How to activate and improve public spaces in a collaborative way

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The Plan for the Activation and Improvement of Public Space in the Amara Berri neighborhood of Donostia-San Sebastián prepared by Paisaje Transversal is the only urban planning project to receive an award at the fifteenth edition of the Spanish Architecture and Urbanism Biennial (XV BEAU). In addition to the PAM! the jury selected two other Paisaje Transversal projects linked to the integral urban regeneration of the Historic Center (Nucli Antic) of Olot and the neighborhood La Cacharra – Seminario in Avila.

This recognition is in addition to our inclusion in the Spanish Pavilion of the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2021. So Paisaje Transversal is the only architecture and urbanism team participating in both biennials.

The challenge of improving and activating public spaces in cities

Doesn’t public space exist? Although it is in its political meaning, which defines it as the sphere of coexistence and socialization of social diversity when it comes to its physical materialization we can think that it is nothing more than an entelechy, an urban legend. In its origins, public space was an essential element for the construction of democratic and livable cities. However, over the centuries it has lost its potential as a political space and a space for community relations, to the point of sometimes becoming an irrelevant or conflictive element. One of the great challenges for urban planning and city councils in the coming years will be to promote projects to transform public space into places that promote social cohesion, diversity and inclusion, and healthy urban life.

From these reflections, the Plan for the Activation and Improvement of Public Space (PAM!) of Amara Berri in Donostia-San Sebastian was born. The PAM! consists of an urban strategy for the transformation of the network of squares and streets of the neighborhood, developed through the methodology of the Triple Dimension and the tool of Participatory Indicators [InPar]. It incorporated citizen participation and the intersectional gender perspective as the backbone of the project. The result was a Plan with more than 20 actions ranging from tactical urban planning interventions to complete renovations of squares through collaborative design processes.

Thus, under the slogan «Network of spaces and networked spaces» we built a Plan that focuses on the characterization of each of the public spaces -to make them comfortable, active, and attractive- and on the connectivity and complementarity between them -to build an accessible, dynamic and diverse network-.

PAM! Action Plan for the Improvement of the Public Space of the Amara Berri neighborhood in Donostia-San Sebastián

From Paisaje Transversal we understand Architecture and Urbanism as a double exercise of complexity management and mediation between the agents that inhabit a territory. We understand the importance of offering an impartial team that acts as an interlocutor and guarantees communication between the actors. But it is not about an element that allows the appeasement of urban conflicts for the sake of the interests of a specific pressure group, but a team that is capable of channeling energies in the collective construction of a common city project from an integral perspective.

Therefore, to understand the complexity of the public space, we rely on citizen participation that allows us to incorporate the knowledge and daily experience of the neighborhood’s neighborhood fabric into the plan.

As a result, we carried out a process of citizen participation to detect as many areas of action as possible that require intervention to solve the problems that neighbors of all ages, technical staff, and public representatives can detect by constructing a series of indicators according to the axes of the triple dimension of public space: Accessibility and Connectivity, Comfort and Image and Uses and Management.

In addition, five cross-cutting perspectives enrich the whole process: gender, the elderly, children, cultural diversity, migrants, and functional diversity.

Integrated urban analysis

But the PAM! is not a participatory process. It is an urban plan. And therefore, one of the most relevant points linked to the diagnosis of the PAM! was the elaboration of an integrated urban analysis according to the themes Mobility and Connectivity, Accessibility and Safety, Comfort, Green, Public Space Facilities, Landscape and Urban Image, Activity, Use of Public Space and Management-Communication.

For each of them, indicators were calculated by consulting available data and fieldwork. Subsequently, all this information was georeferenced and visualized through the application of Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

This analysis allowed the elaboration of a series of cartographies through which to visualize the problems of the neighborhood. In addition, these maps also made it possible to make the abstract information of the various urban studies carried out comprehensible. In this way, a series of preconditions were established that fed the collaborative design process. In this way, the participatory process was able to have a solvent base that allowed the development of quality, informed, and traceable citizen participation.

This analysis made it possible to define the quantitative indicators of sustainability and urban vulnerability of the area, which were subsequently crossed with the qualitative perceptions coming from the participatory activities through the [InPar] tool.

The cross-referencing of quantitative data provided by the technical analysis and the qualitative data from the participatory process made it possible to detect problems and needs and to begin to design improvement proposals.

Designing and planning improvement actions

Incorporating all these aspects when planning the actions to be carried out in the neighborhood makes it possible to obtain an integral x-ray of the complexity of the public space, capable of suggesting the general keys for the future urban transformation, without ignoring the different singularities and particularities that are essential to building an inclusive diagnosis.

As a result, a Plan was obtained with more than 20 actions ranging from tactical urban planning interventions to complete renovations of squares through collaborative design processes, including active and safe itineraries. The Plan sets out a 10-15 year roadmap for Amara Berri to transform its public space from an inclusive, healthy and sustainable perspective.

Thanks to these tools, the technical teams that act as mediators between the various actors operating in the territory, we can transform the demands and claims of citizens into proposals that respond to the complexity and comprehensiveness of the reality on which we act to avoid repeating the excesses and urban development dysfunctions inherited from the years of the real estate bubble.

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