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Venice. A utopia; surrounded and divided by water; which attracts tourists all year round. When I first arrived it struck me that this constantly booming city means every corner is in constant use, yet as Venice is a city constantly invaded by water we need to ask; does a sinking city use a different type of public space?

The lecture given by, Dr Georgiana Varna on Measuring Public Space: The Star Model makes us think about public space, however first;

 What is a public space?

Essentially a public space can take many forms as different people have different ideas of what a public space is[1]. Although there are conditions to make up a public space;

 

  • Comfort
  • Relaxation
  • Passive Engagement
  • Active Engagement
  • Discovery[2]

Jan Gehl explains the variety of different activities within a public space;

Compulsory; going to school/ work, shopping, waiting for a bus/ person; so basically everyday tasks that include a lot of walking[3].

Optional activities; taking a walk to get a breath of fresh air, standing around enjoying life, or sitting and sunbathing[4].

Social activities includes; children playing, greetings and conversations, communal activities and passive contacts which is basically seeing and hearing people. This social aspect can occur in many different places such as, in dwellings outdoor spaces, gardens, balconies, public buildings, or where you work, etc.[5]

Whilst I was in Venice the tidal action of the sea took full affect and a state of emergency was declared as, St Mark’s Square, the main public space of Venice was submerged in 6ft of water[6]. In an attempt to keep movement through the main public areas the Venetian’s lay out walkways, which they connect together.

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Witnessing this first hand I could see the walkways having limited affect on the battle against the tide, yet Venice is flooded minutes after council rejects climate crisis plan[7], if no better action is taken it seems the public space within Venice would be unique.

Thinking of this I asked myself; where is the public space in Venice? There are many different elements within Venice; the canals, paths, bridges, open squares. From what I observed each of these elements were used as place for people to meet and socialize, however, because the paths in between the buildings are so narrow, very little space is left for people to actually stop without causing mass hysteria. A path needs to be in conjunction with the buildings or other uses that order it for it to mean something[8], so it seemed these narrow streets don’t allow this for every kind of activity, explained by Gehl and Dr Varna, so they seem as though they can’t make up the qualities needed for a good public space.

Due to the congestion of the main streets leading to and from larger areas, people seemed to take the paths alongside of the canals, which changed the public dynamic of Venice. This change meant these paths along the canal were used to do compulsory, optional or social activities. Bridges, specifically the, Ponte de Rialto, were used for many different reasons, to visit one of the cafes, visit shops or use it just to meet up with people.

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I observed people congregating on the smaller bridges, which crossed over the narrower parts of the canal, whether it was to see a gondolier or the rotting brickwork. Kevin Lynch would describe these types of areas as different elements to paths called nodes;

“Nodes are points, the strategic points in a city into which an observer can enter, and which are the intensive foci to and from which he is traveling. They may be primarily junctions, places of a break in transportation, a crossing or convergence of paths, moments of shift from one structure to another.” [9]

Within Venice, bridges and paths, from my experience, both seem to be used as public spaces, however bridges are more used as a point where people socialise, and paths along the canals seem to be used for compulsory, optional and social activities. According to Lynch;

“The concept of node is related to the concept of path, since junctions are typically the convergence of paths, events on the journey.”[10]

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From this it seems most important public realms within Venice seem to be bridges and paths around the canals and how they flow into each other. So even though Venice continues to have troubles with the sea, the public spaces already seem to be occurring outside of the large squares and parks within Venice.

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[1] Varna, G. 2019, Measuring Public Space: The Star Model, Principles and Practice of Urban Design TCP8090, Newcastle University, delivered 31/10/19

[2] Varna, G. 2019, Measuring Public Space: The Star Model, Principles and Practice of Urban Design TCP8090, Newcastle University, delivered 31/10/19

[3] Jan Gehl, “Three types of outdoor activities, Life between buildings, Outdoor activities and the use of outdoor space”, The city reader. LeGates, R. and Stout, F. (2011).  5th ed. Taylor & Francis Group. p532

[4] Jan Gehl, “Three types of outdoor activities, Life between buildings, Outdoor activities and the use of outdoor space”, The city reader. LeGates, R. and Stout, F. (2011).  5th ed. Taylor & Francis Group. p533

[5] Jan Gehl, “Three types of outdoor activities, Life between buildings, Outdoor activities and the use of outdoor space”, The city reader. LeGates, R. and Stout, F. (2011).  5th ed. Taylor & Francis Group. p533

[6] BBC 2019, “Venice floods: Climate change behind highest tide in 50 years, says mayor”, accessed 30/12/2019, <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-50401308>

[7] Angela Giuffrida, The Guardian 2019, “Venice council flooded moments after rejecting climate crisis plan”, accessed 30/12/2019, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/15/venice-council-flooded-moments-after-rejecting-climate-crisis-plan>

[8] Jane Jacobs, “The uses of sidewalks: safety”, The city reader. LeGates, R. and Stout, F. (2011).  5th ed. Taylor & Francis Group. P106

[9] Kevin Lynch, “The city image and its elements”, The city reader. LeGates, R. and Stout, F. (2011).  5th ed. Taylor & Francis Group. P502

[10] Kevin Lynch, “The city image and its elements”, The city reader. LeGates, R. and Stout, F. (2011).  5th ed. Taylor & Francis Group. P502

Image References

[1] Smith, M (2019), St Mark’s Square flooded

[2] Smith, M (2019), Walkways Within St Mark’s Square

[3] Smith, M (2019), Walkways Within St Mark’s Square

[4] Smith, M (2019), Small Bridge Over Canal

[5] Smith, M (2019), Bridge Connecting to Canal

[6] Smith, M (2019), Bridge Connecting to Canal

One response to “Is there a different type of public space within a sinking city?”

  1. Thank you, Matthew, the blog overall really justified the users affect of what one can experience when visiting public spaces in Venice. You have mentioned the existence of public spaces, despite the current crisis of climate change has an affect but are there other factors to consider in the betterment of these public spaces? What struck me the most on my visit, was the invasion of tourist in the open spaces of Venice. Almost “30 million people visiting per year” [1], I began thinking if this has an impact on the social mixing between the locals and the outsiders. As alienating as it may sound, it raises questions of whether public spaces are falling under the “bare commodities of economic drivers” [2]. Much like Venice, Zanzibar, “a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania” [3] also faces a similar situation. In spite of the financial gain tourism market has on Zanzibar, it is the tourist that accentuate the problem and the development of public spaces. From the perspective of “the right to the city” [4], while authorities reclaim public space primarily for tourist uses, it may not be necessarily how the locals would use the same space. This bring us to the topic of ownership which could have a positive or negative impact on social mixing (Varna, 2019). On another point, there is a significant amount of literature on public space, however, the examples are narrowed from the developing world. In Tanzania, 81% of livelihood of workforce depends on the access to public spaces [5]. However, due to a certain economic role, it is largely ignored. Are we really manifesting the social, cultural norms and political practices of public space? How much tourism industry is to blame in achieving a good public place? Although public spaces are considered as a public property, there should be some sense of control to which social balance between the different user groups, religion and culture can be achieved.

    References

    [1] Warren, K. (2019). Venice is cutting back on cruise ships. Disappointing photos show what the Italian port city looks like in real life, from extreme overcrowding and devastating floods to cruise ship accidents. [Blog] Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/disappointing-photos-show-venice-italy-expectation-vs-reality-2018-12?r=US&IR=T [Accessed 12 Jan. 2020].
    [2] Varna, G., (2019). Measuring Public space: the Star Model [Online Recap Lecture] Available at: https://campus.recap.ncl.ac.uk/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=f1c030cf-fc1b-43cc-b8e1-aaf6014a88b5 [Accessed 29 Dec. 2019].
    [3] En.wikipedia.org. (2020). Zanzibar. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zanzibar [Accessed 12 Jan. 2020].
    [4] Bergman, A. (2014). A Struggle for Public Space A Case Study of Three Parks in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Postgraduate. Stockholm University.
    [5] Brown, A. (n.d.). Claiming rights to the street: the role of public space and diversity in governance of the street economy. Cardiff University.

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School of Architecture
Planning and Landscape
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tyne and Wear, NE1 7RU

Tel: 0191 208 6509

Email: nicola.rutherford@ncl.ac.uk


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