The Importance of Place:
a case study on the necessity of public green space in modern cities.
In "Simulation", a section of New Media, Mitchell explores "body/city metaphors" and finds that they have become concrete and literal, with the city itself becoming the "spatial and material embodiment" of his cognitive system (2003:19). With new media and technologies becoming increasingly intertwined with daily life, it only serves to suggest that there is an astonishing lack of detatchment from electronic devices. Hayles argues that simulated environments are never purely virtual (1999: 13) as they require a range of materials and technologies to exist, furthur supporting the idea that new media environments and interfaces are connected to places in everyday life. But if social urban spaces can now exist online, extending physical and simulated territory through mobile devices and techonoliges, there seems to be no need for dedicated public spaces in modern cities. Many landscape developers and architects seem to agree with this point, as there is a startling lack of simple space for people. This is an issue, as there is no point to being able to explore cities and spaces through new media, if the cities are not worth exploring.
Simulation is also limited to the technologies and materials that link it to the physical world, and can never surpass it in terms of significance. Interaction is restricted, as the senses can never become as fully engaged, and this makes for less memorable places because of the difficulty of replicating touch or smell. Aside from different senses of enjoyment, spending excessive amounts of time associating with electronic interfaces and technologies is potentially hazardous to health in terms of eye strain, heachaches, musculoskeletal disorders, and stress injuries (Smith-Stoner, 2001). Unfortunately, spaces where the public may enjoy the outdoors and relax their eyes have become increasingly neglected. With so many users constantly being connected to their phone, or laptops or tablets, there is no need to spend more time, money, or manpower on a functional and beautiful green space if there will be nobody to appreciate it.
It is nearly impossible to disconnect from technologies and to function in daily life without new media. A large portion of general population remains connected through social networking sites, and forums. Subcultures thrive on these hybrid social urban spaces online, which provides comfortable territory where they may exist. And while these subcultures are created with an explicit frame of reference and situation in mind (Cohen, 1955), the people who belong to them cannot stay online forever. Even amongst popular blogging sites like Tumblr, meetings are encouraged, through which users can become closer in reality, creating even more tight-knit communities with the ability to communicate even faster. And when these meet-ups occur, there needs to be safe, mutually neutral, public spaces for them to interact for the first time. It can be daunting to meet strangers, especially so for people who tend to spend most of their time interacting online. By meeting at open, public green spaces, members may feel safer and more comfortable.
Even for those who do not participate in subcultures online may be part of a community which requires the same green space. Communites can be noted as what drives cities, they provide differentiating areas of culture and influence. They each require welcoming spaces to both attract visitors and to provide opportunites to inhabitants of the community. Seattle's famous Gum Wall, for example, encourages interaction and changes because of that, making it much more significant and meaningful to those involved. Because it is such a popular spot, visitors and community members can freely use the area, because it has somehow become safe, although it still remains a graffiti-filled back alley. The influx of people to the area to see this landmark has also inspired better housing in the area, along with some cafes and more tables and seating areas nearby.
These spaces extent beyond themselves, influencing and changing the city and its inhabitants. Improvements in public green space encourages growth of community and subcultures, which makes for a more culturally aware environment that supports cultural hybridization. The cosmopolitan idea that all of humanity belongs in a single "network of social relations" with a "flow of meanings as well as of people and goods" (Hannerz, 1990) is reflected in all of the more habitable cities of the world. When Jan Gehl attemped to revitalize the city of Melbourne, he set ten year targets to attract people back to the city (Gehl Architects, 2004). Aside from retaining locals, heavy emphasis was placed on tourism and attracting international students. The importance of an international culture and community is reflected within the city itself. With various ethnicities and ages, the city becomes more lively, and quality of life improves. There begins to come about an openness and receptivity towards new ideas and concepts. More emphasis is placed on the cultivation of these cultures and there is a greater sense of community. In order to retain all these peoples, however, many recommendations and findings were made in regards to the physical landscape of the city. A better pedestrian network was instated, along with more welcoming gathering spaces, such as squares and promenades. Livelier and more active streetscapes were introduced through increased seating in cafes, by storefronts, via steps and stairs, and planting greenery.
In the cities that focus on the importance of the human scale (what people need) over industry and vehicles, there is a dramatic difference in terms of livability and culture. Melbourne transformed from being desolate and isolated to one of the most habitable cities in the world in a decade (Gehl Architects, 2004). When Ghel decided to focus on the details, he was thinking of the inhabitants of the city. Buildings should be detailed and comfortable at walking speeds, with textures and storefronts, instead of solid glass skyscrapers. Instead of having roads dominate the city, there should be sidewalks, public areas, and green space. Aesthetics in this vernacular culture means room for people to walk, places for people to relax, and things for people to look at (Gehl Architects, 2004). The convenience should be emphasized for the people and not the cars. While beauty is not strictly necessary to function, there is always more meaning and story in beautiful architecture, and people can appreciate that. The aestheticism can be found in what Oscar Wilde states as the search of how beauty correlates to the "the secret of life" (Ellman, 1988). The Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle tells a story; designed as seven bottles of light in a stone box, it corresponds to the necessities of the Jesuit Catholic religion, combining both form and function. The Chapel is an integral part of the community, radiating light, as safe and open place where members of the community may find comfort, enjoyment, and relaxation. While people may not understand every fundamental detail of what makes it so attractive, it draws people in because it has an intention, which is declared throughout its design.
The necessity of public green space in modern cities is often overlooked, left behind in the search for greater and better technologies and its ability to explore hybrid spaces. However, virtual realities cannot replace the basic senses ingrained by embodying a physical territory which carries meaning and memory. The impact a green space has on the community and city through its accommodation and support for subcultures and culture can be seen through the attitude and nature of the citizens and their communities. The aesthetics in vernacular culture is branded in the physical urban spaces in its design and use, bringing meaning to everyday, real-world places which cannot be replaced.
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