The Power of Public Realm

8 February 2017

As published in 'Connected Cities'

Connecting people and places, revitalising cities and improving the urban landscape – creatively developed public spaces can do so much.

Simon Bee
Managing Director – Global Design

As a European architect, I always instinctively take to the streets of a new city to explore on foot. There is no better way to understand the makeup of a place than to walk it, step by step, to discover its secrets. It is one of the most rewarding parts of any new project to tread the boards and find the true spirit of the location.

Now I am based in Hong Kong, a great global city, but with a very different set of urban imperatives than, say, Rome or Paris. Life at Benoy gives me the opportunity to travel across the region on a regular basis, and it is fascinating to compare, perhaps, the ‘Garden City’ ideals of Singapore with the gridiron plan and laneways of Melbourne, or even the wide and narrow streets of Chengdu.

I recently found myself in downtown Seoul, with time to explore the area, between meetings that I could conveniently connect on foot. I covered a lot of ground that day, following my nose through the many varied streets – some beautifully landscaped, some retaining traffic and some pedestrianised, but all with a distinctive and energetic atmosphere.

Seoul has a unique array of typically four to six storey blocks addressing many of the street frontages – a particular typology of mixed-use shophouses creating a vibrant and unique urban flavour. 

Many of these blocks had open terraces, balconies and roof decks with a neat blend of homes, restaurants, cultural facilities and showrooms, and many were interconnected by bridges at the upper levels. Together in clusters of varying sizes, they presented an engaging and special street frontage amongst the taller buildings.

While wandering these streets, I discovered the river walk known as Cheonggyecheon, an 11km section of resurrected waterway which acts simultaneously as urban linkage and linear park. Originally a natural creek, but later a neglected and stinking drain, and eventually buried under massive road infrastructure, it was painstakingly uncovered and restored, opening in 2005 as a public amenity. It is a significant urban artery, reconnecting the city and its historic and cultural roots.   

Although at first not universally welcomed, Cheonggyecheon has recreated the unique natural environment of the watercourse whilst linking the previously disconnected north and south downtown districts, creating the climate for a new urban structure and catalysing new development. The park's popularity is increasing and it has been praised as a remarkable success in terms of urban renewal and the provision of new public realm. 

This piece of regeneration is a perfect example of a big brave idea unravelling the blight of the past and providing the framework for an optimistic future. 

A colleague later suggested an interesting parallel with the High Line in New York, an equally influential linear park project. The brand of this 1.5km elevated park punches well above its weight, its reputation travelling far and wide. 

Like Cheonggyecheon, it is a post-industrial restoration creating a delightful urban armature by repurposing disused railway viaducts. It makes new connections and places, amenity and ecological opportunities. At the same time, it creates new addresses and enhances property values.  Attention to detail, urban originality and the use of new landscape technology are exemplary.

Beating Hong Kong Traffic

Back in Hong Kong, my team at Benoy have recently been involved with the campaign to pedestrianise a section of Des Voeux Road Central (DVRC); a 1.5km strategic thoroughfare in downtown Hong Kong currently compromised by traffic congestion, limited pedestrian provision and poor air quality. 

There are many potential design approaches to this opportunity but the core strategy of a creating a prime piece of public space for locals and visitors alike is sound and comes in the form of a linear park, in fact.

This is a very significant place in the street pattern, influenced by the topography of the original waterfront, strong rail and ferry connections, and also beautifully linked into the wider urban grain of the Central district. There is clearly the potential to catalyse public realm improvement to the whole area between Pedder Street, the Western Market and uphill towards Hollywood Road, SoHo and beyond. 

The potential of this campaign was demonstrated one Sunday in September, when, under the banner ‘WALK DVRC’, the road was closed to all traffic except the beautiful historic trams, and the available space was given to community projects, street markets, children’s activities and urban sports – a remarkable transformation.

This is an important initiative and one that we will continue to champion with our ‘WALK DVRC’ colleagues. DVRC can be as important for Hong Kong as Cheonggyecheon is for Seoul.

Public space and landscape are the glue that knits together the fabric of our best cities. What really sets apart the good examples is not only eye-opening design and detail quality, but an underlying relevance and intelligent reinterpretation of historic context. 

This is the essence of true placemaking – identifying how a new public space can make a civic contribution and a connection with local people and visitors alike.  It then becomes a powerful catalyst for the future evolving cityscape.

Join Benoy and the Urban Land Institute (ULI) for an evening discussion on 'Connected Cities' in Hong Kong, 16 February 2017. For the event details, click here

Image 2: The revived Cheonggyechen River Walk in Seoul

Image 3: Des Voeux Road Central Concept Design by Benoy

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