Christoph von Mach
With ice cream in our hands we slip through a narrow alley and sit down on a wooden bench. It is the middle of October. The sun still has this strong warmth almost to a degree where the temperatures become uncomfortable, especially when hot Sahara winds push over the Mediterranean Sea and into the city. The days have become shorter and I cannot tell what time it is. We are sitting on the edge of a square that spreads out in front of us. It is paved in light grey and white stone. There are a handful of street lights scattered and the dark sky hovers like a spotted blanket above the opening in the old town.
INFORMAL is king
We are surrounded by sounds and words. Parents are sitting on benches and children of every age engage in wild play. There is a group of boys having a spontaneous game of soccer. They use a lantern and a crushed soda can as one goal. The other one is defined by several sheets of metal nailed against an abandoned building. There are several teenage boys who drive diagonally over the entire square on the rear wheels of their BMX bikes, two girls chase each other, behind us there is a group of small children. They play an obscure game with metal chips and curious friends peek over their shoulders. The whole scenery could not get any more serene for us visitors, but there is an old dog walking tiredly in between the buzz of the children.
The square in front of us is the New Old Town Square of Rethymno, a city full of Greek, Venetian and Turkish influences that blend into a bizarre mixture of decaying limestone and bleached out Turkish carpentry(1). The irregular shape of the square is framed by several buildings in different scales. In the West, there is the Folk Art Museum and the Neratze Mosque with its tower and circular domes. There are apartment houses in the North, the elementary school in the East and again apartment buildings in the South. There must be at least seven entrances from all sides onto the square through alleys and arched gates. However, it seems like that most of the buildings are not oriented towards this space. The restaurant is the only commercial function that is connected to the square. However, it has its main entrance on the opposite side directed towards the street. And yet, the square is full of life.
During daytime life is more comfortable in the shaded alleys. But as soon as the temperatures decrease, the first children take over the square. There are several benches lined up on the Eastern edge facing the mosque and the Folk Art Museum and a few more in the middle of the surface directed alternately north and south. They divide the square into a larger and a smaller surface which each hosts specific types of activities, actors and spectators. The larger surface in front of us allows for activities with a long range of movement and the teenagers are in charge. The smaller surface behind us allows less spacious activities and is filled with young children. Most play patterns are allowed to coexist and even intersect more or less without collisions. All parents, aunts and uncles are engaged in lively conversations around the perimeter of the square. None of them seems to be bothered with what happens in front of them. Only when the boys get too wild they are disciplined with a few harsh words. This square is full of enthusiastic human interaction between all generations until late into the night.
Codes and logic
It is striking how well this space is working for the local community and maybe there is a very simple reason for it. People enjoy having informal contact with their family, their friends and strangers- not only on this square but anywhere in the city at any time. It is a way of establishing and maintaining relationships or rituals. And for the lack of any less formal space, public space is the platform for it. Almost all aspects of the daily life happen outside. The few things that happen inside like preparing food, sleeping or worship are separated only by a thin barrier between the private and public. Doors and windows are open in every alley. It seems that there aren’t any restricted spaces after all. There are no codes you have to decrypt to feel that you are a part of the city. The entire city is a network of treasure boxes and everyone has a key.
There are a few more reasons that make up the underlying logic of this urbanity. First of all, this city is based on locality. Everything necessary for a day of life is accessible within a reasonably short distance. Work and living spaces for example are not separated by long periods of travel and this public square sits right in the center of all movements. It is not only a physical focal point, but moreover it is deeply engraved in the daily patterns and memories of the citizens. In the tightly woven urban tissue, this square offers the only large and open surface. Since most of the private houses are very Spartanic any social activities take place outside.
This square is not a highly formalized space. It is a paved surface with a couple of benches and street lights. The surface has an appropriate scale. It is not too deep and not too wide. The benches divide it cleverly into individual spaces and allow different kinds of activities simultaneously. It is not stuffed with distracting commercial functions along its edges. All life on the square comes from the people themselves. It is accessible from many different sides and despite the modest artificial lighting, everyone feels comfortable. For a few hours during each day, the square becomes a safe cosmos for everyone.
Northern Europe: Cold as ice?
Why is it, that we hardly see these kinds of scenes in Northern Europe?(2) Is it because we have forgotten the joy of personal and direct contact? Is it because we do not appreciate public space? Or is the public space around us inappropriate for our 21st century lives?
A boundary condition for city spaces in Northern Europe is surely the climatic context. Daylight, temperature and precipitation among others define how we build and thus how we live. At its best, built and open space is the interpretation of human activity and climatic constraints. Taking Oslo and Rethymno as examples, one can quickly discover the predicament Oslo is in. During seven months of the year Oslo receives less then five hours of sunlight per day. There are only five months during a year with an average temperature above 10°C (3). On the other hand, Crete offers eight months with temperatures of at least 17°C (4). Is it only natural that we emphasize and over-regulate the interior environment of buildings instead of cultivating urban space?
Moreover, Northern European cities are not based on locality any longer. With the increase of car traffic in the second half of the 20th century, planning efforts emphasized functional separation within cities as a major premise. This produced patchworks of mono-functional urban fields. In order to allow for circulation all urban layers had to be dimensioned for motorized traffic. Traffic-planning erased the human dimension in city space. Still today, the results dictate us to use means of individual and mass transportation for daily tasks(5). Our way to work is only one example. One by one, we drive in a car or we take the metro and disappear in a tunnel. Most of our cities are not based on the idea of non-motorized circulation and pedestrianism, where accidental encounters inherit potentials for human interaction and creativity. Instead we bypass public space.
Back to human
We as planners have to return to a human dimension in our efforts(6). We need cities that provide democratic urban spaces. We need life back in our cities. Neoliberalism as a development theory has failed too many times. It only maximizes profits for a few on the shoulders of many. Instead, we have to seek hollistic strategies for urbanity based on the profound belief that cities provide platforms for human interaction and well-being. We have to bring together communities and the private sector and embrace the common good. Municipalities have to accept their responsibility in this compelx process, because social longevity is more valuable than short-term profit. We need to interpret the environment we live in and build climatically coherent structures. We need cities that are based on locality. Life is magnifold. Let us create cities that reflect this colorfullness.
1: Rethymno is the third largest city on the Greek island of Crete. It emerged in antiquity as part of the Minoan civilization but was not of great significance. However, the city prospered with the arrival of the Venetian conquerors who established Rethymno as a commercial hub between Heraklion and Chania. The old town as it is today, was built almost entirely by the Venetians and is one of the best preserved structures on the entire island with functioning buildings dating back to the 16th century. In 1649 the city fell into the hands of Ottoman Turks and became the centre of the administrative district.
2: According to the United Nations Statistics Division the following countries are considered as Northern Europe: Åland Islands, Channel Islands, Denmark, Estonia, Faeroe Islands, Finland, Guernsey, Iceland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Jersey, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sark, Svalbard and Jan Mayen Islands, Sweden, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
3: Source: www.oslo.climatemps.com
4: Source: www.west-crete.com
5: Burdett, Ricky and Sudjic, Deyan (as editors) "Living in the Endless City", Phaidon Press Ltd., London/New York, 2011, p. 288
6: Gehl, Jan "Cities for People", Island Press, Washington DC, 2010, p. 3-19