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KTH Centre for the Future of Places: Public Space Research for Vibrant Cities

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“From that knowledge and from research that we’re generating in our 13 current projects, we get new data that helps us see how places work and how people behave in those places.”

Since the birth of democracy in the Athenian agora of the Greek Classical period, public spaces have played an essential role in maintaining urban prosperity, effective governance and social inclusion. The Stockholm-based Centre for the Future of Places operates as a clearing-house for academic research to support visionary urban design.

Professor Tigran Haas, CFP Director, spoke exclusively to The Silicon Review. Below is an excerpt.

Cities are much more than just collections of buildings. They are gathering places for people to live and work, raise families, and create companies. Cities are the frameworks for societies to offer opportunities in every human endeavor, from education to entertainment and from technology to tourism.

By the same token, urban public spaces are much more than just leafy parks or cobblestoned squares. They are the very embodiment of the city as a living, breathing organism, interconnected networks for social and economic discourse. And public spaces are both the result of historic human behaviors and the shapers of future choices. Our common areas foster equality and democracy, and for centuries they have served as bastions of free speech.

Public spaces don’t just happen; they are the result of concrete decisions by planners, architects, urban designers and engaged residents. These decisions are driven by political will, artistic vision and a willingness to expend resources today for a sometimes uncertain payoff – years or decades in the future.

Designed correctly, public spaces are one generation’s gift to the next. But when it’s done wrong, they may be useless eyesores and economic burdens long after their creators have passed from the scene.

The Centre for the Future of Places (CFP) is an active knowledge repository that gathers and distributes academic studies planners who use to make decisions that will be seen in the future as gifts rather than costly eyesores. 

“We collect all the best examples and practices of public spaces around the world—the ones that function as they were intended as well as the ones that don’t,” says Professor Tigran Haas of KTH University in Stockholm, the director of CFP. “From that knowledge and from research that we’re generating in our 13 current projects, we get new data that helps us see how places work and how people behave in those places.”

In effect, CFP is a research center on the future of cities, but with a primary focus on the urban public space component.

“One of our guiding stars is the Danish architect Jan Gehl, who has worked for decades all over the world,” Professor Haas continues. Gehl likes to tell a story from when he met his future wife Ingrid in the early 1960s. She’s a developmental psychologist, and this was a time when architecture — perhaps especially in Scandinavia — was dominated by modernist aesthetics. On one of their first dates, she asked him, “why don’t architects care about people?”

That cities exist for people hardly needs stating, and Professor Haas says CFP aims to bring the needs of urban residents to the forefront. “We want to shift the urban design discussion from objects to places while assembling researchers not only from traditional urban design disciplines but also from humanities and social sciences,” he says.

“Our research includes elements from sociology and anthropology, economics, psychology and even the arts. We look beyond the individual pieces of the built environment to find out how people experience the urban landscape, and whether it fulfills their needs for community, comfort, security and opportunity,” Mr. Haas adds.

The Centre for the Future of Places is an outgrowth of the United Nations’ Habitat III process, a global initiative promoting cities that offer adequate housing, infrastructure, and employment while also addressing sustainability through basic services such as water, energy, and sanitation.

“We collect all the best examples and practices of public spaces around the world—the ones that function as they were intended as well as the ones that don’t.”

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