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Tuesday
May072013

The Town Square Initiative

In Las Vegas, the team developed a strategy to transform the streetscape of the city's (in)famous Strip into an ad hoc town square. Image © Gensler

By 2050, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population—some 6.29 billion people—will live in cities, according to data from the United Nations. The pressure to create urban centres that facilitate healthy human social interaction is greater than ever. And it will grow ever more.

Our cities need to become better at what they do. They must provide comprehensive answers to help balance and foster our lifestyles on a global level. The time is now, and those of us who can have an obligation to contribute to—and even to instigate—dialogues on how to best achieve this.

Gensler is taking on this challenge by launching the Reimagining Cities campaign. Each year, our offices around the globe will explore one topic that defines modern cities and seek out, in the places Gensler calls home, ways to demonstrate innovative urban ideas.

In 2012, the Town Square Initiative was the inaugural effort for Reimagining Cities. The primary focus of this yearlong volunteer effort was to reconsider the public open spaces in cities and to explore how we can improve our social capacity through an improved physical urban environment.

We are only now understanding that so many past urban solutions have led us to dysfunctional spaces. How do we avoid replicating previous mistakes? Mistakes, for example, in urban planning and development that sought to streamline a single aspect of infrastructure, such as automotive transportation, at the great expense of the most fundamental of tasks a city performs: bringing people together and enabling social exchange and physical interaction. Today we know that we cannot afford to develop singular answers. Our challenges are multi-faceted, complex questions, and the answers must be equally ambidextrous. Our modern cities need to mirror our modern, multitasking lifestyles.

Today, cities in so-called developed countries are models for the development of cities across the developing world. And developing cities are growing at staggering rates. As economies increase, aspirations of wealth and the associated lifestyles threaten to come at the expense of balanced, society-oriented urban development—much as they did in the developed cities, only now we are looking at much larger scales of intervention. Cities are growing into megalopolises, generating an entirely new set of challenges. Even in the established urban centres across Europe and North America, shifting economies are beginning to grow and merge into significantly larger hubs of social and business activity.

We must therefore understand the challenges we face not only in developing countries, but also in our much admired so-called developed cities. When we look at these established urban centres, we discover fundamental flaws in how we utilise spaces and how we prioritise the use of these spaces. The social functions of public spaces—however utilitarian they may appear to be—are not to be underestimated. The urban fabric is the physical seed bed of our increasingly urban societies. With the modernisation and globalisation of our societies, social structure, responsibility, and accountability seem to be ever more challenged. Our urban public spaces—from streetscapes and waterfronts to parks, civic plazas, and the neighbourhoods we live in—need to contribute to our social awareness; our sense of social purpose and belonging.

From reconsidering the fundamentals of urban design as well as identifying missed opportunities, the Town Square Initiative seeks to recontextualise our existing cities' social environment by exploring innovative approaches and proposing straightforward, multifaceted, future-oriented solutions.

Over the last 12 months more than half of Gensler's offices worldwide engaged in this initiative to improve the urban environment. What we discovered is that despite the very specific and individual challenges different cities across the globe are facing, there are fundamental commonalities that begin to help us understand this effort as a global challenge.

Over the next months we will post here at GenslerOn about individual Town Square projects from across the firm. Please watch this space for news on a Town Square near you!

Mischa Ickstadt is a big city kid who loves the outdoors. Perhaps as a result, he loves finding unique design solutions by combining distinct and differing perspectives. As a landscape architect he continues to be engaged in a variety of interesting challenges across the globe. Contact him at mischa_ickstadt@genlser.com.

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