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Public spaces “the biggest challenge facing humanity today” – UN

Published at: 25 January 2016


An urban redevelopment project in Durban’s inner city is a central case study in the latest United Nations public space report

Building inclusive, healthy, functional, and productive cities is perhaps the greatest challenge facing humanity today, according to the Placemaking and the Future of Cities report released last month by the UN-HABITAT Sustainable Urban Development Network and the Project for Public Spaces.

“What defines a character of a city is its public space, not its private space” says UN-HABITAT Executive Director Joan Clos J Matheu. “What defines the value of the private assets of the space are not the assets by themselves but the common assets. The value of the public good affects the value of the private good. We need to show every day that public spaces are an asset to a city.”

According to the report the challenges facing public space are the following:

  • Lack of Public Space: Especially in informal settlements, public spaces can be lacking altogether, increasing tension and stress for people who live in crowded and inadequate conditions. In other cases, new commercial and residential development can destroy traditional public space, as older neighborhoods with well-established social patterns are wiped out to make way for high-rise development, resulting in a profound dislocation of the population and disruption of centuries-old ways of living together and sharing resources.
  • Streets, in particular, have for millennia been a vital part of the public realm, providing a place where merchants can sell their wares, children can play, and people can stop to talk. The growing prevalence of the automobile has squeezed out these uses. Reclaiming streets as places for people can strengthen cities in a variety of ways – economically, environmentally, as well as socially.
  • Lack of Planning for Public Spaces: All over the world, sprawl development is allowed to spread without any plan for public space. Sometimes, builders create “public” space that is actually private — behind the walls of gated communities, inside malls that are patrolled by security guards, or within exclusive clublike recreational areas. All of these types of spaces create the illusion that public space exists, but in actuality function to separate people by class and income, as well as sometimes by ethnicity and religion.
  • Lack of Public Spaces That Bring People Together: The best public spaces bring together people from all walks of life and all income groups. The presence of multiple types of people ensures that no one group dominates, and that the space is safe and welcoming for all, including women and youth. Where public space is absent, inadequate, poorly designed, or privatized, the city becomes increasingly segregated. Lines are drawn based on religion, ethnicity, and economic status. The result can be a dangerously polarized city where social tensions are more likely to flare up and where social mobility and economic opportunity are stifled.
  • Lack of Participation and Poor Design: These are not only matters for planners, designers, and bureaucrats to decide in a void. Only with full public participation in the creation of public spaces can truly great places come into being. Building a city is an organic process, not a simple recipe or a one- size- ts-all pattern. Local customs must always be considered and honored. Maintenance costs must remain within reason for the community involved.

In order to help, UN-HABITAT created a handbook included in the report for the use of municipal leaders in future public space projects, laying out 10 best practices for public space projects called Ten Ways to Improve Your City. To provide evidence of best practice, examples from around the world are highlighted - one of them the Traditional Medicine and Herb Market in the Warwick Junction neighborhood of Durban, which the report describes as a “once ramshackle and dangerous place”. The report highlights the role design played in changing the face of market and the Warwick Junction neighborhood:

“The local municipality has developed a comprehensive approach to improving local infrastructure, and the market is one of its premier projects. Government workers went to the traders and found out what they needed and wanted, then repurposed empty space in the market’s neighborhood to create enclosed stalls for vendors and locked storage spaces. Pedestrian routes have been widened, allowing easier movement for shoppers. The vendors preparing bovine heads are now equipped with sanitary cooking facilities. The result of all these improvements, in-formed by the very people who were to use them, has been an economic blossoming, a safer market, and a dramatic increase in opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship”.

Download this informative report here.

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