On the border between Bangladesh and Burma is the largest refugee camp in the world. Nearly one million Rohingya live in plastic and bamboo shacks on land reclaimed from the forest, dug out of the clayey hills. United Nations agencies supporting the camp have started a program to build driveways. The clay brick pavement had just begun and small precarious structures were already sprouting along its edges. There someone sold fruit, others improvised a coffee shop, while local tuk tuks expanded their business within the camp. A completely new economy was being launched thanks to the new infrastructure.
Density as a value
The rapid densification is characteristic of a city that rises from nowhere, where the multiplication of the built structures is associated with an accumulation of wealth, memory, culture and sociality. In the new city, density is a value. It is the product of private interests that possess the energies to support urban development and can, in conditions of absence of rules and administrative weakness, trigger the formation process of the urban economy, appropriating all those empty spaces whose ownership is still undefined. . Some neighborhoods that arose spontaneously on the basis of rules dictated by local traditions or around an urban planning project just mentioned, have sometimes proved to be more liveable than neighborhoods designed by urban planners who have sometimes imposed ways of life and forms of the city extraneous to the culture of the inhabitants.
Le Corbusier “the westerner”
When Le Corbusier designed the urban plan for the Indian city of Chandigarh in the 1950s, he was thinking like a “western” architect and proposing a city fit for cars. But the Chandigarh resident moves on foot or by “poor” means of transport, such as carts pulled by the drivers themselves. Furthermore, the climate and economic conditions favor a life that takes place almost entirely outdoors, on the road. The big squares are full of people who do industry in many small businesses. The result is a city within a city, where the density of activities that take place in public space, outdoors or inside small temporary structures and on a human scale, contrasts with the large scale of urban infrastructures. This dissonance represents the great charm of Chandigarh and decrees the posthumous success of the proposal by the great Swiss architect.
The brownfield is unsolved
Contrary to the new city, the consolidated contemporary city, which has stratified over the centuries, is in need of rarefaction. Its unstoppable expansion must be countered by the emptying of some abandoned or unresolved areas. The emptying and reorganization operation makes it possible to redefine the boundaries between public and private. These are areas without urban planning rules and often illegally occupied, which can be made accessible to everyone. If it is physiological that abandoned areas suffer abusive behavior, it is the public space as a whole, starting from the street and the sidewalk, that suffers the predatory mentality of the common man; whether it is a motorist or a simple citizen, in the absence of clear rules he will tend to consider what is public his private property. But while in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, it is not uncommon to come across residual public areas used by private citizens to grow corn, elsewhere similar areas become places of decay. This subtraction can be curbed only on condition that the local administrations are able to regain the spaces in which they are competent, clearly defining their limits and functions, even by transferring them to citizens’ associations. If on the one hand it is therefore desirable to offer public spaces free from infrastructures and open to any type of social activity, on the other it is necessary that the tools for their control be strengthened (sidewalks and pedestrian crossings are public spaces and their occupation affects the rights of weaker citizens).
Sometimes the transformation of brownfields that span entire neighborhoods has led to the creation of linear urban parks. The New York “High Line”, a green promenade created following the opposition by residents to the demolition of the West Side elevated railway, is the most representative example. There are also interesting experiences in Italy. (Interventions that have been able to revitalize entire neighborhoods as in the case of the linear park built in 2014 over the railway of the popes in the Balduina neighborhood in Rome). The linear parks within the consolidated city, with squares and rest areas, become oases in which to find safety and public services in the suburbs which, starting from these infrastructures, can aspire to their relaunch. The multiplication of new cycle paths responds to the awareness that slow journeys on sustainable vehicles are often the most efficient. The new routes are not only an alternative to traditional roads but are places of socialization, also used for outdoor sports activities.
The “school roads”
In recent years, the need has emerged to dedicate some urban roads to the exclusive use of schools, during the entry and exit hours of children. The project called “school streets”, already widely tested in the rest of Europe, has also been proposed in Italy by offering schoolchildren and parents the street as a primary public space where they can entertain and play safely. The city of New York, between 2007 and 2013, launched an urban regeneration program by closing Times Square to traffic, creating almost five hundred kilometers of cycle paths and creating almost sixty new squares where previously there were small open spaces with unattended parking lots. All this using only colored paints and elements of street furniture with minimal expenses by the administration and great benefits for citizens. His experience, initially contested by everyone and finally accepted by traders as well, is recounted in the volume Streetsfight in which the virtuous example of the city of Bogotá is also described.
Public space is the place of relationships and exchange, of movement and diversity, but after all it is also a physical entity. Its beauty and its architectural qualities are a stimulus for the care and respect on the part of its users. It is the mirror of a society that shows itself to the world and looks at itself for what it is capable of being. If there is a reason to be optimistic, we must look at the spread of neighborhood associations that take care of everyone’s space. A society that overcomes small selfishness and is capable of being indignant against degradation demonstrates that it loves itself and is certainly destined to improve over time.