NS Essay - 'The future of the human race depends on public spaces. They are the starting point for all community, commerce and democracy'

People have withdrawn from the public realm in this era of rampant traffic and overblown security me

Even on a cold and windy evening in Copenhagen, the streets are full of people. Scandinavians are notorious for their stolid reserve, but it's all smiles and animated conversation here, as people of many ages and affiliations stroll through the city centre. A group of teenage boys, each with a slice of pizza, swaggers down the main pedestrian street. Older women discreetly inspect shop windows for the coming fashions. An accomplished balalaika player draws a small crowd in a square. Earnest young people collect money for Unicef relief efforts. Several stylishly dressed women sit on the edge of a fountain, talking on mobile phones. A surprising number of babies in strollers are out for a breath of fresh air. Candlelit restaurants and cafes beckon everyone inside.

"Cultures and climates differ all over the world," notes the architect Jan Gehl, "but people are the same. They will gather in public if you give them a good place to do it." Gehl, an international consultant and professor of urban design, has charted the progress of Copenhagen's central pedestrian district since it opened in 1962. At that time, cars were overrunning the city, and the pedestrian zone was conceived as a way to revitalise the declining urban core. It has been expanded a bit each year ever since, with parking spaces gradually removed, and biking and transport facilities improved. Cafes, once thought to be exclusive to the Mediterranean, have become the centre of Copenhagen's social life. Gehl's research documents how people's use of the area has more than tripled over the past 40 years. The pedestrian district is now the thriving heart of a reinvigorated city.

Copenhagen's comeback gives hope to growing numbers of citizens around the world who want to make sure that lively public places don't disappear in this era of rampant traffic, heightened security measures and the general indifference of many who think the internet and their own families can provide all the social interaction they need. While only a century ago public spaces almost everywhere were crowded with people, many are nearly empty now. Walking through certain communities can be a profoundly alienating experience, as if the whole place had been evacuated for an emergency that no one told you about.

The decline of public places represents a loss far deeper than simple nostalgia for the quiet, comfortable ways of the past. Public spaces are favourite places to meet, talk, sit, look, relax, play, stroll, flirt, eat, drink, smoke, sunbathe and feel part of a broader whole. They are the starting point for all community, commerce and democracy. Indeed, the future of the human race depends on public spaces - they are, after all, where young men and women meet and court. Numerous studies have proved that nothing grabs people's attention more than other people. We are hard-wired with a desire for congenial places to gather. That is why it is particularly surprising how often we overlook the importance of public places today.

Historically, Gehl explains, public spaces were central to everyone's lives. Living in cramped homes, often with no yards, people had little choice but to use public spaces. Walking the streets was most people's way to get around. Urban families depended on markets and high streets for the day's food. Parks were the only place for kids to play. But all that changed during the 20th century. Cars took over the streets. Telephones, television, computers and suburban homes transformed our daily lives, allowing people to withdraw from the public realm. No longer essential, public spaces were neglected. The gradual decay gained speed over the closing decades of the century, as planners ripped through neighbourhoods to accommodate the car. Meanwhile, shopping centres and hypermarkets, with their oceans of on-site parking, came to dominate the retail and real-estate industries.

The key to revitalising our public places - and our communities - is understanding that most people today have many more options than in the past. A trip to a farmer's market or the local library is now as much recreational as it is practical. "People are not out in public spaces because they have to be, but because they love to be," Gehl explains. "If the place is not appealing, they can go elsewhere. That means the quality of public spaces has become very important. There is not a single example of a city that rebuilt its public places with quality that has not seen a renaissance."

Gehl lumps Britain in with North America as being behind the curve in recognising the importance of lively public spaces. The reason? "Margaret Thatcher," he answers immediately, "with all her talk about 'the great motorised Britain'." London doesn't foster the vibrant street life of other European capitals, he says, because it has not been designed in recent years with the idea that walking is an important or pleasurable activity. Careful attention to restoring the public realm could change that. Gehl points to a very promising project being launched by the Greater London Authority to create a hundred great new public places across all parts of the city in the next few years.

Barcelona and Lyons best illustrate the power of public places. Once thought of as dull industrial centres, both are widely celebrated today as glamorous cities that attract international attention and instil a sense of pride. Barcelona is mentioned in the same breath as Paris and Rome as the epitome of a great European city. In the spirit of liberation that followed the end of Franco's dictatorship, local citizens and officials created new squares and public spaces across the city and its suburbs to celebrate the return of democracy and mend the damage of civic repression. Lyons embarked on an ambitious campaign in 1989. Grand public projects in the centre of town were paired with initiatives in less affluent communities on the outskirts to make sure that the whole city benefited. Sweeping pedestrian plazas and dazzling fountains figured prominently. "Fifteen years ago, Lyons was nothing," Gehl notes. "Now it's a showcase of Europe."

Creating popular public places yields substantial economic return in the form of business investment, strengthened local economies and tourism, while enhancing the quality of existing public spaces can bring rewards to an already prosperous area. Take New York's Bryant Park, which was off-limits to most citizens in the early 1980s due to non-stop drug dealing. A renovation of the park, which tore out the shrubbery that gave drug dealers a sense of privacy and added ample seating to invite everyone else back, has transformed the place into one of New York's most beloved gathering spots.

It's easy to dismiss public spaces as something only the wealthy can afford to worry about. But take a look at any bustling place in the world - from the markets of Africa and Asia to the street corners of Europe and North America - and you will find it is poor people who depend on public spaces the most. Enrique Penalosa, a former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, notes that the well-off enjoy the pleasures of big homes, backyards, private clubs and country houses. Poor people have only their street to hang out in - and, if they're lucky, a park or playground nearby. Penalosa made public spaces the centrepiece of his administration, creating or refurbishing 1,200 parks and playgrounds, establishing 186 miles of bike trails, building 13 libraries and inaugurating the world's longest pedestrian street, which runs ten miles through the city.

"Public spaces are not a frivolity," Penalosa asserts. "They are just as important as hospitals and schools. They create a sense of belonging. This creates a different type of society. A society where people of all income levels meet in public spaces is a more integrated, socially healthier one."

In Cape Town, South Africa, the Dignified Places Programme is using public spaces to help heal wounds left over from the apartheid era. Louise Grassov, a project manager at Gehl's urban design firm, has been involved in the far-reaching initiative, which hopes to instil in black people a sense of ownership in a city that, until recently, they were not allowed to enter without permission. The immediate goals include "getting more affordable housing in the centre of the city and giving back some dignity to people who walk rather than drive cars".

Matt Blackett, a guiding light behind Toronto's Spacing magazine (perhaps the only local publication in the world devoted to public space), represents a new wave in the push to promote public places. He became interested in public space issues when he was tear-gassed at an anti-globalisation rally where protesters were beaten back by police. "That galvanised me. I saw how the powers that be operate. And it made me wonder: whose space is public space? How could they force us out of what was supposed to be public property?"

Blackett soon fell in with the Toronto Public Space Committee, and that was the genesis of Spacing, which offers local readers smart and spirited commentary about life in Toronto, pairing a rebellious attitude with a commitment to improving the city.

Blackett sees the recent boom in mobile technologies as a boost to people's use and enjoyment of public spaces. Throughout the 20th century, technological innovations - telephones, radio, television, VCRs, CD players and computers - fuelled a retreat from public places into our homes and cars. However, today's technologies make it increasingly simple for us to be plugged into the world via phone or internet while still enjoying ourselves in a park, sitting in a cafe or walking down the street.

There is a growing interest in public space issues among younger people. They seem more conscious than previous generations of the need to defend their favourite places against encroachment from traffic, advertisers, unwanted development and overblown security measures. If the idea of a new movement raising the banner of public space to change the face of communities around the world strikes you as far-fetched, consider the Crossroads mall, just outside Seattle. Located in Bellevue, a car-dominated suburb a mile south of the sprawling Microsoft campus, Crossroads, a 1970s enclosed mall surrounded by acres of parking, seems way off the radar of any surge to promote lively public spaces.

But look again. Whimsical public art dots the parking lot, and cafe tables and merchandise displays flank the entrances. An impressively well-stocked news-stand greets you just inside the main doors, right next to an equally well-stocked used bookstore. Wandering through the mall, you find the local public library, a police station and a branch of the city hall. Some of America's usual franchise giants are here, but there are locally owned businesses, too, such as a wine shop and ceramics studio. The food court - where you can choose among Indian, Russian, Thai, Mexican, Korean, Greek, barbecue, Vietnamese and Italian menus, as well as a juice bar or a burger joint - features all local restaurateurs.

Many of the tables in the food court face a stage, where, for example, on the particular weekday I visited, Black History Month was being observed with an impressive programme of music, theatre and dance. The audience was multi-ethnic, reflecting the changing demographics of American suburbia. The loudest applause came from a delegation of pre-schoolers visiting from a nearby daycare centre.

Ron Sher, who transformed Crossroads from a failing mall into a spirited gathering place, sat down with me for lunch and, in between greeting customers and conducting mini-strategy sessions with shop owners, he outlined the next phase of his vision. "I want a mix of upscale and affordable housing built on a part of the parking lot, so this could become a true town square that some people walk to." I pinched myself to make sure this was real, that I really was talking to a shopping-centre developer. Sher said: "I want to get people together with the city to discuss how to create even more of a community centre."

Now, I'd prefer to hang out in Copenhagen, Barcelona, or the famous Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. So would many people who live in Crossroads. But the fact is they live in Bellevue, and it's a great thing that they have a mall where they can run errands, meet their neighbours and have some fun. If a lively public place can flourish in Bellevue, it can happen anywhere.

Jay Walljasper lives in Minneapolis. He is executive editor of Ode, an international news and culture magazine. This essay is adapted from an article that appeared in the June issue (www.odemagazine.com)