urban and metropolitan continuity wherein productivity is made compatible with their public use. A set of productive spaces well-equipped to encourage biodiversity, the production of energy, water management, cultivation of local food products, and the possibility of coexisting with diverse uses which reinforce their social character.

This system of open spaces will have to be constructed starting out from projects that allow urban and ecological flows, dealing with a series of interruptions in sought-after continuities. These projects would have to attain a strategic goal which is very important for the future of our cities: that pedestrians, cyclists, public transport, water and life can flow freely throughout metropolises.

Enric Batlle │ Translation by Julie Wark