Filling Public Space with Life

Issue 01/15

Public administrations don’t only create communal space; they must also bring it to life by using it as a backdrop for the celebration of citizen events.

Our cities, large and small, are much more than their buildings, streets and squares. They are the citizens that inhabit them: the men and women who work in them on a daily basis, and the visitors who explore them end up giving them their true identity.


Elmgreen&Dragset: Powerless Structure, Fig. 101, 2012. The Fourth Plinth~Trafalgar Square, London

The atmosphere of cities like Venice, London and Singapore isn’t only defined by their centuries of history, by the fact of being global financial centres or being surrounded by sea, but is the result of the interaction between the groups of people who occupy them and bring them to life.

A key piece in this jigsaw puzzle is town planning, which is why it is essential that public administrations create spaces that will encourage encounters between individuals, spaces in which they can gather, communicate, share pleasure or recreation time. Yet despite being necessary, appropriate urban planning isn’t enough; these spaces have yet to be filled with content. And this is where the same administrations can play a key role—by making sure that their regulations guarantee peaceful co-existence, sustainable for all, favouring the practice of certain healthy activities, or simply promoting the city through public and collective celebrations they will be encouraging neighbours to gather and interact in new contexts, stimulating encounters with visitors.

Ron Mueck: Boy, 1999. Plateau of Humankind, La Biennale di Venezia, 2001. Venice, Italy

Carsten Höller: Golden Mirror Carousel, 2014. NGV~National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

I could quote many examples, although I would like to focus on MulaCity, the Urban Culture Week recently held in the Madrilenian town of Getafe, which I have actively helped to organise. The encounter, promoted by Ifema and Getafe City Council, brought together urban artists, bboyers, illustrators, BMX, skate and street workout practitioners, and other groups and professionals that possess the right qualities to turn any large city into a hive of activity. Whether they were practicing sport in public space or simply sprucing it up with their art, for six days they promoted their hobbies and lifestyles and enjoyed occupying public space with locals and visitors alike. All those present, including me, discovered something new. In my case, I was surprised by a simple elastic cable, the Slackline, that favours concentration and balance. Despite being strictly forbidden in Madrid, it is rapidly gaining followers in places as near by as Barcelona, or as far away as San Diego. Could we have lost the opportunity of bringing energy and spectacle to Madrid’s public spaces?

In short, the celebration of citizen events such as market displays doesn’t only bring new life to urban areas in decline, drawing a greater number of tourists for short periods, but above all it helps extend knowledge between residents and further their interests, eventually enhancing and renewing the personality of cities.