Public space in the New Urban Agenda: Research into Implementation

A session at the World Urban Forum examines the challenge of creating good-quality public space in an era of rapid urbanization 

Setha Low
Anthropologist Setha Low, director of the CUNY Public Space Research Group, discusses implementation of the public space provisions of the New Urban Agenda at WUF9.

The New Urban Agenda contains nine paragraphs that deal with the key 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.” But the challenge of implementation remains — particularly the challenge of assembling knowledge, and systems for knowledge sharing and action in specific (often quite varied) localities.

This networking session brought key partners together who are now implementing aspects of the New Urban Agenda, and working to assemble knowledge-sharing and dissemination platforms as called for in the implementation sections of the New Urban Agenda.

The session was hosted by the Future of Places, a collaborative partnership of Ax:son Johnson Foundation, KTH University and other partners, and aimed at research, implementation, networking and advocacy, and centered on key issues of public space as a fundamental component of sustainable urban development. The four-year forum has 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 panelists included: Laura Petrella (Leader of the City Planning, Extension and Design Unit, UN-Habitat), Kyle Farrell (Visiting Faculty, Harvard University, USA), Setha Low (Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Psychology, Public Space Research Group, City University of New York), Hai Dinh Dang (Senior Project Officer, Livable Cities Project, HealthBridge Vietnam), Ibrahim Maiga (Coordinator, Peaceful Roads, Niger), and Michael Mehaffy, moderator (project leader, Centre for the Future of Places at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm SE). Also participating as front-row participants were Ethan Kent (Vice-President, Project for Public Spaces, USA), Luisa Bravo (Co-Editor of The Journal of Public Space, City Space Architecture, Italy), Mirko Guaralda (Co-Editor of The Journal of Public Space, Queensland University of Technology, Australia), Ben Bolgar (Senior Director, The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, UK)

This was an important networking session that brought key collaborators together for a developing model of implementation for the New Urban Agenda, and particularly the public space agenda within it. Laura Petrella discussed the importance of implementation, and the broader context of UN-Habitat’s work on public space. Kyle Farrell discussed the processes of urbanization now under way, and teased out several important differences and their implications for public space. He called for partners to move beyond public space per se, and embrace a broader :public space agenda.” Setha Low discussed “why public space matters,” illustrating its crucial role as a forum for human interaction, participation and political contestation.

The session participants then discussed an evolving model of small, feasible public space pilot projects, working with key partners in strategic locations. These projects can be scaled up as they become successful, demonstrating the value of public space for the residents, and for local governments and other partners. From these pilot projects, larger masterplanning frameworks could be developed, leading ultimately to new national policies on the development of more and better public spaces.

The role of the Centre for the Future of Places would be primarily to offer a local “research arm” to the implementation partners – providing research on best practices, and also conducting (in partnership with local universities and others) field research to uncover strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in each locale. Coming out of each project, the CFP would share the findings with other locales, who could then adapt them to their own specific conditions and limitations.

One of the proposed pilots discussed in the session is in Da Nang, Vietnam, where the CFP partner HealthBridge is proposing to develop new public spaces in partnership with the City. This work was described by Hai Dinh Dang, Senior Project Officer for HealthBridge. This follows successful work they have already done in Hanoi and Hoi An, Vietnam. The City in turn is eager to see the benefits of this work scale up, perhaps into a city-wide masterplan. The national government has also expressed a strong interest, and asked the CFP to provide commentary in their new national urbanization policy document.

One crucial issue is that each locality has its own mix of opportunities and constraints, and in each case, all of the potential barriers and incentives need to be considered, and revisions or alternatives may need to be found. This is the hard work of reform of the many barriers like obsolete zoning codes, traffic engineering standards, bank lending rules, and myriad other elements of the “operating system for growth.” Some of these are universal (like the dynamics of global real estate investment) and some are extremely specific (like local ordinances and customs). Often, however, they have enough in common that sharing of tools and strategies can be enormously helpful. This is a key goal of the collaboration, as discussed in the session.

Another goal is to build a knowledge base of research findings about public space, and the benefits on offer for those who improve their quantity and quality, as well as the issues to manage and accommodate in public space projects. To that end, the CFP has begun to develop a “public space research database” with key research literature from a number of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, environmental psychology, economics, ecology, urban design, and other fields. This resource can be of value in providing the initial consultation for those seeking to develop a pilot project. In turn, the various pilot projects might themselves offer useful field research to add to the literature, and to the database specifically. Such a “virtuous circle” approach, connecting research to practice and back to research, should be helpful for both the state of practice, and for the research literature as well.

Other participants discussed their related work on implementation. Ibrahim Maiga presented a similar pilot project in the country of Niger. Ethan Kent discussed the value of an evolving global network of activists using and sharing “placemaking” tools to develop and improve public space. Luisa Bravo and Mirko Guaralda described the new efforts with this very journal, the Journal of Public Space. Ben Bolgar showed a new toolkit for rapid urbanization, developed by The Prince’s Foundation in collaboration with the Commonwealth Association of Planners, to be applied in the 53 Commonwealth countries (and others countries and local governments as well, should they choose).

During the discussion, the session participants emphasized one finding that should be encouraging to all. We do know how to make public spaces – and cities – that are thriving, successful, equitable, and sustainable (because they have sustained). We have done it innumerable times throughout human experience. Perhaps our biggest obstacle, then, is in the holdover of our own attitudes from the recent past – mired in a now-obsolete way of seeing the world. As Dr. Joan Clos has said, the essential problem before us is simply this: to recover this lost art and science of building cities.

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