An exploration of streets as social spaces as informative for urban planning and design
Human, Susanna Elizabeth Sophia
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Public urban space is important for people in cities and play a multi-functional role in society that includes an economic role, ecological role, social role, cultural role and, on occasion, political role. The importance of public urban space as platform for social interaction is particularly emphasised in literature by authors such as Jacobs (1961), Appleyard (1980), Lynch, (1984), Vernez-Moudon (1991), Tibbalds (1992), Zukin (1995) and Gehl (2010). Social interaction in cities is essential for cities’ liveability, economic development, public participation, place identity, safety, memory, community and citizenship, as well as the ecological environment and people’s health and quality of life. Public spaces are the most important element for a city to be liveable and form the platform for social interaction. While numerous types of public spaces are found in cities e.g. food production areas, parks and gardens, recreational spaces, plazas, streets, transport facilities, and incidental space, streets seem to play a prominent social role in community’s lives. The study of the use, social importance and formation of open space forms a counterbalance for an emphasis on the built form. Streets are described as social spaces with a unique character and enhancers of civic life. Urban planning and design may contribute to fulfil this social role as the spatial layout of streets brings people unintentionally and intentionally together or can keep them separated. The planning and design of streets are important in facilitating social interaction in cities and this is a possible reason for the growing demand for pedestrian-oriented streets. However, limited effort has been made in cities to provide in the need for social spaces. With a growing urban population in developing countries and the increasing knowledge of the importance of public space for the psychological as well as physical well-being of inhabitants, the support for public (open) spaces is particularly emphasised in urbanised areas such as in South Africa where small erven and high densities prevail. While the current settlement formation in South Africa is of a poor quality due to a number of reasons, such as political, economic and social factors, one of the key problems is the approach to layout planning. Traditionally the public environment is designed and created by numerous unconnected and uncoordinated departments, engineers and owners. The activities and entities installed compete with each other for space and visibility, consequently damaging the quality of the environment by cluttering the public dwelling space and the social realm of the inhabitants. An in-depth understanding of streets as social spaces, by planners and urban designers, may perhaps contribute in developing planning and design policies and guidelines that address the restructuring of streets as social spheres of interaction. It is imperative to understand urban space before we transform it. While numerous studies on streets have been conducted internationally, limited research has been conducted in the South African context to understand the role of streets as social spaces. This study is a step towards an in-depth understanding of streets as social contexts in order to make recommendations for urban planning and design. This study consists of an introductory literature study to give an overview of existing theories, policies and guidelines and an empirical study that consists of observation and interviews to explore the social dynamic within the research setting. This study is ethnographic in nature as an overall methodological framework. Ethnography is an important method in socially oriented research and enabled the researcher to get an ‘insider’s view’ of the research setting to provide detailed, in-depth descriptions of the research setting. However, it is not pure ethnographic research, as the researcher did not become a participant in the research setting. The aim was to study social patterns, order and structure to gain an in-depth understanding of the specific situation of Helen Joseph Street, rather than a brief overview of a large sample of information gathered. Data was generated about people in a social setting. The methods used included observations as well as semi-structured interviews with various users of the street. Findings emerged from the empirical study that was conducted in terms of how a street is used and experienced by its users and how the physical (built) environment is utilised for social interaction. Themes that relate to the role of streets with regard to social interaction were explored in-depth. From these data findings, a conclusion on what is needed for this research setting to be a better urban place that will encourage outdoor living and street sociability is discussed.