How Leading Architects are Reimagining the World’s Public Spaces

Urban areas are undergoing a dramatic transformation as architects fuse nature and outdoor space with community connection

Public spaces have always played a vital role in bringing people together—and right now, the demand for those located in outdoor areas has never been greater. “The pandemic has brought the realization that the safest and most generous places to convene and find community are public outside spaces,” says Marion Weiss, cofounder of Weiss/Manfredi architectural studio. “And it’s not just planned outdoor spaces; our streets and intersections are increasingly becoming candidates for design.”

“Access to parks and gardens has become a democratic and health challenge,” adds Philippe Chiambaretta, architect and founder of PCA-Stream, a firm that recently garnered global attention for its plan to transform Paris’s Champs-Élysées into a lush pedestrianized space. “The world is experiencing a crisis with COVID-19, which makes the environmental emergency more visible than ever and has increased the need for nature in urban areas.”

Now, Chiambaretta, Weiss, and a host of other leading architects are building on lessons learned over the past year, with projects that aim to enhance the quality of life in the urban environment.

The Reinvention of the Champs-Élysées

Public spaces such as the Champs-Élysées (seen here with a view of the Arc de Triomphe at Sunset) are being redesigned by top architects
As well as more space dedicated to pedestrians, the new, greener Champs-Élysées will include catering kiosks run by top chefs, outdoor sports and wellness amenities, and innovative enrichment playgrounds for children.

PCA-Stream combines a research program with its design practice to identify new techniques with which to shape the environment and create sustainable urban developments. The studio’s Champs-Élysées project—which plans to transform the French capital’s iconic avenue into one of the world’s most pedestrian-friendly public spaces—epitomizes this approach.

The ambitious plans, described by Paris’s mayor Anne Hidalgo as an “extraordinary garden,” involves reducing traffic lanes by half and integrating new pockets of greenery. Set to be completed by 2030, the development will ultimately create a more sustainable and desirable public space with improved air quality.

“By bringing together gardens such as the Tuileries, the Concorde, the Jardins de Champs, the Port des Champs, and the Esplanade des Invalides we’ll create a 193-acre (78 ha) park, the largest in the Paris area,” Chiambaretta explains. “This will form a green lung for the capital, designed and built to be sympathetic to the heritage value of the site.”

A “Parkipelago” in Copenhagen

Aerial view of small man made islands and sailing boats
A prototype man-made island in Copenhagen harbor became an invaluable respite during the city’s lockdown. Its creators, architect Marshall Blecher and designer Magnus Maarbjerg, see it as way to provide public access to underutilized spaces.

In Copenhagen, Australian architect Marshall Blecher is making waves with the creation of the city’s Copenhagen Islands project.

Dubbed “parkipelago,” the islands—designed in collaboration with Magnus Maarbjerg of Danish design firm, Studio Fokstrot—are to be constructed by hand with sustainably sourced and recycled materials, using traditional boat building techniques. On completion, they will be moved seasonally between underutilized areas of the Copenhagen’s harbor.

Blecher hopes the project will create a new type of urban space that can be used by boaters, fishermen, kayakers, swimmers, and stargazers, while reintroducing wilderness to the rapidly developing waterfront area. “During periods of lockdown, people have been reminded of the value of good quality public spaces,” he says. “And to make dense cities liveable, we need more good quality public spaces—and we need these spaces to be more than just corner parks.”

Pioneering Public Spaces in the United States

An aerial view of little island park and the Manhattan skyline
Little Island is a collaboration between U.K.-based Heatherwick Studio and New York-based landscape architecture firm MNLA, and is an entirely new type of public space for NYC—one that creates an immersive experience with nature and art.

Across the Atlantic, Heatherwick Studio has led the design for New York City’s Pier 55 project, Little Island. A brainchild of the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, the pier is the latest addition to the the four-mile-long (6 km) Hudson River Park and is set to be unveiled this spring.

Envisioned as both a public park and outdoor performance area, the verdant development comprises a large amphitheater and an open plaza designed to host a diverse range of programming, as well as space that’s made up of rolling hills, open lawns, and walking paths.

“What was in my mind was to build something for the people of New York and for anyone who visits: a space that on first sight was dazzling, and upon use made people happy,” Barry Diller explains. And in addition to its ecological benefits—the park will host more than 300 species of plants—Little Island will also benefit the community by establishing partnerships with local arts organizations to develop programming concepts.

Artist's renderings of the
Weiss/Manfredi’s Loops and Lenses concept for the La Brea Tar Pits will form a triple mobius that “links all existing elements of the site and redefines Hancock Park as a continuously unfolding experience,” Weiss says.

New York-based studio Weiss/Manfredi, meanwhile, has been selected to lead the reimagination of Los Angeles’ historic La Brea Tar Pits. The studio will work with the National History Museum of Los Angeles County on the design and construction of a 13-acre (5 ha) campus—home to the world’s only active paleontological research site in a major urban area—to re-envision the area as a place of unfolding discovery.

“In our La Brea project, we’re building on a longstanding belief that architecture and landscape are inextricably linked,” Weiss explains. “Now, through the lens of the pandemic, we realize the interactions between architecture and open space are even more critical, not only for aesthetics but also for their social and ecological value.”

“We built our practice around the idea that the design of open space is not a luxury,” adds cofounder Michael Manfredi. “Open space is the great democratizer, central to the life of big cities.”

Banner image: An artist’s rendering brings to life PCA-Stream’s upcoming redesign of the Champs-Élysées in Paris.