“Within the dense press of the built fabric,
the greatest luxury of all is, empty space”
– Spiro Kostof

Public space, the common ground intended to transcend all social, economic and political barriers and provide a platform accessible to people from all walks of life and form the essence of urban life. According to classical principles of urban planning, public spaces are typically ‘open spaces’ like parks, squares, plazas and streets. From the ancient agoras of Greece to the contemporary High Line Park, an elevated park in New York City; public spaces have constantly evolved in their morphology yet always stayed at the heart of city life.

Cities are expanding, sprawling outside their limits and increasing in density; this increase in the infrastructure of cities has had adverse effects on the quantity and quality of public spaces. In today’s digital age, where social media platforms and virtual forums are becoming the primary means of social discourse, the existing definition of public space is also evolving to find a place in the current context of urban life. As public life is getting more centered around transit routes; metro stations, sidewalks, elevated walkways are becoming the pivotal public spaces. The new age public spaces need to strike a balance between the ever-shrinking land resource and the transitory nature of trends of the millennial age.

Public space needs to instigate the user, have a “lingering effect” and interact with the daily life of its users for a successful impact. A versatility in the use of a public space and its ability to adapt with changing context ensures the longevity in the use of that space. Public spaces and their design today, tackle not only the agenda of providing a place for public interaction and respite, but also key issues like urban regeneration, re-vitalization of older communities and re-purposing of the existing neglected infrastructure of the city.

Let us look at some examples illustrating the same.

In the concrete sprawl of New York City, the High Line Elevated Park is a unique space with an experiential quality unique to it. The transformation of the Westside Industrial railway track into this lush public promenade offering views of the city through several blocks has led to an immediate revival of the surrounding areas. The High Line project has led to the activation of all the areas in its impact zone, it is designed as a meandering pathway inspired by the wild landscape that emerged on the tracks after their abandonment. The paving system allows for the vegetation to take form naturally and also has parts of the old track incorporated paying an ode to the memory of the place. Furthermore, there are several design interventions like water features, sun-decks, picnic seating etc. inviting the users to spend time in the space.

Evolution of Public Spaces in Contemporary Urban Life - Sheet1A seating area along the High Line offering a view of the street below Source:httpss://www.thehighline.org/

The High Line offers views of staggering tall behemoth cityscape through the soft lens of a greenscape, its impact on the city has been so remarkable that it has led to the conception of many more linear park projects everywhere.

The green corridor cutting through the urban fabric.
Source: https://www.thehighline.org/

Another project which led to urban regeneration on a large scale is The Cheonggyecheon River Park in Seoul, Korea. Originally the site of an elevated freeway, the stream had deteriorated into an open sewer and the freeway’s underside also fell into disarray. The regeneration project saw to the revival of the stream and the creation of a multi functional linear park. The linear park has now become the central space in city life, it is used for cultural events, for recreation and most of all provides a renewed habitat for plants and animals. It has even shown environmental benefits by lowering the overall temperatures in the area.

Evolution of Public Spaces in Contemporary Urban Life - Sheet3A peculiar experience of crossing over a stream in an urban metropolis Source: https://inhabitat.com

This riverfront space provides an escape in the heart of the city, it is a now a site for flourishing flea markets, major events and art installations. It has made the surrounding areas thrive and is a safe, accessible to all haven amidst the chaos of the city.

Evolution of Public Spaces in Contemporary Urban Life - Sheet4The Riverpark well-lit and active even at night
Source: https://designtoimprovelife.dk

Superkilen in Copenhagen, Denmark is a contemporary public space with a surrealistic aesthetic. A mile-long park envisioned to support diversity, the project is a unique collaboration between an architecture, landscape and art firm- BIG (Bjarke Ingles Group), Topotek1 and SUPERFLEX. It is this unique confluence which has yielded in this heterotopic urban park which combines park benches from Brazil, playground slides from Chernobyl, neon signages from the Middle East etc.  in a curved landscape folding in pedestrian paths, bike tracks, etc.

It is divided into three zones, first, the vivid red square which aims to engage users into interaction through physical activities and games. It is also the location of the marketplace on the weekends. It has a fitness area, a Thai-style boxing rink and biking tracks as well.

Evolution of Public Spaces in Contemporary Urban Life - Sheet5The amber hued plaza
Source: www.archdaily.com

Next is the psychedelic black square with its undulating surface and waves moving, curving and turning around the objects in the square to create a doppler-effect like diagram. The pattern on the floor in this square is placed at the foreground to create interest, the square also features a Moroccan-themed fountain, a very traditional element placed in an avant-garde space.

Evolution of Public Spaces in Contemporary Urban Life - Sheet6The black square with its undulating topography
Source: www.archdaily.com

The last portion of this park, the green park which offers a familiar lush landscape of soft mounds punctuated by trees and playing fields. It is designed keeping in mind families, with spaces for picnics, games and sun-bathing spots.

Evolution of Public Spaces in Contemporary Urban Life - Sheet7The green landscaped park
Source: www.archdaily.com

The park is a unique blend of various space typologies targeted to engage users from different walks of life and embrace the diversity of the population residing in the neighboring areas. With a significant migrant population in the area, the various objects and sentiments from around the world integrate the global culture with whimsy and create a truly inclusive space.

Evolution of Public Spaces in Contemporary Urban Life - Sheet8An overview of the Superkilen
Source: www.archdaily.com

Millennium Park, a 17-acre park with interactive public art, fountains, water features and gardens has become an attraction for tourists and residents alike in the city of Chicago. It is home to several prominent works of art, the most iconic being Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate Sculpture whose metallic sheen fabulously reflects the skyline of Chicago has become a major part of the image of the city.

Evolution of Public Spaces in Contemporary Urban Life - Sheet9An overview of Millennium Park
Source: www.planning.org

The park was envisioned as a “gift” to the residents of the city, it completely transformed the ground-level parking and commuter railroad track space into a sprawling public centre which houses a multi-level car park and commuter rail station underneath it. By incorporating into the transit network of the city, Millennium Park is not only more accessible, but it further facilitates the use of public transit and pedestrian friendly spaces.  The park also houses the Jay Pritzker Pavilion designed by Frank Gehry at its centre. With its steel trellis spanning over the central lawn, the pavilion often hosts many musical concerts and events. Another major attraction is the Crown Fountain with its two fifty-foot tall towers separated by a wading pool. The towers are equipped with LCD screen which feature the portraits of the citizens of Chicago.

Such place-making elements are interspersed throughout the park which makes the stroll through this park a very enriching and engaging experience. The park design also employs features of universal design making it truly accessible to all, it also regularly hosts free events and thus, creates a space dedicated to people.

These are just few of the many examples of contemporary public spaces which better the quality of life in metropolitan cities, provide spaces for recreation, interaction and relief and are designed for the diverse populations of cities.


Asis Kaur, a student of Architecture with an inquisitive outlook, striving to curate her jumble of constant thoughts and ideas of architecture into a succinct composition.

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