Public Space as Common Space

A comparative research between Rotterdam and Milan


Cities are perpetually dealing with their shortcomings in socioeconomic and demographic development, mobility, production and social cohesion. These urgencies are (finally) recognised as such at specific moments in time. The Covid-19 pandemic that radically changed our daily routines from spring 2020 onwards underlined one of the most pressing issues: while the radical importance of outdoor public space for city residents was highlighted, it also pointed out its deficiencies. The differences between the haves and have-nots and between spaces that are well equipped and those that are not became apparent at once. In this comparative research, the conception of public space as collective usage space is used to examine the current state of public space in both Milan and Rotterdam, in an effort to instigate a mind-shift towards a usage-driven reconsideration of these crucial shared spaces in our cities.

In the face of the pandemic, our world became smaller and our lives turned more inwards. The restrictions that were imposed in many countries, albeit varying, generally led to a limitation of our freedom of movement. It prompted a renewed focus on our direct surroundings: your house, your stoop, your street and your neighbourhood became the centre of life. While the usual bustle of the city came to a halt and indoor social encounters were minimised, outdoor space offered respite. It was where you met your friends and family, had a break, played and did a workout. For the majority of city inhabitants, outdoor space here meant public space. With this increased pressure and importance of urban public space, however, the flawed programmatic composition of many of our city centres became evident: they are largely attuned to consumption, with public space as transit space, instead of a more complete, representative programmatic package with public space functioning as usage space.

This encouraged many local authorities to reorganise the open and public spaces (including streets) in their cities to provide space to meet and move around, leading the change by trial and error and translating the results into policies. Their efforts showed a glimpse of what this ‘update’ of the city could look like. While the current pandemic and related crises underline the urgency, they are – importantly - not the driver, and should be considered as a catalyst for developments that were anyway happening or should anyway happen. Cities need to evolve towards more complete, responsible and pleasant places. This requires a more holistic approach, which in the light of public space means consistency in connected spaces, supportive programming and materiality that literally gives shape to the needed symbiotic relationship between urbanity and ecology.

To achieve this, a fundamental update and change in mindset from design from a mobility point of view to a usage point of view is required: public space as collective usage space. As a social instrument that recognises citizenship. And as a collective asset, that is treated accordingly. The post-pandemic effects can be of help in this as the need for physical encounter and a strengthened local perspective are expected to remain – having encouraged citizens wanting to actively contribute to the development of ‘their’ public space, which gives a strong basis for next steps.

In an effort to promote this shift in mindset and an action-driven approach towards the topic, and to identify opportunities in the cases of Milan and Rotterdam more specifically, Quinzii Terna Architecture and Studio for New Realities investigated the public space of both cities during spring and summer 2021. The result is a comparative atlas of the common spaces in both cities – identifying similarities and differences, and offering reflections on the usage quality of their public space. Translated into a ‘toolkit’ of possible actions, it serves as a concise and hands-on manual giving direction to potential interventions in both cities to work towards a true Public Space: a collective space to meet and interact, to move and play, to relax and contemplate. An inspiring space shared by all, to be appropriated in different ways by different people, reflecting what our society stands for.

This research was carried out with the kind support of Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Italy.

Presentation of the research

On Wednesday, September 15 in the Triennale Garden in Milan, Chiara Quinzii, Diego Terna (QTA) and Jeroen Zuidgeest (SfNR), together with Pierfrancesco Maran (Deputy Mayor of Milan for Urban Planning, Green Areas and Agriculture) , will discuss the current state of public space in the two cities, the actions that have been undertaken so far, and the possible strategies for potential next steps. The discussion will be introduced by Mascha Baak (Consul General, Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Milan) and Bas Ernst (Cultural Attaché, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Italy).


Title: Public Space as Common Space: a comparative research between Milan and Rotterdam

Place: Triennale Garden, Viale Alemagna 6, Milano

Time: Wednesday 15 September, 18:00 or follow the livestream via the Quinzii Terna Architecture Facebook page


  • Pierfrancesco Maran (Deputy Mayor of Milan for Urban Planning, Green Areas and Agriculture)
  • Bas Ernst, Cultural Attaché Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands
  • Jeroen Zuidgeest, Studio for New Realities, co-author of the research
  • Chiara Quinzii and Diego Terna, Quinzii Terna Architecture, co-author of the research and debate moderators

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