Addressing the current upswing of digital solutions available to facilitate the use and attractiveness of public open spaces in relation to the new mediated reality of wireless connectivity, data access and retrieval “on the go” (Ioannidis 2017), this chapter explores the possibility of user centred improvements for existing public open spaces (Gardens) along the waterfront of Thessaloniki. It analyses its physical and design characteristics—spatial layout, greenery, landscape formations, materials - to consider how its thematic organization can offer more than a reference device by implementing a digital layer to enhance its experiential content. The authors are not aiming to provide specific forms, types and techniques for human/machine interaction. However, a critical analysis of today’s’ requirements of the Gardens can provide a correlation between traditional landscape design and architectural features (sitting facilities, meeting points, gathering opportunities etc.) and user’s quest towards a networked-like design where outdoor facilities and offered data can link not only people but also people with space.
3.1 Background and Original Design
In 2000, architects Prodromos Nikiforidis and Bernard CuomoFootnote 1 attempted to construct a Garden-based narrative along Thessaloniki’s edge in an attempt to return to the city its lost relationship with the sea. The adopted design strategy, apart from reviving the sense of the 19th and 20th century gardens found in the area but lost under the pressure of the massive urbanization process during the 1960’s and 1970’s, unfolds over space a set of principles emerging from a continuous plot – that is a story to be told to the visitors grounding meaningful concepts with the individual locality of space.
The constant earth fillings that occurred after the 1950s provided to the area its main visual characteristic - a dominant and undisturbed linearity. The strategy not only prioritizes and preserves this specificity but also elevates its experience into a new reality that challenges its conception as the dateless impermeable border between the city and the sea. Nikiforidis and Cuomo’s winning proposal develops further the idea of a narrative, introverted spatial condition that runs parallel to the city’s waterfront edge in a skilful and communicative way. They argued that their intention was indeed
the creation of a linear space with choices for entertainment, games, relaxation, education, and culture, the linkage of different spaces with various qualities that will cover a wide spectrum of human expression and mood, but will maintain the characteristics of unity and continuity imposed by the character of the urban frontage itself (Nikiforidis and Castro
Above all, the project is lodged in a “collection of spectacles” (Loukaitou and Banerjee 1998), masterly inserted along the city’s edge by the architects-as-tellers. The story is extracted by what scholars like Sternberg (2000) and Gottdiener (1997) define as “purposeful thematization” spatially manifested by the alignment of fifteen interrelated thematic events in which “introverted green spaces for leisure, a human-centred design, and water events, along with natural materials like wood, sand, and stone, construct an arranged set of allegorical representations of places whose meaning is gradually revealed, cultivated, and negotiated within the user’s mind” (Ioannidis 2011:223).
In the proposed set of purposeful thematization the formulation of the so-called ‘episodes’ is a central methodological approach and enhances, in a way, the means to tell the story. The architects argue that:
The intention to maintain the linearity of the coastal frontage, its unity and continuity, and leave the horizon of water along with the main promenade uninterrupted by any sort of seaside construction, is a central one. However, the need to find meaningful points of interest during unfolding this coastal track led to the decision to create specific interventions, like “episodes” that thematically are always related to the notion of water. The episodes “lower” the scale of the urban fabric creating points of rest and places to play; they signal specific points without destroying the linear unity of the track (Nikiforidis and Castro
:9) [the translation from Greek by Konstantinos Ioannidis].
The narrative sequence behind the spatial events of the fifteen Gardens is, namely, a set of memory-recalling notions: the Garden of the White Tower, the Garden of Alexander, the Garden of the Evening Sun, the Garden of Sand, the Garden of Shade, the Garden of Seasons, the Garden of Odysseus Foka, the Mediterranean Garden, the Garden of Roses, the Garden of Sculptures, the Garden of Friends, the Garden of Sound, the Garden of Memory, the Garden of Water, and the Garden of Music. Initially, the original design proposal of the competition submission included even more gardens, but some of them were not eventually materialised due to economic or legislation reasons.
What is rather remarkable is that, out of these themes, the architects managed, first, to let the story make the activity patterns alongside the edge challenging the public realm and, second, to let the users themselves make the story of the gardens told. Therefore, tellable green spaces offering moments of visual isolation and enclosure within various recreational uses and sport facilities narrate and connect the story of ‘the city lost’. Their design proposal specifies adequately the ontological status of those thematic areas, framing specific concepts behind lost images and atmospheres. By doing this, it reconstructs the lost identity of Thessaloniki’s waterfront in a modern and communicative way, rendering the above-mentioned notions either as real, like those of the sand, the evening sun and the water, or as fictitious like the notions of the friend and the music.
3.2 The Survey of the Current Use of the Waterfront Gardens and Its Findings
In order to explore the possibility of user-centered improvements for existing public open spaces an online Survey of the current use of the Waterfront Gardens was conducted. The survey measured users’ preferences, and strengths and weaknesses of the whole area with a focus on three of the fifteen Gardens – the Gardens of Sculptures and of Sound and the Mediterranean Garden. The questionnaire presented 15 questions with multiple choices and ability for the user to record his/her individual statement on a specific topic in a narrative or descriptive format. People were allowed to express multiple preferences. The design and responses to the questionnaire are available online.Footnote 2
The analysis of the Survey shows that the Garden of Sound was liked by 91.9% of respondents, the Garden of Sculptures by 73.8% and the Mediterranean Garden by 56.5% of responders. A total of 62 visitors to the Gardens participated in the web-based survey. People answering the questionnaire were mostly residents of Thessaloniki (85.2%) and 14.8% of them were living in nearby coastal neighbourhoods. The vast majority of respondents (61.3%) were between 15–24 years old, while 33.9% were between 25–44 years old. It is notable that people belonging to “digital native” generation of 24–44 years old (Prensky 2001) were the dominant age group, who said that they visit the Gardens and that the Gardens require various improvements. 37.1% Of the respondents visited the Gardens once a week and 33.9 once a month. 60% Of the respondents noted that the Gardens are empty for at least half of the time.
Respondents were asked to rate existing conditions of the Gardens. The connectivity of the Gardens to the other part of the city was considered important by 32.3% of respondents, ease of access to the Gardens by 27.3% of resonance and their identity by 37.1%. Specific design features of the Gardens were valued by 33.9% of respondents. 46.8% of respondents were attracted by the presence of sitting places, 33.9% liked shade in the Gardens and 33.9% valued its greenery.
Urban thematization of the studied Gardens in terms of added meaning, value and function were highly rated by the respondents. Natural landscapes, greenery, water features and light were considered as attractive features of the Mediterranean and Sound Gardens. The Garden of Sculptures attracted people by its design, though it was noted that there is no shade there and no greenery.
58.3% of the respondents requested improvements to communications and collaborative practices in the Gardens. The Garden’s maintenance and landscape scored only 1.8% and 22.8% respectively which indicates that responders would like improvements in their management and more individual and collective empowerment over these activities. In addition, the security in the Gardens was given by the responders 16.1%.
The 46.3% of respondents commented on lack of provision of experiences, entertainment and spontaneous activities in the Gardens and 40.7% of the respondents requested day entertainment and 59.3% night entertainment. Furthermore, the 66.1% of users wanted to see “surprises” in the Gardens. Pop-up installations were requested by 67.2% of respondents. The requirement for shops and bars were important to only 26.2% of respondents.
The original design of the Gardens did not incorporate any digital layer, which can improve connectivity, accessibility and security as, requested by the respondents to support new activities in the Gardens. This could attract more people and make the Gardens more popular and successful. 39% of respondents wanted to have digital interactions in Gardens and 39.3% wanted to have Wi-Fi hot spots in the Gardens. Respondents pointed that they were using smartphones in the Gardens to take photos (79.7%), to get information about the place (40.7%) and to communicate with friends (37.3%). It is notable that 56.1% of the respondents noted that free Wi-Fi in the Gardens will not be a main reason to go there. The analysis of empirical data related to people’s everyday experiences in the studied Gardens, shows that they are considered as memorable places, where local people like to return frequently. At the same time the majority of people noted that the Gardens are under-designed and inadequately adapted to their needs and contemporary lifestyle.
The findings of the survey on the experiences of users of the studied Gardens, validated the authors’ initial assumptions made during their observation study held in the area during April 2016, particularly in relation to the emptiness of many spaces during the majority of weekdays. Therefore, the design tasks and solutions are pivotal for the introduction of new material/physical and immaterial/digital features. In order to enhance the Gardens’ everyday use, we need to consider the technologically mediated approach which will support users’ needs and develop creative design strategies that bridge the gap between the physical and digital landscape of the Gardens. Specific strategic solutions for effective urban improvements within the existing thematic strategy of Nikiforidis and Cuomo can be facilitated by digital solutions based on the local context.