Public space in the New Urban Agenda:

The Road to Implementation

The New Urban Agenda is debated in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016

The New Urban Agenda is now the official policy of the United Nations, adopted by a vote of all member states at the UN General Assembly in December 2016. We are gratified that the Future of Places forum has contributed to the content of the Agenda, and in particular the key elements that deal with public space. The New Urban Agenda rightly recognizes the fundamental role of public spaces as “drivers of social and economic development,” “enhancing safety and security, favoring social and inter-generational interaction and the appreciation of diversity” as well as “promoting walkability and cycling towards improving health and well-being.” As Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos observed, a city without public spaces is not really a city at all.

And yet we continue to build just such non-cities, sprawling across the globe in chaotic bursts of fragmented development. Sometimes they are informal settlements for the poor, lacking in adequate, safe and inclusive public spaces. Sometimes they are more expensive developments for the middle and upper classes, featuring privatized shopping malls, gated neighborhoods, and vast stretches of automobile-dominated, resource-intensive sprawl. Although these new developments do carry some positive benefits, especially the alleviation of the problems of poverty, evidence demonstrates that their negative impacts on social, economic and ecological sustainability will be profound.

What is lacking is an adequate evidence-based body to guide implementation of a more benign public space agenda. Research demonstrates that a healthy framework of public space impacts all the other aspects of urbanization, including social, economic and ecological benefits. But to achieve these benefits, we need to know how public space works, how it shapes behavior, how it produces positive outcomes for all parts of society, and what is needed to ensure those outcomes are achieved. We also need to understand the threats to public space – how it fails, how it declines, and what are the barriers to its creation and improvement over time.

This, broadly speaking, is the research agenda of the Future of Places Research Network. We are a network of institutions and researchers, with our main hub at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. We follow the model of a “research coordination network” – that is, we all work on a range of projects including joint projects, smaller group projects, and individual projects at our own institutions.

All of us have participated in the Future of Places forum, a three-year conference series that brought together over 1,500 researchers, practitioners, officials and activists, representing more than 700 organizations, 275 cities and 100 countries from all around the world.

The most important joint project we have currently is DaRPS, the Database on Research in Public Space. This database compiles key field research literature on public space – a surprisingly incomplete subject area, given its importance – and identifies key findings as well as key gaps in the research that can be addressed by members of our research network. From there we will disseminate key conclusions and tools for implementation through white papers, books, symposia, and other forms of communication. We will also participate in implementation projects for the New Urban Agenda, where we can conduct research that adds to the knowledge base in general, and the database in particular.

We are excited by the work ahead, and we look forward to staying in touch with you and your colleagues as this work develops!

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