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“Vancouver’s waterfront has been ruined by its new communities of high-rise towers…designed for people who don’t want much to happen in front of them.” Fred Kent 2011

“Most designers are into their own ego rather than creating something remarkably human,” says Fred Kent, who founded the New York-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS) in the 1970s after helping to chart the behaviour of people in streets and parks with groundbreaking sociologist William H. Whyte.

Their research resulted in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980), considered a classic among urban designers. Since then, PPS has contributed the master plan for the revitalization of Manhattan’s once-derelict Bryant Park into a public square that sparkles with crowds of people drawn to concerts, restaurants and treed lounge areas.

The agency is currently working on placing new marketplaces in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and catalyzing some 300 small spaces, over the next five years in cities in the southern hemisphere, for the human-settlement agency UN-Habitat. “It’s only in the last 20 years that public space has become important again,” Kent told me this week. “But we don’t have a lot of really great public spaces that are people places.”

Vancouver’s Granville Island, he suggests, for good reason, is an exception. Its variety of publicly accessible spaces wonderfully combine culture with food markets and harbour jobs. But Kent is unimpressed with the intensification of Vancouver’s waterfront and its tracts of land bisected by bike paths.

Unlike Stockholm, for instance, where restaurants and highly active parks connect effortlessly in and out of the water, he notes, “Vancouver’s waterfront has been ruined by its new communities of high-rise towers surrounded by isolated playgrounds with no seating, or isolated rocks. They’re designed for people who don’t want much to happen in front of them. There’s no sense of life or delight.”

from Lisa Rochon. 2011. Cityspace:  Squaring public space with human needs. Globe and Mail November 26, 2011: R2.