Think Public Space
Work title: Urban Ligament - Agent of Social Change
As ligaments in the human body serve to connect unrelated elements such as muscle to bone and bone to cartilage, so public space in a city links disparate parts of an urban environment from private space to city street and city street to sidewalk and so forth. Like the ligaments in a body, a public space take no independent shape of its own, but is formed by the physical context surrounding it. While it can at times be perceived as more subordinate to the architecture surrounding it, public space is a reliable and vital piece of urban infrastructure enabling each part of the city to do its work.
The submitted proposal examines the role that small scale interventions can play even in tight physical environments to provide spatial transitions to surrounding areas while also serving as a catalyst for social interaction. The focus of the study is Paris and of special concern is the tension between the established upper-middle class of the wealthy districts or the "beaux quartiers" and the mostly African immigrant population living in the suburbs or the "banlieue". A large portion of the Muslims in the banlieue are second generation descendants from former French colonies and often feel excluded from mainstream Parisian society. The growing socio-spatial segregation over the decades has led to extremist groups and large scale rioting and violence has resulted in recent years.
A train station becomes a legitimate intersection where these two groups meet every day. The public sidewalk in front of the train station "Gare du nord" was chosen as the location for a spatial intervention intended to visually connect the main entry with the adjacent suburban station while providing a place for social interaction. Similar to a ligament in the body made of one continuous tissue, a form is poured out of "hempcrete" using free form concrete shaping techniques as one uninterrupted piece of sculpture with unexpected twists and turns, creating receptacles for trees, landscaping and seating of different heights for different ages. The immediate floor of the sidewalk is also paved with the same material connecting the cluster of shapes and drawing visitors into the special shared area. The amorphous shapes are choreographed to frame areas for social engagement for larger groups of people or only a few. The forms resonate with the unpredictable and sometimes illogical nature of chance encounters in the city and provide contrast to the more controlled architecture of the train station.
As a sustainable alternative to concrete, hempconcrete is made from the natural fibers of the hemp plant and absorbs large quantities of CO2, while releasing oxygen back to the atmosphere. The material is waterproof, making it ideal for a landscape receptacle. As a natural acoustical absorber, hempcrete reduces noise around the busy train station creating a sense of rest and calm. The Japanese Maple tree was chosen for the landscaping for its low hanging sculptural branches, shallow horizontal root system and ability to endure hot and cold extremes. The receptacles allow for vegetation in urban environments that lack access to natural ground, reimagining the space into a pocket urban forest or mini arboretum. It becomes a place to meet, wait for the next train or a place to have lunch in the shade. The public seating becomes everyone''s resting place on safe and neutral territory, providing the passing public an excuse to linger, a reason to be detained.
The enhancement now becomes not only a spatial ligament but a social one as well. Not only do the shapes visually link the fragmented train station entrances, they also connect completely unrelated social groups that would otherwise never meet. Unlike architectural buildings which are often constructed to house a specific group of people (e.g. an office, school or religious institution), public space has the unique ability to capture the full spectrum of social diversity through unplanned encounters. Combined with other social efforts, policies and education, public space can become a meaningful tool to positively shape our thinking about different social groups through casual everyday exposure. With growing social inequality and the tendency towards extremism and segregation in cities today, the need to create more inclusive and equitable societies is a challenge. A robust network of public spaces in well planned areas can be a preventative measure to promote integration and strengthen overall social health. Pubic space in this sense serves an important civic function as it fulfills a deeper purpose as an agent of social change.