Reclaiming Public Spaces: Our Love Affair with the Past

As an avid book lover and passionate literature student, the sheer delight which I felt when taking a peek at Kansas City’s beautifully renovated car park is understandably quite intense. 

It’s not just about the books, either – great selection that they are. It’s about turning a drab, generally un-motivating environment into one which is colourful, uplifting and, most importantly, one which introduces ideas. 

It’s impossible to walk or drive away without thinking, “Hmmm... it’s been a while since I’ve picked up that book. I wonder if I should give it another go?” And hereby a place as blasé as a car park suddenly becomes a place of transformation. 

It’s places like this which make cityscape's such a fascinating arena for creativity in various shapes and forms – of metamorphosing what would once have been a passing thought in a pedestrian’s mind into something more, and transcending what even the most ambitious of large-scale architectural projects can sometimes fail to achieve.

© Kansas City Car Park

What makes these public spaces so poignant is their personal capacity. There is no sense of pretentiousness, the tension which comes with deliberate presentation which turns so many of our great museums into places where they say “art goes to die.” Here, it comes to life, in the most unlikely of surroundings, capturing the element of surprise beautifully and inspiring us in a multitude of ways. 

Reclaiming our public spaces encompasses a variety of cultural movements, from the glorious street art of hip hop culture to the empowering, edgy, and heart-wrenching stories painted on the Berlin Wall where people turned war and pain into art. They are the brutally honest portraits of our time, perhaps in some ways more authentic than the classical murals and frescoes which we have come to revere.

But it’s not all fraught with politics and war. Walking down any cosmopolitan city with a Bohemian flair like Berlin, Barcelona, New York and Montreal – just to name a few – will reveal that even the tiniest of places, or the most seemingly abandoned, can become intimate and welcoming, as well as a place for the community to come together. 

The High Line in New York is a great testament of collective effort to “recycle” a public place and transform it into a vibrant green space where people can gather from the surrounding neighbourhoods and enjoy a measure of nature, reflective of many alleyways and small parks throughout the city which provide a valuable community purpose. And now, such urban areas are becoming recognised not only within their immediate community but on a national scale, as well – London’s famous Rom skatepark is now a national heritage site, and other similar cultural shrines are now preserved thanks to their community stepping forward and saying “hands off, these are our memories, this is our identity.”

A New Business Model
That doesn’t mean that every hot locale has to be preserved in perfection, but perhaps the most interesting and challenging phenomena of reclaiming cultural space is how we continue to interact with it as well as observe and reflect on it. And where there is an interest, money inevitably follows, and this can be a good thing. 

From real estate to business, converting old industrial buildings into chic cafes and trendy apartments is a popular pursuit, and some cities have become truly innovative in this approach, from turning old cellars and churches into swanky bars and nightclubs and old boats into bookstores. Design elements are always controversial, but for the most part, business owners are happy to maintain some of the original decor – such as ornate ceilings and exposed brick walls – and artfully combine it with modern features.

This is certainly a more conscientious method of building a business, rather than demolishing and starting from the ground up. However, it does entail a lot of expense, from obtaining permission relating to which parts of the building are historically protected to making it more energy efficient and meeting current health and safety standards as well as accessibility. Additionally this also impacts the coverage which that business has as well, encompassing a variety of factors

As well as these practical aspects to consider, business owners must be truly diverse in their brainstorming process, finding innovative ways to convert a building purposed for a different time and bring it into modern society. Fortunately, the popularity of these spaces thrives on the fact that the “history” which is imprinted in the building itself serves as quirky, attractive feature, and provided the environment is warm, welcoming, and easy to access, it is yet another valuable urban space.

And so while many grandiose projects look towards the future, on a smaller scale, communities look to the past when regenerating their urban environment. Whether it’s creating a small, green marketplace in an alleyway, renovating a local church or painting a new mural on a school wall, as individuals and neighbours, we are making special spaces happen because of our love affair – and curiosity – with bygone times and the desire to make new ones.