It is no secret that we at Lvblcity are great fans of Jane Jacobs. Her human-orientated view upon city life and diversity inspires us in most of our thinking. This is not only true for us, but probably for most contemporary planning students, and urbanists in general. Holding the Jane’s Walk festival last year in Stockholm, and this year in Groningen (led by my friend and co-author Lior Steinberg), we try to spread her message.
Like within any functional religion, we don’t take the words of our messiah literally. The main book urbanists refer to when talking about Jacobs is ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, published in 1961. Still, the message presented in it is one of the most fundamental if one wants to describe current ideologies in planning practice and theory. However, we can’t forget that our society, technology, economy, and thereby our cities have changed in many ways since Jacobs wrote her book. Critical thinking is therefore, as always, important when applying her ideas, or anyone else's.
Talking to the landscape architect
Recently I talked to Erik Käll, a biologist and landscape architect who’s working for the municipality of Örebro, a midsized city in the heart of Sweden. I met Erik last year while doing a study on the impact of a railroad that divides Örebro in two separate sides, and then again, at a meeting of the Union of Baltic Cities.
Currently Erik and his colleagues are working on implementing micro-parks in the city. During spring of 2014, two, more or less forgotten, places in the city have been identified to be transformed into such parks, not much larger than 50 m2. Käll and his colleagues engaged the public in the project, by inviting them to send in ideas for the shaping of the parks.
The reason for building these micro parks in Örebro is to give space back to the people. Places that are now unused, not because of a bad location, but mostly because they have nothing to offer or are inaccessible, will be spots where people can go to play and relax.
Jane Jacobs 4 criteria
Looking from Jacobs’ perspective, I think that these parks have a high chance of succeeding. According to her there are four criteria to a good park design. First, intricacy, which means that the park should stimulate a variety of users, and repeating users. The micro parks in Örebro, due to their location, seem to fulfil this criteria. Both parks will lay in the centre of the city and are surrounded by both housing and shops, which means that not only the residents living in the area will use the parks, but also visiting shoppers.
Second, centring, which implies that the park should be located in places where many people naturally pass by, like a crossroad. The first park, located at the back of a big shopping mall in the centre of the city, is a place like that. Currently it is a small square that is not inviting to people due to a lack of places to sit. But many people pass the square, and the only place to sit in the square, a staircase to a larger square and an old entrance to the shopping mall. This indicates that there is a demand, but insufficient supply. A gap that the micro park will probably fill.
The third criteria to a good park design is sunlight. From the times that I walked by the square it always seemed drenched in sunlight. The previous mentioned lack of benches, are probably one of the reasons why the place is currently not used to its full potential.
Finally, the fourth criteria of good park design is enclosure, by buildings, and ensuring a diversity of surroundings. Given the central location of the square, and the earlier mentioned mix of uses (residential, shopping, offices, and entertainment), it has the potential to draw visitors around the clock.
Are Jane's criteria comprehensive?
Important to notice here is that Jacobs criteria for park design only apply to the social life of the park. More specifically, how to ensure that the park will be full of life. As a biologist, Käll has a different perspective on the micro parks. Sure, he designed the parks for humans, but there is more to a park than the people that visit it.
Käll has his own four points, which focus more on the importance of parks, and their trees, in general. Parks are visually appealing, they contribute to biological diversity, they absorb CO2, and, most importantly, they bind particles that are released from the rubber tires of cars.
In the case of Örebro it seems like both the criteria of Jacobs and Käll are incorporated in the design. Comparing the two perspectives on parks also makes clear how we think about planning in different ways, and therefore emphasizes the idea that we have to plan holistically. Only in cooperation of disciplines we can come to the best solutions.