Public space: Integrating urban ‘living rooms’ into global development

“Public space for all is a redundancy,” architect Daniel Libeskind told a daylong event marking World Habitat Day at U.N. Headquarters.

NEW YORK — Outdoor film screenings in Nairobi, geotagged photos of Philippine public spaces in need of some care, debates about sustainable cities in Lima, paeans to the city from a Nobel laureate in New York. These are just some of the activities that have taken place thus far during Urban October, the month designated by UN-Habitat to celebrate all matters urban.

Kicked off by World Habitat Day on 5 October and closed out by World Cities Day on 31 October, the month of events also marks one year until the Habitat III conference on urbanization, which will take place 17-20 October 2016 in Quito. That event will see world leaders, local authorities and civil society convene in the Ecuadorean capital to hash out the final details of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year global strategy that will come out of Habitat III.

The one-year mark has also seen preparations for the conference ramp up in earnest. Earlier this month, metropolitan areas were on the agenda at a two-day thematic meeting in Montréal. This week, the Asia-Pacific region, which comprises over half of the world’s population and many of its largest urban areas, will discuss how the unique urbanization needs of that part of the world will find their way into the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Citiscope’s calendar of Habitat III and related events]

Since 1986, the United Nations has designated the first Monday in October as World Habitat Day. This year’s theme, Public Spaces for All, brought out sentimental attitudes, high-tech solutions and calls to arms in a daylong symposium at U. N. Headquarters, itself an expansive public space along the East River in Manhattan.

The interrogation of public space came on the heels of September’s adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which includes a landmark goal on cities and human settlements. That goal, SDG 11, also has a target specific to this year’s Urban October theme: “By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.”

[See: Toward a global action plan for public space]

Placing public space in a global development agenda is a progressive move. This new focus shows just how much the idea of development has expanded in the 15 years since the previous global development framework, the Millennium Development Goals, was adopted. Those goals focused on development basics, calling for ending poverty, combating disease, ensuring nutrition and providing health care.

The inclusion of the SDG 11 target on public space was the result of a concerted lobbying campaign by advocates who felt that if sustainable cities were going to be a development goal, they wouldn’t succeed without adequate public spaces. Now, that idea appears to have made inroads at the highest levels of the multilateral system.

“High-quality public spaces encourage people to communicate and collaborate with each other, and to participate in public life,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said 5 October while marking World Habitat Day in New York. “Public spaces can also provide basic services, enhance connectivity, spawn economic activity and raise property values while generating municipal revenue.”

Public spaces have also been a major theme of Joan Clos’s tenure as UN-Habitat’s executive director and now secretary-general of Habitat III. “Public space is a vital component of a prosperous city,” Clos said. “Well-designed and -managed public space is a key asset for a city’s functioning and has a positive impact on its economy, environment, safety, health, integration and connectivity.”

Parks without borders

Yet including this new focus in the world’s new development agenda has also brought with it a challenge: How to measure access to public space. After all, even if the size and proximity of a park is easily measured, how it is used is far harder to quantify. Next week in Bangkok, an expert group of statisticians meets for the second time to hash out a set of indicators that will benchmark the SDGs, including SDG 11.

[See: Hundreds of comments offered on indicators for urban SDG]

For Lakshmi Puri, the deputy director of UN-Women, the proposals to that group thus far are inadequate. “We do not have a single indicator on the safety of women in public spaces,” she said. “The women’s movement supports strongly inclusive sustainable spaces for women and public space for women and girls to ensure that the new development agenda delivers to women and girls in cities in sustainable, measurable, accountable ways.”

“When everything is reduced to the calculation of square metres, economic growth and income, the citizen, the person in the city, loses a sense of continuity and belonging.”

Orhan Pamuk
Novelist, speaking on World Habitat Day

Formulating an indicator that will measure public space for all, especially women, is ultimately part of the mandate of the new development goals. The same is true of the needs of older persons, who were also mentioned in the target on public space. The number of people aged 60 years and older living in cities is projected to grow to more than 900 million by 2050, likely accounting for a quarter of the developing world’s urban population. Earlier this month, the U. N. secretary-general highlighted this fact and looked forward to Habitat III as a key “opportunity to advance this effort”.

Strong examples of public spaces that work for the public already abound. At the World Habitat Day events in New York, there was no shortage of examples of well-loved public spaces, many drawn from the immediate surroundings. Mitchell Silver, New York City’s commissioner of parks and recreation, called for “parks without borders” that create a “seamless public realm.” He called these public spaces “the living rooms of our city, where people gather and have their social lives.”

[See: U. N. marks Urban October, one-year countdown to Habitat III]

That idea resonated with keynote speaker Daniel Libeskind, the architect who designed the Freedom Tower on the site of the former World Trade Center. He explained that his design for the building, the Western Hemisphere’s tallest, began not with the structure but with the public space around it, which would be the only opportunity for most New Yorkers to experience the site.

“Public space for all is a redundancy,” Libeskind explained. “Public space is for all — for strangers, immigrants, those who don’t speak our language, the neglected, the oppressed.”

Renaissance of the public realm

One of the presenters at World Habitat Day was Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His most recent novel, “A Strangeness in My Mind”, came out this week in English. It tells the story of a rural-to-urban migrant from Central Anatolia to the big city of Istanbul — a dramatization of the trends of global urbanization that form the centrepiece of the Habitat III debate.

In New York, Pamuk addressed urban professionals who may be keen to quantify and measure of the importance of emotional attachment to urban spaces. “Our sentiments are affiliated with visual memory,” he said. “We fall in love, then we pass by a square, and the next time we pass that square, it reminds of our love, our anger, jealousy, frustration, our grandmother.”

Pamuk also sounded a cautionary note about the rapid pace of urban growth, especially at the hands of real-estate developers, who are leading a radical makeover of his native Istanbul. “When everything is reduced to the calculation of square metres, economic growth and income, the citizen, the person in the city, loses a sense of continuity and belonging,” he said.

Istanbul’s historic Taksim Square was the site of pitched clashes between police and protesters two years ago. Yet in South America, Brazil’s ambassador to the U. N. Antonio Patriota perceives “a renaissance of the public space in many countries”. He cites the teardown of a waterfront elevated highway in Rio de Janeiro and the potential transformation of another such eyesore in São Paulo into a park similar to New York City’s famed High Line.

Outside the borders of his country, Patriota also singled out Quito, giving urbanists a taste of next year’s Habitat III host city. “Ecuador’s capital’s urban-renewal project has been an ambitious effort to turn the historical centre into a vibrant heart of the city,” he said. “Today, the colonial quarter of the city is a buzzing centre for commerce, culture and tourism, a showcase of quality urban planning that has become an example for several cities in Latin America.”

Certainly that example will be on prominent show during Habitat III, as will the global discussion over the future of the world’s public spaces.

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