By Michèle Champagne
When your city contains such complex people, ideas, streets, buildings—when it contains so many neighbourhoods, areas and grey areas—why dwell on the city centre as a focus for design discussion? In Amsterdam, there’s a public space called Mercator Square (Mercatorplein in Dutch) at the most Western edge of the city’s ringed highway, in an area originally planned as a “Garden City” suburb. It is here, at Mercator, that there is genuine confusion about whether the square is a success or a failure—not just as a piece of urban design, but as a representation of the people who live and work around it. In Amsterdam, the design of public space is not only an aesthetic or experiential factor, but a socio-cultural one grounded context.
Over the last 30 years, Mercator’s context has often been characterized by social housing and immigration: from former Dutch colonies like Surinam and Indonesia, as well as from Turkey and Morocco. Whereas the urbanism-immigration dialogue in a country like Canada can often be nuanced, the Netherlands recently saw the rise of controversial right-wing politicians and strong anti-immigrant rhetoric. Hence the confusion about Mercator’s success. In Amsterdam, public space is not designed without context—whether people ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ this aesthetic or that bench. Rather, public space is a totem of socio-cultural values.
As of now, Mercator is a great example for designing spaces which lie ‘at the edge’ of cities and their cultures. It has wider bike lanes and safety-proof transit stops. It has new trees, benches and multiple terraces. It has a new fountains for kids, doner kebab shop for late-nighters, and a café for the new kids on the block: the bourgeois bohemians. Yet Mercator still struggles with burglaries, the seasonal shooting, and lacks of any distinct visual identity for itself. When the square was redesigned in 2010, it was identified with an aesthetic known as “Modern Contemporary.” Some called it a sign of gentrification; some thought it was more sophisticated; others called it a neutral, yet boring cultural gesture.
Nevertheless, Mercator now boasts one thing that’s always a sign of pending success: It has more and more people in it. From early in the morning, until very late at night, more and more people are loitering, lingering and eating there; even shopping and protesting. In Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities she proposed nurturing the virtues of real cities and real neighbourhoods rather than suburban utopias: with shops, cafés and bars creating a busy street life 24-hours a day. This, according to Jacobs, brought “eyes on the street” and was the key to making cities safe and attractive. And this, according to Mercator Square, is precisely what has happened.
photos by the author (cc)