Urban Roles of Public Buildings and Spaces: The Public Library as the Community Space

Public buildings play several significant roles in a city. Primarily, they host activities and programs that serve citizens daily, fulfilling their needs and facilitating the exercise of their civic rights and responsibilities. They also serve as central venues for social life, shaping and defining urban events, making each city unique and irreplaceable. Key public buildings also play a special role in defining the physical structure and visual image of the city. They are typically architecturally emphasized and situated in selected locations, where they not only contribute to the characteristic urban scenery but also symbolically communicate the importance of shared social content for the functioning and development of the community.

The connection between a public building and the surrounding public open space is particularly important. Public buildings, when properly integrated into the urban fabric with well-arranged public open spaces, become central urban venues where public life spontaneously unfolds. As spaces accessible to all without entry conditions and restrictions, public buildings and associated public open spaces directly reflect the community that creates them. They also indirectly shape society and influence the future development of the community with their program orientation and spatial image.

Urban planners therefore, pay special attention to the placement and design of public buildings. A good example of such buildings are libraries. In the contemporary urban planning theory and practice, the libraries are seen as one of the core keystones in formulating the civic urban space – their modern role far exceeds the historical role of storing and lending books – city libraries are seen as centers of educational, cultural, social, and leisure activities too. Citizens are increasingly visiting the library not only for reading and gathering information, but also for engaging in other activities that enrich both their personal lives and the collective life of their society, fostering a sense of connection and community.

The changed role of libraries requires a reconsideration of their spatial design and image, both in terms of architectural form and urban placement, including the relation of their public indoors to the open public spaces. The guiding principle in such considerations must be the premise that the important role of the modern library is to connect and strengthen the local community. The modern library, based on its traditional role, is primarily a community space where a significant part of local life takes place. The architectural design must provide all the necessary spatial and functional support for the activities that encourage social interactions among users, educate with a good example of sustainable architecture, and at the same time create a community space that will have a socially cohesive effect and which the community will be proud of and identify with. The task of urban planning is primarily to choose suitable locations for public buildings and provide a good setting for the development of social life in the neighbouring open spaces, while good architecture must ensure that the design and structure of these public buildings not only serve their functional purpose but also contribute to the aesthetic appeal of the city, fostering a sense of belonging and pride among its residents.

Matej Nikšič, MA, PhD, is a senior research associate at the Urban Planning Institute of the Republic of Slovenia (UIRS), Ljubljana, where he specializes in urban planning and design. As an architect with degrees from the University of Ljubljana and Oxford Brookes University, he has a keen focus on enhancing urban public spaces and liveability, promoting sustainability, driving urban regeneration and advocating for participatory planning. He has co-authored many urban design publications, including “Public Space and Urban Justice” (2017), “Human Cities – Challenging the City Scale” (2018) and “Enabling the City” (2021). He shares his expertise as an assistant professor at the University of Ljubljana and is active in the sphere of policy-making as well as in the advisory role in developing urban planning policies for the national spatial planning ministry. He is a member of the management group of the Thematic group Public Spaces and Urban Cultures at the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP).

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