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Gerard Heumann

Meeting places for our divided times

Perspective sketch for the Safra Square Design Competition entered in partnership with Prof, Beni Reuven Levy, the former Dean of the School of Architecture - Ariel University, several years ago.\
Perspective sketch for the Safra Square Design Competition entered in partnership with Prof, Beni Reuven Levy, the former Dean of the School of Architecture - Ariel University, several years ago.\

Viable urban places are the very heart of our cities, some would say their definition, one of the most significant elements in an urban environment, related to the hearts and minds of people, places where humanity becomes human, where people of great diversity meet for meaningful contact and participation. Contributing to social cohesion, they help build strong communities.

What are the factors that can make a public place successful? The main points:

Their design must respond and relate appropriately to the unique character and identity of each specific area or neighborhood and be fully integrated into their environmental context.
Maximize accessibility: they must be within easy reach by foot and public transportation, along main routes.

Trees and seating are hardly enough. Public Squares come alive and encourage social interaction when life takes place around them as well as within, when they interact successfully with the buildings around them. Street level functions adjoining squares are most important, the dead facades of banks and chain stores absolutely avoided, small-scale commercial desirable.

In order to enable human identification and foster a sense of belonging, critical is that squares be clearly spatially defined, having a sense of enclosure.

Variety as a goal: needed is the right measure of an organic, organized yet coherent complexity, both architecturally and spatially with well-proportioned and attractive surrounding buildings and squares of human scale.

Intimate and inviting, clean and safe, public squares should comprise a variety of activities such as outdoor restaurants and cafes. Thoughtful landscape design, in addition to paving, planting and seating, might include visual focal points, fountains and sculpture sensitively situated.

Let’s now have a look at what has been built under the sponsorship or guidance of Jerusalem Municipality, four squares in the center of town, all of them situated adjacent to Jerusalem’s light-rail red line on Jaffa Road. A brief rundown: Safra Square – a gargantuan shade less desert, Zion and Nordau squares lack enclosure and human scale, Davidka Square completely cut off from its surroundings. All four, poorly designed, abysmal failures. Improvements are possible even today.

Regarding Safra Square: in 2018 Jerusalem Municipality held a design competition in order to save the square, the heart of the municipal complex. Incredibly, the winning entry made matters far worse by expanding the existing enormous square even more. While the computer simulations were artful, the plan’s content was indefensibe. Thankfully, nothing has been executed to date.

It is hoped that in the future municipal decision makers will think long and hard about the possible consequences of the decisions they are taking in this extremely important, costly and critical design field. Lacking an understanding of the basic design principles outlined above, it is impossible to succeed.

About the Author
Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.
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