In 2014, UN-Habitat launched Urban October - an entire month dedicated to bringing awareness to global urban challenges as we approach the Habitat III conference. This year, the month kicks off with World Habitat Day (held each year on the first Monday of October), which aims to encourage us all to reflect on the state of our public spaces, and to “remind the world that we all have the power and the responsibility to shape the future of our cities and towns.”
The theme of this year's World Habitat Day - “Public Spaces for All” - forces us to consider which public spaces really are accessible, safe, and inclusive for all. As always, defining the idea of “public space,” here, can be tricky. Where do privately-owned pieces of land that are open to the public fit in? What about streets and highways that are publicly owned, but only accessible to citizens with cars? How do we categorize a space that is public in name, but to which entire segments of the population (the poor, the elderly, children, women, or those belonging to racial or ethnic minorities, for example) are unwelcome or denied consistent access, whether intentionally or otherwise?
At the heart of all of these questions is the important issue of access.
We know that public spaces can take many forms - from streets, sidewalks, and parks, to civic buildings, markets, and playgrounds. But despite being open and universally accessible in theory, there are many ways in which the planning and design of these spaces work instead to exclude certain individuals and groups.
For example, in cities and regions around the world there are many areas in which women are precluded from using public space because of the threat or fear of crime, violence, and sexual harassment. The pervasiveness of gender-based street harassment is "one of the most significant barriers preventing equitable access and enjoyment of public spaces today,” writes UN-Habitat. "This reality reduces women's and girl's freedom of movement," declares UNWomen, and it "reduces their ability to participate in school, work, and in public life. It limits their access to essential services, and enjoyment of cultural and recreational opportunities. It also negatively impacts their health and well-being."
Aging populations and people with disabilities also face a lack of accessibility to many facets of the built environment - from streets and housing to public amenities and basic services like health, sanitation, education and transportation. For people who are unable to travel more than a few blocks from home, having a built environment that encourages dense, mixed-use development is the difference between being an active member of the community and feeling isolated from public life.
Although they are some of its most frequent users, children and youth often face exclusion from from public space - whether due to over-policing, a lack of designated play areas, or the fact that they are ineffective consumers. Simple issues, like a lack of drinking fountains or restrooms, can mean the world to families with small children. In many places, as children grow older, they start to be intentionally excluded from public spaces through prohibitions on activities like skateboarding or loitering.
Those who are economically disadvantaged are also at risk, even though the use and availability of public space is especially important for the urban poor and the homeless, for whom it often performs multiple functions as the site of social life, recreation, and informal business. For populations without stable access to shelter, jobs, and other essential resources, public space “needs to allow for informal economic activity and compensate for inadequate housing.” Worse, many public spaces are designed specifically to exclude and deter homeless populations, whether by taking aggressive security measures within a particular space or by making them deliberately inhospitable for sleeping or resting.
The Importance of Placemaking in the New Urban Agenda
In many rapidly-urbanizing areas, an insufficient amount of public space and a lack of adequate street networks work to further exacerbate urban inequality. As we approach Habitat III and work towards the post-2015 New Urban Agenda, some of the biggest challenges in the public realm will be not only the provision of adequate streets and quality open spaces, but also ensuring that these spaces are free and accessible to everyone, regardless of their age, race, gender, ability, or socio-economic status. Further, they should be designed and developed with these principles in mind.
The grassroots and citizen-led process of Placemaking enables all members of a community to play a part in the shaping of their own public spaces, and most importantly those who have traditionally been excluded from these processes. Of course, the Placemaking process itself must also be accessible, since many of the same issues that prevent people from using public spaces can also prevent them from attending public meetings. Therefore, it is crucial that communities engaging in a Placemaking process reach out to accommodate all different demographics, including both current users of public spaces and those who have traditionally been denied regular access.
In recognition of World Habitat Day, let us consider these essential tenets of Placemaking and how they resonate with this year's theme "Public Spaces for All." In closing, we will highlight the following message from UN-Habitat, which speaks well to the myriad physical and social benefits of implementing Placemaking, in both practice and policy:
The design of the physical environment greatly influences how people interact with each other. Broad sidewalks and commercial street frontage foster economic activity and make neighborhoods safer. Cities with small building blocks and short distances between intersections are easy to walk and navigate. And cities with quality public space invite people to come outside, communicate and collaborate with each other, and participate in public life. This is why the mission to create "public spaces for all" is one of the anchors of urban planning and design.