Friday, May 20, 2011

What is the Place for Public Space in our Cities?

by: Cynthia Nikitin

What constitutes a public space? Where do public and private jurisdictions end? Should the private sector be involved in managing public spaces?

Cynthia Nikitin
These questions were hotly contested at the recent public space conference “What’s the Place for Public Space in our Cites?” hosted by French think-tank The City Factory/La Fabrique de la Cité.  This convening marked the first academic and professional dialogue amongst French cities, professionals, and researchers as to what constitutes a public space. I kicked things off with an opening address on “What are good public spaces?”
It seemed like the majority of the French contingency was completely convinced that it is the job of municipal government  to build, provide, and manage public spaces whereas we in the US and Hamburg Germany have found public-private partnerships to be very successful and viable in the long term.
Check out this video by The City Factory/La Fabrique de la Cité. It’s a great exploration of the French perspective on public spaces.
  • What’s the “recipe” for effective public spaces?
  • How do public spaces evolve?
  • What new uses do they serve?
  • What are city-dwellers’ expectations with respect to public spaces and how can public authorities address them?
  • What governance structures must we implement?
  • Why do cities invest in public spaces (addressing issues such as image, attractiveness, quality of life, security)?
  • What innovations and good practices can inspire us?
We also talked about how to measure the value of public spaces and what elements are most important to people (in London, Hamburg, Paris and Barcelona); what is public vs. private space; whether would BID’s would work in France; how transportation impacts cities; and highlighted the importance both of managing public spaces and engaging communities in defining, visioning, and designing them.
No matter the weather, people flock to Barcelona's Las Ramblas
The Role of Public Spaces in the Global North and the Global South
I went to Barcelona to buy a paella pan and speak at the conference but I also had another task: I went to build on PPS’ ongoing collaboration with UN-HABITAT by introducing Thomas Melin, Director of UN-HABITAT’s Sustainable Urban Development Network (SUD-Net) to other actors and thinkers looking at public space.
While the focus of the conference was decidedly European and on public spaces in the global north, the UN Habitat’s focus is on public spaces in rapidly urbanizing rural areas in the global south. But it’s important to examine the ways the function of public spaces changes drastically, depending on context.
In many cities of the global south, or in informal settlements anywhere, public spaces are not principally used for leisure like having a coffee, socializing or relaxing as they are in the north.  Instead, they’re sites where local informal retail economies flourish and where people seek refuge from small or precariously designed housing.
In these contexts, managed public spaces can even formalize and validate the right of the inhabitants to live in that area.  In some cities, when public space and public infrastructure are withheld from these informal settlements, it is a means to drive people out so the areas can be redeveloped for more profitable housing developments.