Challenges and opportunities of public space as a generator of growth in African Cities

A peer learning exchange on public space in the African context took place from 7-9 December 2015 in Blantyre, Malawi. The event was hosted by the city of Blantyre, and co-organized by the UCLG Committee on Urban Strategic Planning, the eThekwini Municipal Institute of Learning (MILE), UN-Habitat and the International Union of Architects (UIA). 

The exchange brought together national and international experts, as well as participants representing technical and political leaders from the cities of Nairobi, Durban, Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Zomba and Blantyre, to share their experiences and visions around the challenges and opportunities of public space for African cities. The event emphasized the importance of public space a as lever of change, that enhances safety, fosters social cohesion and equality and serves to increase productivity levels, community actions and economies.

Public space has become a very important subject in many cities across the world and in African cities in particular. Public space is now understood to have the potential to become a key generator of socio-economic growth. As highlighted by the Mayor of the City of Blantyre, Noel Chalamanda, the United Nations approved an urban Sustainable Development Goal, SDG 11, that includes a target referring specificallyto public space: SDG 11 Target 7 states “by 2030 provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.”

It is now considered crucial to integrate public space into policies and development models of African cities. However, the design, use, decision making and regulation is complex. African cities need to be considered not only in terms of the spatial aspects, but also the economic and social management. The profile of public space needs to be raised, African cities grow fast and often in an informal way with little attention to public space. For these reasons, participants engaged in discussions aiming to identify a common definition of the role of public space in the African Context. The City of Nairobi shared its experiences around public space as a key element and stated that “Public Space centered urban development is a new concept in Africa that requires to be anchored in city development plans and policies towards urban sustainability.”

Public Space in the city of Blantyre

The concept of public spaces has attracted much interest in the City of Blantyre. The learning exchange was an opportunity to discuss ideas and come up with solutions to some of the challenges that Blantyre is currently facing like the utilisation of green open spaces and urban parks. These spaces have been very marginal in Blantyre due to the poor state of the parks. Since the early 90s, urban parks have been neglected and this has led to illegal use and degradation, particularly in Njamba, Rangeley and Queen Parks, Chimwankhunda and Chiwembe Dams.

In order to identify opportunities and challenges during the site visit to some of the parks of the city of Blantyre, participants engaged in the design and implementation of an assessment tool. This assessment tool can be further modified and implemented according to the needs of the different cities.

This learning exchange was an opportunity for the Blantyre City Council and all participants to actively contribute in shaping global policy whilst at the same time developing implementable solutions at the city level that will produce tangible results that all citizens can enjoy. The committee on Urban Strategic Planning, to which the city council of Blantyre is member, has focused the work around public local policies on public space since 2014 and is developing several city to city learning strategies on this topic, which will culminate in an overall policy framework for local governments to implement at a city level. The policy framework on public space will be presented at the World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders in Bogota in October 2016. These actions are developing the process of Habitat III, where public space will be considered as a lever of change.

More information:

  • UCLG Action Learning page