Why “cities of opportunity” need well-connected public space systems

A night market in Hong Kong, providing opportunities for economic transactions and social mixing along a busy street.

“Cities of opportunity” – the theme of the 2020 World Urban Forum – reminds us how cities facilitate connections between diverse people and resources. thereby generating opportunities for all to develop and prosper, in economic, health and cultural dimensions. Public spaces are emerging as the essential platform on which these connections between people and resources develop. New research shows that public spaces are supplemented by, but not replaced by, other more private forms of contact, which tend to reinforce already existing connections. By contrast, public spaces play a role in “propinquity and serendipity” which are emerging as key drivers of innovation and opportunity. Cities for all, by definition, must offer public space (including streets and other spaces) for all. An important research question is, then, what is the role of public space in fostering innovation, creativity, and opportunity for all? What is its role in promoting resilience and climate adaptation?  And what tools and strategies can we use to achieve these goals?

The New Urban Agenda contains nine paragraphs describing the importance of public spaces. Among the benefits identified are social interaction and inclusion, human health and well-being, economic exchange, cultural expression, improving resilience of cities to disasters and climate change, physical and mental health, household and ambient air quality, reducing noise, promoting attractive and livable cities [and] human settlements, and prioritizing the conservation of endemic species.

These goals are all the more important in an age of rapid urbanization, growing climate stresses, surging informal settlements, threats to the well-being of vulnerable populations including migrants, growing urban inequality in many cities, and increasing trends of urban sprawl and fragmentation, resulting in the degradation or loss of public space. Yet it is public space that is most helpful in responding to these challenges, as the New Urban Agenda makes clear.

The adoption of the New Urban Agenda by acclamation by all 193 member countries of the United Nations stands as a landmark achievement in urban history. However, that achievement must now be followed up by implementation – by the sharing of tools and knowledge about how to develop, protect and improve public spaces, and public space networks. Much progress has been made, but further progress depends on further sharing of knowledge and tools.

The Future of Places and its allies will be attending the World Urban Forum, and hope to see many friends and collaborators there.

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