The pervasive two-winged city denizen, cloaked in plumage of nondescript greys and often seen roosting on a window ledge or splashing in a park fountain, navigates a shaky relationship with its two-armed urban co-habitant. At worst, the pigeon is pelted for being a pesky nuisance and, at best, lobbed a scattering of food scraps (which may or may not have fatal consequences). The contested grounds of the city’s public spaces are where pigeon and human negotiate their terms—terms that spell either love or war.
But what if there exists an urban gathering place of considerable size where users can let go of their territorial grievances? Might this create possibilities for harmonious co-existence between feathered and non-feathered species and, on a more serious note, between people of diverse backgrounds and practices?
In the expansive 40,000-square-metre Rynek Główny, the market square of Old Town Kraków, one momentarily feels significantly insignificant. Engulfed by the sheer magnitude of this massive public space, it is conceivable to be at once alone yet part of a collective crowd; spectator yet spectacle; and producer yet consumer of urban street life. On an unusually balmy spring day during my first-time visit in May 2015, the square transformed into a stage where all forms of outdoor street activity unraveled, from busking to basking and walking to waking (after a celebratory night out). And on this stage, three monumental gothic-style landmarks—St Mary’s Basilica, Town Hall Tower, and Sukiennice (Cloth Hall)—not only orient the lost wanderer but also enhance the photogenic quality of an otherwise sprawling open space.
Once the town square and marketplace of 13th century medieval Kraków, Rynek Główny has persisted through significant events in history—emerging from the Second World War and subsequent control by the Soviet Red Army—to continue its service as a hub for Kraków’s civic life. Today, Rynek Główny is no less a marketplace; here, fresh flowers are sold under giant yellow umbrellas while the ubiquitous obwarzaneks (pretzel-like snacks) are stockpiled in blue pushcarts that occupy every street corner.
Along the periphery of the square, service staff armed with menus representing a cosmopolitan mix of alfresco dining options tout unabashedly for customers while fleets of horse-drawn carriages supply the young and old with endless amusement. Throughout the day, musicians, acrobats, dancers, and mime artists produce a sporadic live program, thus activating the square with a variety show of sorts.
One enchanting evening, a jazzy rendition of Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’ is delivered flawlessly from the saxophone of a lone musician strategically positioned in the middle of the square. I approached the young man who introduced himself as Ethan Smith, academically-trained in music and originally from Cape Town. For a modest city of under one million inhabitants, Kraków has an enviably young and creative population that is injecting a hip vibe to the Old Town district; in turn, attracting a new global class of creatives, like Ethan, from elsewhere.
From morning to night, the crowd ebbs and flows with schoolchildren on an outdoor excursion; camera-toting tourists on a free walking tour; university students and faculty on a coffee run after back-to-back lectures; entrepreneurs and freelancers on a business lunch; retirees and mothers with their babies on a late afternoon stroll; and, of course, pigeons. Despite the shambolic hubbub of rhythms simultaneously occurring at once, the physical immensity of the square affords the individualistic and collective actions of diverse users a shared arena to crisscross without necessarily causing conflict and ruffling feathers.
Such large public spaces, however, are diminishing in contemporary cities where the economic value of real estate is privileged over the social value of urban gathering places. In today’s era of global market forces, open spaces in prime urban areas are increasingly susceptible to wholesale privatization and commercial development. As Singaporean architect and author, William S.W. Lim (2014), argues:
“These developments severely damage existing complex public spaces as they inevitably destroy much of the sensitive social linkages and heritage of gap spaces and the sites of critical deep histories that lie in the materiality of traditions. Furthermore, notwithstanding the dramatic projects of aesthetic experimentation by international star-architects, the overall generic similarity of these projects in cities can be easily substituted for each other” (p. 20).
Indeed, land will be a precious resource and commodity in the future as cities aspire to generate wealth (sometimes questionably hidden under the guise of a high-density agenda). While urban dwellers, over time, may accept reduced living and working quarters as an impending way-of-life in their cities, planners of these cities should carefully consider the social implications of relegating other types of spaces, that is, open public spaces, to bite-size pocket parks. Public spaces are the outdoor living rooms of our cities—a place for respite as well as revelry—and, as such, should strive to be generously spacious and accommodating, be it for one or all.
Image Credits: All images are the property of Su-Jan Yeo unless otherwise stated.
Lim, William S.W. (2014) ‘Public Space Today’, in: William S.W. Lim (ed), Public Space in Urban Asia, pp. 20-25. Singapore: World Scientific.