Activated Space, Nutty as Activated Almonds
Frankly, expressing a desire for active place is a platitude as refuge for the benighted or lazy. Perhaps not as nuts as activated almonds but the dearth of thoughtfulness comes with a distinctive almond tincture. It’s not that I don’t want public spaces to be vital and populated but that I want people to more deeply consider their ambition and objectives for these spaces.
The problem with specifying that a space should be activated is that at best it’s a motherhood statement. The activation ambition is critically lacking in a detailed and deeper interrogation of what is desired for the space and how it may be realistically achieved. I’d suggest that the relatively recent “Reclaim Australia” protests truly activated spaces around Australia, but was that what people want for their active public space? Let’s take Darling Harbour as another example, it’s a pretty active space, but it takes event programming, investment in roving street performers and the latest marketing Fiesta to create vitality. In other words Darling Harbour’s spaces failed to be made in a way that are innately activated. On the other hand, a short walk to “Darling Quarter” shows how intelligent thoughtful design and a fabulous playground can make for truly fantastic lively public space. It takes a nuanced, deep ambition and understanding of how to encourage public occupation and generate truly vibrant public spaces such as “Darling Quarter”, not a vague desire for active space.
As far as I’m concerned activate is a weasel word for the design and planning professions. This is not a cry to cease activating space but instead it’s a plea to stop the incessant use of the phrase. I’m calling for people to not be lazy and to consider what it is they want to achieve and how they may achieve it. Please, let’s avoid the Kevin Costner school of design that believes if they build it, they will come. The moribund Italian Forum in Leichhardt, is case in point of how poorly conceived design can fail badly in its ambition to activate. The elements for active space are all there, residential component (ie resident population), cafes, restaurants, shops, public facilities, “public” space, but they’re assembled poorly, the connections are bad. Without going into detailed criticism, the problem with the Italian Forum is there was a desire to activate but no conception of how to do it, people won’t necessarily come (and activate) in spite of what may be built. Imagine what might have been achieved there if consideration had transcended “We want an active public space” and instead aspired to or surpassed: “We’d love the residential component to be accessed off and engaged with the public amenities and space. These spaces could also provided vital pedestrian through block connections, to attract the public and further enliven the public space”, or a longer, more detailed, nuanced and considered treatise?
Apparently nuts are activated by adding water, this doesn’t always work to activate public space. Let us please extend our thinking, discussions and desires for public space beyond such simplistic language and manoeuvres. Let’s stop stating we’ll activate space and instead use language aspiring to a deeper considered ambition for our public places. Perhaps then the public space we begat will be a little more sophisticated than a one-liner or an aquatic almond.