Does anyone else pay attention to this: many times the renderings of new urban development projects include a plaza or similar open space, sitting somewhere in front or between the proposed new buildings. Scaling purposes aside, the glitzy visualizations paint pictures of future plazas teeming with life. People are lounging around, meeting each other and having a good time, actively engaging in public life.
But wander off to anywhere in Helsinki (or any Finnish city, really) and you will find dead plazas galore. Reality is far from the imagery. Most of today’s plazas were planned before digital tools came into play and made adding people easy, but the story has been quite the same for a long time: once materialized, our plazas typically end up being void of the public life they’re envisioned to support.
Indeed, the contrast to, for example, the well-known festive atmospheres of Italian life-rich piazzas is striking. They underline how and why public plazas are vital to cities. Like streets, they act as venues for social interactions and activities. It would be superb to spread some of that piazza energy to plazas and squares across Finland, too.
Wishful thinking, many say: “forget about it, we don’t have the climate or culture for that kind of vibrancy to happen”.
No, in many ways we don’t. But then again, we do have some examples in our plazascape that are rather alive, too. In Helsinki, Senate Square is where tourists gather to absorb the city’s history. And in wintertime, there are periods with more people at the square than in summer. This is thanks to major events like the Christmas market and LUX Helsinki light festival. Some other plazas or plaza-like spaces are used as popular meeting places. Kallio’s Karhupuisto area and the “steps” next to Kansalaistori square, for example, attract people for casual lingering or to take part in one of many cool grassroots events.
Lifeless plazas are clearly not only about climate and cultural factors. People’s needs to be social are universal.
Obviously, not all urban open spaces are supposed to resemble Italian piazzas at night. But large amounts of paved surface throughout the city without anyone there is hardly a desirable outcome either. In most cases public plazas aren’t urban amenities that add value to neighborhoods if they don’t succeed in bringing people together.
Supporting public life is a topic we must discuss more about. The public and policy atmosphere is shifting towards a future of living in denser and more urban neighborhoods. This makes having high-quality public realms a top priority for livability.
The dead plazas are a symptom of our failures to have any strategies for creating quality places. Thus, thinking about why we have so many of them also helps advance the broader discussion for smarter urban planning.
At the Scale of Blocks
The starting point for our cityscape of dead plazas is that, in recent times, we have never genuinely figured out what to do with them in the first place.
The legacy of building monumental neoclassical squares, a deep love with modernist planning ideals, and the gradual decline of yesterday’s activities in urban open space (different types of markets, etc.), has left downtown Helsinki struggling with a stock of older plazas that are too big and/or not designed to support public life. There has been no real interest in repurposing or reactivating them.
One example is Hakaniemi Square, which was the main market place on the (then) eastern edge of the city. It was once filled with small shacks selling everyday items and food. Today, that legacy lives on, but the shacks are long gone and replaced by a handful of vegetable stands and cafes in tents. The market activity has diminished, and, unless there’s an occasional larger event, the gigantic space always feels rather empty.
Today, plazas are obviously places that you choose to go rather than must for survival. William H. Whyte, one of the most famous public space researchers, concluded that in modern times a successful plaza is founded on careful user-centered design and programming work. He summarized that people are drawn to places that 1) are generous with inviting options for sitting and relaxing; 2) are easily accessible; 3) offer attractions such as trees, sculptures, food vendors, fountains, etc.; 4) and finally, offer a crucial element he famously put in the following words: “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”
While Whyte underlined the key to sustaining life in plazas is a combination of these elements, ours typically lack most of them, regardless if they’re old or new.
For example, Vaasanpuistikko, the plaza right across the street from my building, is highly accessible and always quite full of people. But not in the same way as at the Italian piazza. Most people are there to rush through the space, not to linger. They’re going in or out of the metro station, visiting the supermarket, or pass by to be someplace else. Or well, some do linger. Vaasanpuistikko is better known as “Piritori” (Speed Market) because drug dealers and junkies, among other marginalized groups, are not easily driven away from these types spaces.
Many generally won’t stick around because there are zero places to sit down and activities are scarce. And the local grassroots events scene stays away because it’s too burdensome to get permits etc. for organizing activities.
This obvious lack of attractions, seating and active management isn’t any different from most modern-day plazas. Many of them are built with an emphasis on aesthetics over thinking about their use.
They often end up being large and barren, only covered with stone pavement. A few are more artsy or detail-rich, like the expensive-to-build but no-one-ever-uses-it Tapio Wirkkala park (which I’ve written about before). I mean literally, I’ve yet to see a single person use it for anything other than to take a shortcut through it. Even kids seem to keep away. But hey, it looks nice from high above!
The problem is that the process of designing or managing public spaces is dominantly a top-down exercise. The user perspective isn’t truly included. Often this approach fails, no matter how much money you pour into the (re)creation of a plaza.
A better strategy would be to focus on the opposite: to work through community involvement and trial & error. This entails starting with small and temporary interventions to iterate for site-specific solutions. Probably minimalist landscaping design isn’t one. Especially when enlivening existing plazas, their programming and management should be handed over to local actors as much as possible.
Some form of design policy would also help to, for example, ensure new plazas aren’t built too vast to sustain a cozy atmosphere in them.
At the Scale of Neighborhoods
Just focusing on enlivening our current plazas and making sure we create people-friendly new ones isn’t going to be enough. Another dimension to the dead plaza problem is that we may be building too many. This might sound a bit odd, but bear with me.
Almost any random plan proposing more than one or two buildings could be chosen as an example, but let’s look at a well-known one from Arabianranta. In this new-ish suburb the real estate owner has an ambitious plan to make the heart of the area, the Arabia factory block, more downtown-like by adding apartments and offices. An architecture competition was launched to get ideas for the intensification. Unsurprisingly, all finalist entries suggested the establishment of a new (vibrant) central plaza. (I’m not sure if including a plaza was a competition rule or not).
And why not? Most entries did suggest adding highrises to the very large and already built up block. A plaza would soften and balance the infill. It does sound like a smart idea.
However, when you zoom out a bit, the question of adding a new plaza becomes more complex. The surroundings of the competition area aren’t exactly lacking plazas or urban open spaces. By only circling the block you will find at least 10 of them (this includes Tapio Wirkkala park). Many don’t have a clear purpose or any users in sight.
The new project will eventually add more people to the area, but, by also adding another plaza, the plaza-to-people ratio will remain unfavorable. It’s difficult to see how the public life in the renderings will become a reality with all this plaza space and low density.
Arabianranta is of course one example among many. I touched upon another similar case when writing about an idea competition to transform a big parking lot into mixed use urban blocks in Myyrmäki:
“And while on the topic of plazas, there really is no shortage of them in Myyrmäki. Just around Myyrmäki railway stop there are altogether four different plazas – or five if you count the temporary event space created by the community. On a sunny end-of-summer Saturday afternoon most of them were completely empty. Regardless of this, some of the retrofit proposals include renderings of new plazas. Makes you wonder if they’ve actually been to the area. No more underperforming squares, thanks!”
The underlying problem is that the managers of urban infill projects have good intentions to provide new public spaces, but no one effectively manages public space at the scale of the entire neighborhood. Currently it’s not very clear what urban form or community-related goals (beyond adding housing, jobs, and services) individual projects should help to accomplish.
As a result, architectural competitions and detailed plans are reviewed and processed individually. This increases pressure for each of them “needing” to prove the public good is not forgotten. It may be tempting to include that wonderful plaza.
Something like strategic neighborhood-level visions would help, but they don’t exist. With every new development project, it’s worthwhile to stop and ask whether that new plaza in it is really needed. Likely, the neighborhood already has a few lifeless plazas waiting to benefit from an increase in density. Some form of catchment analysis is usually done with other services, why not extend it to plazas as well?
In some rare cases, it could even be considered that an existing underperforming plaza gets developed or repurposed for the sake of the whole. This will of course not be an easy task.
At the Scale of Cities
The things we build around plazas must also be considered. With completely new neighborhoods the number and location of plazas at least should be easy to solve, right? Maybe in theory, but practice shows that also these masterplanned projects often fail to establish frameworks that support vibrant public life.
The brownfield site Jätkäsaari is a good lens to look at this. Especially because it is built as a direct extension to downtown Helsinki and with an ambition to make the area also feel like that. The foreseen hustle and bustle is facilitated by e.g. increased density and attempting a revival of the perimeter block.
The feature of interest there is a pedestrian alley that runs between a few of the blocks and connects a string of four small plazas. In terms of massing and plaza dimensions there is a true sense of cityness in the air. Many local urbanists consider this setting a sign of hope that the urban is finally returning into urban planning.
But there’s a problem in paradise. The plazas are just as dead as elsewhere. I of course don’t expect to find Times Square here, but getting some “urban feel” would need a little public life around, too.
The entire area is not yet finished, but already now it’s quite evident that the vibrancy is unlikely to emerge. The dimensions of the plazas may be spot on, but their edges are mostly blank walls. I mean there are doors to apartment buildings, bike storage, and other technical facilities, but few possibilities for establishing services to make the plazas a destination people would want to reach.
Passersby will also be few. Jätkäsaari may be denser than most new neighborhoods, but the area around the plazas is overwhelmingly residential. Areas without a diversity of uses are likely to be empty for most of the day. There is little reason to be in Jätkäsaari unless you live there.
The number one fan of chaotic street life, Jane Jacobs, warned not to approach planning with simple or piecemeal solutions. To create or sustain urban vibrancy, she argued for a deep understanding of many interrelated elements like a mix of uses, small blocks, density, and many more. Jacobs’s teachings are a bit like scaling Whyte’s analysis of successful plazas to the neighborhood level.
From this perspective, Jätkäsaari’s development doesn’t look very promising. First, architects and planners designed an entire area for 18 000 residents in their separate offices (and made sure it will become helicopter-view friendly). Then developers/builders took over, opened an excel spreadsheet, and started working with pre-destined land uses, gross floor areas, and parking. Urban life has a low priority, if a priority at all.
Ideally, the process would begin with the consideration of the public realm and what’s needed to ensure the neighborhood becomes attractive for 21st century urban dwellers. Designing the rest will follow later. An even better idea would be to get rid of the centralized design-and-build-from-scratch model altogether. And begin building cities in small increments and with small developers.
A Shift Towards Creating Places
There are surely many other things that contribute to the landscape of lifeless plazas as well. But the main point is that it’s not a very easy problem to solve with today’s planning methods.
The plazas that do manage to bring people together or have the greatest revitalization potential are in the older parts of our cities. These neighborhoods have grown organically and through times when street life was abundant due to necessary everyday activities. Public life was at the core of city shaping.
Now urban spaces are generated following a very different logic. Today’s city and plaza-building would benefit greatly if there was more multi-scale thinking involved. And at each scale, our priorities must be reconsidered, too. “Italian piazzas” are unlikely to happen if we don’t center having them as a goal and align everything else to work in that direction.
It’s not going to be easy or quick. A place-led approach will require making our governance and planning models more horizontal. Otherwise we won’t be able to tackle all the interrelated dimensions that feed into the process of creating places. Helsinki’s new organizational structure, based on squeezing around 30 isolated departments into four thematic divisions, is a welcome step in the right direction.
To deliver great public plazas, we’d still need the divisions to work together and to partner up with community members and the development industry. Placemaking is a collective effort.
Until then, it’s healthy to be skeptical about the future those renderings of bustling public plazas promise to deliver.