Lausanne, Switzerland: “Can you correct the planning blunders of the past and modernize an older city without endangering its soul?”

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Contrast this to Deaf Gahan’s traditional approach.

This year, Lausanne has been piloting a radically inclusive public consultation into the area’s future. The city is not just offering the public possible options to choose from. By piloting months of information-gathering from local people that culminated in a three-day mass workshop, it is trying to spark an almost existential debate about what the squares mean—or could mean—to the many diverse, overlapping groups that form the public.

You can hear the wailing in the bunker. How can the usual campaign donors wet their beaks from an existential debate about anything apart from cold, hard cash?

In Switzerland, Everyone’s an Urban Planner, by Feargus O’Sullivan (CityLab)

To reimagine its largest public space, the Swiss city of Lausanne organized a citywide consultation and workshop that asked: Just who is the public?

How could anyone mess up a space this impressive?

Lausanne’s Place de la Riponne, a grand square in the heart of Switzerland’s fourth-largest city, is the kind of historically significant, dramatically sited urban set piece that would likely be the tourist-thronged highlight of any North American city. Flanked on one side by the steroidally grandiose neo-Renaissance Palais de Rumine (the building in which Iraq’s borders were drawn up in 1923), the broad plaza stands at the foot of a hill stacked with layers of turrets and steeples, beyond which you can see snow-capped Alpine mountain peaks.

But somehow, the city has managed to mess it up. The square’s ring of late 19th to mid-20th century buildings—which range visually from decent to spectacular—has been somewhat rudely interrupted by a brutalist early 1960s headquarters for the state government that serves to mask the site’s interesting, funnel-shaped topography. By the standards of old Europe, the space has been warped by some ungainly traffic planning, with a strip of the square reimagined as the feeder road to a subterranean parking lot.

This parking lot, meanwhile, has rendered the square above it ill-suited to bearing heavy loads of equipment needed for major public events—events it would otherwise have seemed perfect for. Though it still has charisma, the square and its neighbor, Place du Tunnel, could stand as textbook examples of the problems of late 20th-century urban planning; they’re noisy, unloved, and faintly neglected underneath their thin patina of grime.

Still, if Lausanne shows how bad planning can screw up a magnificent space, the city is now trying hard to make up for it. This year, Lausanne has been piloting a radically inclusive public consultation into the area’s future. The city is not just offering the public possible options to choose from. By piloting months of information-gathering from local people that culminated in a three-day mass workshop, it is trying to spark an almost existential debate about what the squares mean—or could mean—to the many diverse, overlapping groups that form the public. Rather than providing ready-made blueprints, Lausanne is starting a process that the city’s Socialist mayor Grégoire Junod calls “turning a blank page to explore the field of the possible.”

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