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    The findings, interpretations and conclusions are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Investment Bank.

    Third places

    Two thousand years ago, the Roman architect Vitruvius identified the three most quoted imperatives of well-designed buildings: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, in other words structural integrity, utility, and what can best be translated as delight. Like much of Roman architecture itself, these imperatives have stood the test of time. However, while Vitruvius articulated the foundations for well-designed buildings, he did not highlight their collective responsibility in creating the surrounding public space – the common ground that stitches buildings into the urban fabric of civil society.

    Common grounds, or Third Places, as the urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg called them, are public places that serve as a neutral ground for people to form associations. He describes them as the “great variety of public places that host regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.1” Home, work and the Third Place form an important triad of urban life, with the latter playing the important social function of providing a place for community life. In other words, a Third Place is an integral part of civic life. Most of them give a sense of identity and a place to “belong to” for people who frequent them. It also becomes a place “to see and be seen in”, and a place for real-world social networking.

    © Getty Images

    Base, column, capital and trabeation, ionic order, engraving from “Ten Books on Architecture”, Vitruvius. Edited by Claude Perrault

    Through design, we can create meaningful connections between people, be inclusive irrespective of background, disability or difference, and produce sustainable spaces in recognition of the fact that we do not only inherit our cities but also need to preserve them for successive generations.

    At Foster + Partners, we recognise the immense importance of common ground. Through design, we can create meaningful connections between people, be inclusive irrespective of background, disability or difference, and produce sustainable spaces in recognition of the fact that we do not only inherit our cities but also need to preserve them for successive generations. Over the past 50 years, we have built buildings, regenerated neighbourhoods, and master-planned cities across cultures, climates and continents. This sense of responsibility and sensitivity to common ground permeates all our work. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, there are three imperatives we think common ground should include: it must be social, inclusive and sustainable.


    Public realm and public life

    The interplay between the public realm and public life is intimately intertwined. The most liveable and vibrant cities are those with a rich diversity of public spaces, ranging in scale and function. From the grand piazzas, such as London’s Trafalgar Square, that play host to political demonstrations and cultural spectacles, to the intimate pocket parks, such as New York’s Paley Park, that offer a cocoon of respite for office workers in Manhattan’s busy midtown. Common ground needs to accommodate the largeness of civic events as well as the smallness of everyday life.

    One of the keys to creating successful public spaces is maintaining the balance between the needs of the pedestrian and the car. The democratisation of the car in the early 20th century paved the way for significant investments in vehicular infrastructure, resulting in highways cutting across the city, knotted intersections, and a carpet of carparks. Subsequently, cities have become congested and traffic has become a ubiquitous presence in any urban setting. However, it isn’t just a matter of simply getting rid of all car-based infrastructure. In fact, roads play an important role in the functioning of the city, from essential public services such as ambulances and fire trucks to ubiquitous white vans carrying goods. It is crucial to strike a balance between the infrastructural needs of the city and the vitality that pedestrian routes and pathways bring to the urban realm.

    One of the keys to creating successful public spaces is maintaining the balance between the needs of the pedestrian and the car.

    This approach is exhibited in our refurbishment of Trafalgar Square in London. Historically, the square has been the civic centrepiece of the city, but the nonstop tide of traffic had turned Nelson’s Column and the fountains into a traffic island, visited only by those willing to risk life and limb, and of course, pigeons. There was an obvious need, and support, for change. After consulting over 180 separate institutions and thousands of individuals, as well as forensically analysing the movement of people and vehicles in and around the square, we arrived at a solution that could reclaim the square for the public. The most significant move was the closure of the north side of the square to traffic and the creation of a broad new terrace, which forms an appropriate setting for the National Gallery and links it via a flight of new steps to the heart of the square and its fountains. Below the terrace, also accessible by lifts, a new café with outdoor seating provides a much-needed spot to rest and take in the sights.

    ©Nigel Young/ Foster + Partners

    London, Trafalgar Square. Taken from the balcony of Canada House, this panorama shows how the square has been freed from the traffic congestion that once made it inhospitable.

    After its successful revamp, Trafalgar Square regained its lustre and appeal. Post-occupancy studies show that the closure of the North Terrace has led to an acceptable delay for cars but eased the flow of public transport immeasurably. People have voted with their feet, and the square is now frequented by 13 times the number of pedestrians compared to earlier use. What is more, the National Gallery reported a significant increase in visitor numbers. The square now hosts many annual events, including cultural celebrations, religious festivals, political rallies and commercial events. The diversity of these events reflects the diversity of Londoners, signalling an openness and inclusivity for which London is celebrated.

    More recently, decades of car-centric urbanism had transformed the once grand quayside at Marseille into a car park, with rows upon rows of stationary cars. In the run-up to Marseille’s designation as the City of Culture in 2013, we undertook, with Michel Desvigne, a regeneration project of the port and its surrounding milieu. Our first step was to greatly reduce the number of parked cars, using movable bollards to designate the space as pedestrian, and to relocate the boathouses occupying the harbour’s edge onto purpose-built, floating platforms on the water. These simple yet effective moves allowed the quayside – when re-paved – to be reclaimed as a space for people. The addition of an ombrière, a slender and reflective pavilion, provides shelter from the Mediterranean sun, and frames social events such as markets or the spontaneous crowds gathering around a busker. This symbolic space also became the gathering point of Marseille’s mourning for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations, a moving testament to the importance of common ground in sharing grief and empathy.

    Marseille, Vieux Port © Foster +Partners

    Much like revitalising the civic foci of historic cities, creating new social spaces in cities is crucial to their appeal and liveability. The firm’s work in Duisburg in the 1990s demonstrated that the trend towards clean, quiet industries has the potential to reinvigorate declining urban areas and create sustainable communities for the future, where home, workplace and recreation are all close by. In place of the zoned and functionally segregated city of the 20th century, it offers a 21st century urban paradigm of mixed-use. The masterplan aimed to draw the life of the city to the waterfront, combining the selective refurbishment of the buildings lining the harbour with new construction to provide housing, offices and space for light-industrial uses, together with a wide range of social and cultural amenities. A guiding principle was the creation of a flexible framework that has allowed elements to be developed independently over time by different architects. New infrastructure and public amenities were put in place first to establish the harbour as an attractive place in which to live and work or to visit. A tree-lined promenade was created along the waterfront and canals were excavated as armatures for new housing development. Apartments are grouped in five-storey terraces, which look out over the water or inland to communal gardens.

    In super high-density cities such as Hong Kong, for example, common ground is often in short supply. Adam Frampton’s book Cities Without Ground chronicles Hong Kong’s labyrinthine network of elevated walkways that connect adjacent buildings in a bid to reclaim common ground for pedestrians above the network of inner-city roads. The importance of safeguarding common ground is made more pressing by Hong Kong’s astronomic land values and the shrinking size of dwellings. In the late 1970s, we won the competition to design the new headquarters for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong’s central business district. Acutely aware of the lack of public space in the heart of the city, we decided to lift the building up and create a permeable public plaza at the base of the building, which could be given back to the community. This undercroft has since played host to what can best be described as the city’s largest weekly picnic – a gathering place for the city’s domestic workers who spend Sundays meeting their friends and taking refuge from the sun and rain under the building. For the better part of thirty years, the building has sheltered these domestic workers offering them a place of respite and camaraderie, a place to share food and gossip, form choirs or rehearse dance choreographies. The design intent illustrates an inclusive approach allowing private buildings to enhance the community by creating a common ground.

    © Ben Johnson

    Hongkong & Shanghai Bank. The public plaza at the base of the building which, at the weekends, has become a lively picnic spot for local domestic workers.

    Cities are a chequerboard

    Cities are a chequerboard of public and private spaces. The eponymous Nolli Map, invented by the Italian architect and cartographer Giambattista Nolli in 1748, distinguishes between public and private spaces, creating an ersatz fingerprint of cities. In the Nolli Map, public space is defined as not only the outdoor streets, squares, courtyards and alleyways, but also the interior of civic buildings such as churches, museums, theatres, cafés, lecture halls, government assemblies and stadia.

    This intermeshing of public space and the interior came to the fore on a project we carried out at the turn of the Millennium. The Great Court at the British Museum was one of London's long-lost spaces. Originally an open garden at the heart of the Museum, the courtyard was lost to the public when construction started on the Round Reading Room and its associated book stacks. The departure of the British Library to its current location on Euston Road was the catalyst for reclaiming the courtyard as a common ground. The scale of this undertaking propels it beyond a mere expansion and reconfiguration of the Museum’s facilities into the realm of urban planning. With its free access and long opening hours, the Great Court becomes a grand covered public space at the centre of a city block. Similar in scale to many of London’s smaller public squares, the two-acre piazza – covered by a soaring glass canopy – is available to all, the intersection of public space with the heart of an international museum.

    ©Nigel Young/ Foster + Partners

    London, British Museum. A view of the Great Court from the entrance hall.

    Inclusivity is a primary attribute of successful public spaces. The streets, plazas and squares, and parks and gardens are inherently democratic because they are open to everyone and equally accessible for all.

    Inclusivity and democracy

    Inclusivity is a primary attribute of successful public spaces. The streets, plazas and squares, and parks and gardens are inherently democratic because they are open to everyone and equally accessible for all. To exclude a section of society or a group of people is contrary to the idea of public space itself. The design of public spaces therefore depends greatly on the input of the people that occupy and use it and, as designers, listening is a crucial skill. We have anthropologists and other cultural experts as part of the team at Foster + Partners, who help us better integrate the needs and aspirations of people and communities into a design blueprint.

    This is particularly evident in our large-scale urban projects in China. Amidst the impressive scale and speed of Chinese urban development, the smallness and slowness of daily life is often overlooked. Entire cities, metro systems and central business districts seemingly blossom overnight, often levelling villages and traditional communities in their wake. As planners, urban designers and architects, we must strive to reconcile the need for growth and development with the equally important prerequisite to preserve heritage and conserve communities. In rapidly changing cityscapes, nurturing the “neighbourliness of strangers”, to borrow French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s term, is imperative to social harmony.

    To help its 11 million inhabitants move across the vast metropolis, the city of Wuhan in central China has rolled out 237 kilometres of metro lines in just 14 years. Comparing this to London’s 402-kilometre Tube network, which was built over a period of 155 years – the pace of urbanisation is staggering. This breakneck pace of development has turned large swathes of the urban fabric into an enmeshed construction site. In light of this, the city’s planners asked Foster + Partners to conduct a public realm study for one of the sites, identifying the best practice for stitching the urban fabric together and seamlessly combining the old with the new.

    We talked extensively to the local community, observing the rhythms of everyday life, listening to oral histories, and compiling an inventory of needs from the locals to create an ethnographic analysis. The act of listening is the basis for all people-centred design and anthropological interviews are a vital part of truly understanding civic life. This provides invaluable cues for design. We interviewed locals aged six to 96 and compiled an inventory of design and programmatic interventions. For instance, we learnt that traditional wet markets providing fresh produce were disappearing, and hole-in-the-wall eateries specialising in the quintessentially Wuhanese breakfast, Guo Zao, and other affordable lunch options were also shutting down due to urban renewal. In response to the local appetite to revive street food, we designed a market park, lined with stalls that sells fresh produce and prepared food, creating a place to replenish and socialise. We also learnt that grandparents play a critical role in childcare during the week. However, their respective playgrounds and places to play Mahjong were geographically separated, so we created an Intergenerational Park. Here children can play within sight of their grandparents, creating a social arena that is greater than the sum of its parts.

    © Foster + Partners

    Wuhan, Zhongshan Avenue, street food market area.

    The ownership of public spaces is a complex issue, which goes beyond the question of who owns the property deed, but relates to how welcoming a space feels and how enmeshed it is within the everyday life of the city. The garden square is one of the defining features of London. Like other European cities, London has its grand civic spaces, but no other city has developed the garden square in quite the same way. The majority of such spaces were the product of private largess, often built in the name of a wealthy family or individual, but nearly always meant as a communal amenity.

    Today, there are a growing number of spaces such as office porticos and commercial courtyards that operate as public spaces. The relatively recent rise of these “Privately Owned Public Spaces” - or POPS as they have come to be known - has prompted a debate into the nature and meaning of common ground. For-profit governance and heavy-handed surveillance can alienate people, curtail functions and create an exclusive environment. However, private funds that can pay for the creation and maintenance of public spaces bring much-needed investment for the enhancement of the city as municipal budgets become increasingly squeezed. Notwithstanding the relative merits and demerits of POPS, it remains a crucial arena in which we as architects can help shape the common ground in the contemporary city.

    A recent positive example is the new European Headquarters for Bloomberg in the City of London. This gave us the opportunity to make a major contribution to the public realm around the building. Bloomberg Arcade – which reinstates a lost portion of Watling Street, an ancient Roman travel route that once connected London to Wales – bisects the site, greatly improving pedestrian flows in the narrow historic streets that surround the building. It also invites people into new restaurants and cafés situated under the covered colonnade. In keeping with Michael Bloomberg’s desire to be a “good neighbour”, the surrounding common ground invites local workers and visitors to dwell in the elegant spaces around the building. Cristina Iglesias’s water sculpture Forgotten Streams pays homage to the ancient Walbrook River that once flowed through the site and serves as a peaceful backdrop amidst the city’s busy ebb and flow.

    © Getty Images

    London, modern architecture by Foster + Partners in the company's new European headquarters on Cannon Street in the Square Mile.

    Sustainable design of cities requires an understanding of the urban microclimate, including wind distribution, pollution levels and thermal comfort characteristics. On the bright side, while cities are the biggest contributors to climate change they are also its solution.

    Sustainable design

    As we work hard to keep abreast of shifting identities and the needs of rapidly changing populations, we must also design for future generations. This means first and foremost protecting the environment. Cities cover less than 2% of the Earth’s surface and house 55% of the world’s population, but account for 67% of global energy consumption and over 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. To offset this discrepancy, architects have a responsibility to promote sustainable design. While architecture is beholden to multiple international standards of sustainable design such as BREAM or LEED, there are no such specifications for common ground – this is an obvious oversight.

    Sustainable design of cities requires an understanding of the urban microclimate, including wind distribution, pollution levels and thermal comfort characteristics. On the bright side, while cities are the biggest contributors to climate change they are also its solution. As centres of knowledge and innovation  ̶  both technical and institutional  ̶  cities possess the right ingredients to instil greener economies, ensure better governance of resources, and innovate solutions for safeguarding the ecosystem and biodiversity. We believe that architectural trends are being driven by the global ambition to develop a sustainable way of living and to tackle the future challenges we face as the world’s urban populations proliferate and our cities are transformed.

    Understanding the microclimate of each location should be an integral part of the design process of outdoor spaces. Our ideas for Masdar City (Abu Dhabi), which pioneered an approach towards more sustainable urbanism, combined state-of-the-art technologies with the planning principles of traditional Arab settlements to create a desert community that aims to be carbon-neutral and zero-waste. The 640-hectare project is a key component of the “Masdar Initiative”, established by the Government of Abu Dhabi to research and advance the development of renewable energy and clean-technology solutions, planning for a future that is not dependent on oil. The city is a centre for the advancement of new ideas on energy production, with the ambition of attracting the highest levels of expertise. Knowledge gained here has already aided the development of Abu Dhabi’s “Estidama” rating system for sustainable building, and post-occupancy environmental studies have demonstrated the efficacy of the masterplan in reducing felt temperatures and prolonging the moderate season in the city.

    Masdar City, © Foster+Partners

    © dbox / Foster + Partners

    Stockholm, New Slussen masterplan overview