COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Grounding the New Urban Agenda in Streets as Places

Ethan Kent
Jun 24, 2015
Jan 7, 2018

Summary of Future of Places II, in Buenos Aires Argentina

“The street is the river of life, the place where we come together, the pathway to the center.” -- William H. Whyte

The second annual Future of Places Conference, held in Buenos Aires in September 2014, highlighted the importance of thinking about streets as a fundamental mechanism of intervention for driving successful urban development at multiple scales. This evolution in focusing on networks of streets as public spaces will make a strong contribution to the post-2015 “New Urban Agenda,” which will be decided in Quito, Ecuador at the Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in 2016.

Bringing together thought leaders, professionals, and scholars representing more than 40 countries, this interdisciplinary conference emerged to build on the UN-Habitat report entitled “Streets as Public Spaces and Drivers of Urban Prosperity.” In demonstrating that successful and prosperous cities are “those that recognize the relevance of public spaces,” this report emphasizes the importance of allocating sufficient open public space and street networks in order to achieve these urban goals.

In debating, discussing, amending and advancing these ideas over the course of our time together, results of this conference included a determination that simply allocating this space is not enough. Rather, it is the design and management of a street, the variety of uses it can support, and, most importantly, the process through which the space is created, which will be the most fundamental determinants of its sustainability and success.

There is perhaps no human habitat in which people can become more dynamically connected to a place than on a street. Along with providing access to necessary goods and services, streets have the capacity to provide comfort, social interaction, and community engagement—though these outcomes are rarely prioritized and frequently overlooked.

While the planning and design of streets has focused on important variables such as the block and its buildings, maximizing mobility, “completing streets” for alternative modes, historical preservation, streetscape design, storefronts and retail viability, and maintenance and security, rarely has it focused on how we make the street function as a place. Indeed, it is this lack of great, human-centered streets that so often precludes the growth and economic success of cities and regions. As Jane Jacobs said in 1958: “The street works harder than any other part of downtown.”

The Streets of Havana still support many of the social outcomes that car-oriented streets are loosing.

An important focus of the conference was the rapid pace of innovation and change in the streets and public spaces throughout Latin America. The fast transformation of the streets of Buenos Aires has been particularly inspiring. In a short time the administration created 100 blocks of pedestrianized streets or pedestrian-priority zones, and 130 km of bicycle lanes. The vibrant street markets, neighborhood streets and street performers of Buenos Aires were perhaps the most memorable experiences of the conference as a whole, and of the city itself.

The conference built toward Project for Public Spaces and UN Habitat's "International Public Markets Conference" in Barcelona, in March 2015, and Future of Places 3 in Stockholm, in June 2015.

It is more important than ever that we begin thinking differently about the ways we create, plan, and participate in urban life. We are indeed at a critical juncture for achieving the safety, sustainability, equity and resiliency of cities across the globe. As we continue to bring disparate causes and efforts together through a focus on place and Placemaking, we can work together to create a thriving future of places.

Ethan Kent
Ethan Kent
Related Articles & Resources
COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space