Six of the best social spaces around the world

What makes the most cherished parts of a city so special? As CityScape Global comes to Dubai, Alyn Griffiths asks the experts to choose their favourite public spaces from around the world

Every city contains key sites to which people gravitate, whether for trade, entertainment, celebration or recreation. In some cities, these public spaces have been at the heart of the community for centuries, while others are the result of recent efforts to make cramped urban centres feel more open and liveable. 

If they get it right, the results can help define the character of a city. Just as the Forum was integral to life in ancient Rome, so Central Park provides New Yorkers with a sanctuary in the heart of Manhattan.

As urbanisation gathers pace and land becomes increasingly scarce, the world’s best parks, plazas and infrastructure projects offer inspiration for a new generation of public spaces that will define our future cities. Here, six specialists explain what makes for a perfect public space.

Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy

Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy

The Piazza del Campo is Siena’s civic and social centre, and is famed as one of Europe’s most magnificently preserved medieval squares. With the town hall as its focal point and grand town houses lining its other edges, the piazza is paved with red bricks divided into a sunburst pattern by seams of travertine stone. Il Campo, built on the site of a Roman marketplace, has been the town’s axis since the 12th century and remains a thriving hub.

Nicholas Adams
Nicholas Adams, Professor of Art on the Mary Conover Mellon Chair, Vassar College, New York

“What is remarkable is that the Piazza del Campo was originally leftover space, too steep or rocky to farm. At the end of the 13th century, cartloads of stone were pulled in to level it out sufficiently to build a great brick town hall, like a dam, along the lower side. The backs of houses along the main streets form the upper edge, and inside is one of the greatest miracles of public space. In November, the fog comes in and fills the basin so people enter and seem to disappear, only to emerge on the other side a few seconds later. In summer, it becomes the site of the Palio, the famous historical horse race, and the walls echo with drums and cheering. Discovering the Campo at the end of a long walk through the city’s winding streets takes one’s breath away and leaves one forever changed.”

Riverbank Precinct, Pedestrian Bridge, Adelaide, Australia

Riverbank Precinct
Pedestrian Bridge
Adelaide, Australia

This bridge, encased in 2,000 square metres of white, curved glass cladding, is part of a masterplan aimed at enlivening an area of Adelaide’s parkland along the banks of the River Torrens. The curving shape is intended to complement the surrounding architecture and encloses an informal amphitheatre, as well as forming a direct link with the arena’s forecourt. The 255-metre-long structure was designed by Sydney firm Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, with urban design and landscape architecture by Taylor Cullity Lethlean and engineering project management by Aurecon.

Kate Cullity, Director, Taylor Cullity
Lethlean landscape architects
Kate Cullity, Director, Taylor Cullity Lethlean landscape architects

“The elegant and singular arc gesture of the Riverbank Bridge provides a vital connection between the city of Adelaide and the recently redeveloped Adelaide Oval. The bridge is respectful of the cityscape and ecology by being sited within, rather than upon, its environment. The Oval end of the arc terminates with a belvedere from which to view the city, while a dramatic water wall that aerates and cleanses water provides visual interest, as well as acting as a screen at night. The bridge transcends its functionality and has become a memorable destination and emblem for the city.”

Bur Dubai and Deira, Dubai, UAE

Bur Dubai and Deira

The areas on either side of the Dubai Creek were key to the city’s commercial and cultural evolution, forming a nexus of trade, worship and entertainment. Many of the country’s best-known souks are situated to the east of the creek in Deira, while the Bur Dubai area contains several important mosques, museums and historic buildings. Together, they offer a fascinating insight into Dubai’s past and present, connected by a waterway that remains a focal point for locals and tourists alike.

Daniel Hajjar
Senior Vice President
and Managing Principal,
HOK architects
Daniel Hajjar, Senior Vice President and Managing Principal, HOK architects

“Separated by the Dubai Creek, the Bur Dubai and Deira area is a uniquely urban place because of its geography, history and development. The creek provided the economic foundation for modern Dubai. One only has to imagine exotic cargo arriving at the Dhow Wharfage, creating a portal city where commodities were exchanged and cultures intermingled. The abra (boat) traffic has linked the two sides of the city for centuries. To this day, the site creates an egalitarian experience for all strata of society, establishing a sense of place that offers a unique experience within the overall context of modern Dubai. It is not a typical or obvious choice when one thinks of an ‘urban place’, but this relatively small site remains the heart, soul and essence of Dubai.”

Campus Martius Park, Detroit, Michigan, US

Campus Martius Park
Detroit, Michigan, US

Situated on a former traffic island at the intersection of several major roads in downtown Detroit, Campus Martius Park provides a green oasis at the heart of one of America’s famous industrial urban centres. An original park covering several acres was lost in the 1900s as the downtown area was reconfigured to accommodate increased vehicular traffic. Today, the 2.5-acre public square designated in 2004 contains botanical gardens, lawns, monuments, fountains, stages and a restaurant, making it a lively hub for year-round entertainment.

Stephen Davies
Co-founder, Executive
Vice President,
Project for Public Spaces
Stephen Davies, Co-founder, Executive Vice President, Project for Public Spaces

“In evaluating thousands of public spaces around the world, we at Project for Public Spaces have found that to be successful, they share four qualities: they are accessible, people are engaged in activities there, the space is comfortable and has a good image and it is a sociable place, where people meet and take visitors. Campus Martius Park covers all of these bases. The square has become Detroit’s living room, and it attracts people from all over the city and beyond with its diverse programming. While there is certainly much more that needs to be done, the city has a centre again, and that’s a definite plus.”

Trafalgar Square, London, UK

Trafalgar Square
London, UK

Trafalgar Square has played a central role in London life for centuries, with its current incarnation providing a popular site for events, celebrations and rallies. The original plans for a public square were drawn up by the architect John Nash in the mid-1820s, with the eventual implemented design developed by Charles Barry in the 1840s. Featuring two large fountains and statues of famous historical figures, including Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and Sir Henry Havelock, the square is flanked by significant landmarks such as the National Gallery, St Martinin- the-Fields Church, Admiralty Arch, Whitehall and the Strand.

Christopher Turner
Deputy Director, London
Design Festival; Director,
London Design Biennale
Christopher Turner, Deputy Director, London Design Festival; Director, London Design Biennale

“Trafalgar Square, at the geographic centre of London, is famous for Nelson’s Column, pigeons and the Fourth Plinth, the site of numerous public art projects by artists like Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread. It has also been the location for some of the London Design Festival’s most memorable interventions, including Jaime Hayon’s outsized chess set, which was opened with a game by grandmasters, and a group of car assemblyline robots that performed a choreographed light show. It is one of the world’s most impressive platforms on which to showcase and excite an audience with the latest thinking in design.”

Yanweizhou Park, Jinhua, China

Yanweizhou Park, designed by Turenscape, was completed in 2015. Situated at the mouth of three rivers in the city of Jinhua, the 26-hectare park provides a public attraction around the city’s opera house. Intended as a flood resistant landscape and habitat for local wildlife, the park incorporates a series of bridges that cross the rivers and connect with a system of meandering pathways. The project was awarded the World Landscape of the Year prize at the World Architecture Festival 2015.

Dr Kongjian Yu
Dr Kongjian Yu President and Principal Designer, Turenscape architects

“Yanweizhou Park is a water-resilient and multifunctional landscape designed to adapt to the monsoon floods, so spaces can be accessed and used by people seeking intimate, shaded spaces in the dry season. The bridge and paths connect the city with nature. It has given the city a new identity.”

CityScape Global 2016 takes place from September 6-8 at the Dubai World Trade Centre