Exploring the central importance of public spaces at the AfriCities Summit

Implementing the New Urban Agenda, and delivering on the promise of cities.

Participants at the session, “Creating Safe, Inclusive and Accessible Public Space in Urban Africa: From Inventory to Implementation” at the AfriCities conference in Marrakesh.

Something alarming is happening in African cities.

Like many parts of the world, Africa today is experiencing an unprecedented period of rapid urbanization.  This is not in itself a bad thing, since urbanization tends to bring major improvements in health, education, well-being and life opportunities, particularly for women and children.  Of course this is a core reason that people are attracted to cities in the first place: they are engines of creative opportunity, bringing people together into “socio-spatial reactors” with expanded capacity to generate wealth, social interaction, cultural creativity and well-being. Recent research has clarified how this process actually works.

The alarming trend, however, is that even as they expand, African cities are seeing a loss of good-quality public spaces. These include parks and other green spaces, but also walkable streets, squares, markets and other key parts of the “urban commons.” It is not just that public and green spaces offer many important benefits, as most of us recognize: exercise, social interaction, attractive ambiences and so on. As our research and others’ has shown (REF), it is these networks of public space that provide a critical connection between private spaces, and that bring people into contact with opportunities, ultimately allowing access to the benefits that cities offer.  The evidence suggests that when people are deprived of access to public spaces – unless they already have access to expensive and resource-intensive automobiles, digital networks and the like – they will be deprived of much of what cities offer, and we will increasingly experience “a tale of two cities.”

In short, public space is a kind of “spine” of cities – the essential framework for healthy, sustainable and resource-efficient urbanization.  And yet, in many places in Africa – and elsewhere – good quality public space is in decline.

This challenge, and its promising solutions, were examined in two notable sessions at the just-completed AfriCities Summit in Marrakesh, Morocco (November 20-24).  The summit, hosted by United Cities and Local Governments of Africa, brings together local authorities, administrators, NGOs, universities and other stakeholders to examine the challenges and opportunities for African cities.

The first session, “Overcoming the Loss of Green and Public Spaces in Urban Africa,” was hosted by the City of Johannesburg (Ayanda Roji, organiser), in partnership with the South African Cities Network (SACN), United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), and the Centre for the Future of Places (CFP) in Stockholm.

Group Shot - Thursday Session copy
Session participants in ““Overcoming the Loss of Green and Public Spaces in Urban Africa.”

The session was chaired by Hon. Mohamed Sadiki, Mayor of the capital city of Rabat, Morocco.  Joining him was Dr Ntombi  Khumalo, City of Johannesburg; Ms Nachi Majoe, International Council for Local Environmental Initiative – Local Government Sustainability; Dr Collins Adjei Mensah, University of Cape Coast, Ghana;  Mr Adrian Peters, Ethekwini municipality; Ms. Laura Petrella of UN-Habitat;  and this author, Michael Mehaffy of the Centre for the Future of Places.

All the panelists agreed that public and green spaces are under threat, and the situation is urgent.  On the one hand, informal settlements tend to use up available land, leaving inadequate spaces for streets, squares and parks.  On the other hand, so-called “market-rate development” is increasingly segregated, privatized, and car-dominated, leaving little true public space open to all.

The panel noted the crucial importance of green space for exercise, health benefits, ecological benefits, air quality and other factors. At the same time, other kinds of public spaces are also critical, for example walkable streets that provide access to green spaces.  Distribution is also critical: it does little good to provide large green spaces on the edge of a city if most people don’t have access to it.  Quality as well as quantity is also critical: a smaller amount of quality public space can be more beneficial than a larger quantity that is not as high-quality.

Key conclusions of the session:

  • City authorities need to start prioritizing public green spaces in their cities and start to better integrate the topic into existing spatial plans and urban development agendas.
  • Better collaboration is needed in all spheres of governments within countries and partnerships between, city authorities, the private sector, local communities, business sector and institutions of higher learning to exchange knowledge and experiences and to provide adequate technical and financial support;Strong support should be given to research on green and public spaces and urban landscapes in Africa.
  • Training programmes are needed for city agency officials across departments to understand the benefits of public space, and the mutual advantages from supporting its development.
  • Curriculum is needed for universities to engage with public space development across disciplines including urban planning, architecture, landscape architecture, and others.
  • A pan-African network should be built for peer to peer learning and exchange of lessons, tools, guidelines, principles and strategies on how to effectively and efficiently plan and manage urban green and public spaces to ensure that they are accessible, inclusive, safe and sustainable.

The second session, “Creating Safe, Inclusive and Accessible Public Space in Urban Africa: From Inventory to Implementation,” was organized by UN-Habitat (Mark Ojal, speaker and facilitator) with partnership of the City of Johannesburg Parks (Ayanda Roji, speaker) and the Centre for the Future of Places (yours truly, Michael Mehaffy, speaker).

Mark Ojal moderating exercise
Mark Ojal of UN-Habitat reports on participant comments in the session.

This training session examined challenges and opportunities in implementing SDG 11.7 in urban Africa. Goal 11.7 is a call to action on national governments and city leaders to provide universal access to safe, inclusive, and accessible public spaces, particularly for women, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities by 2030.  The training explored a range of best practices from various cities, showcasing innovations on building urban safety, and city resilience through public spaces, and sharing experiences and strategies on how to provide, improve and secure safe, inclusive, vibrant, and accessible public spaces. The session brought city leaders and stakeholders together to learn about basic steps on conducting citywide inventories and assessments of public spaces.

Key conclusions of the session:

  • There are many tools and strategies available, and methods to share them are urgently needed. “One size does not fit all” and localization is needed, especially to the African context, and to specific city contexts.
  • Tools and strategies needed center around three areas: governance, finance, and design. Within governance we could include zoning code reforms, public involvement processes and “catalytic” pilot projects. Within finance we could include land value capture mechanisms, local improvement districts, and public-private partnerships (taking care to avoid privatization and gentrification). Within design we could include new models of city-wide spatial frameworks prioritizing public space, diagnostic tools to assess where we are and where we need to go, and an evidence base for design (such as research findings and best practice recommendations).
  • Safety is not only a matter of policing but of “natural surveillance” including the co-presence of many people at different times, which in turn requires reform of single-use zoning codes.
  • Gentrification and privatization are issues to monitor and manage; at the same time, they should not dissuade us from taking careful balanced approaches to creating better-quality and better-funded public spaces.
  • Public space is not only produced by central agencies but is “co-produced” by a range of stakeholders and users, and so a broader “placemaking” approach is needed.
  • A “pan-African network” is urgently needed to share knowledge, tools and strategies among practitioners.

The participants all pledged to remain in touch, and work together toward establishing this pan-African platform.

Participating partners:





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