Why are public spaces important for the New Urban Agenda?

UCLG and UN Habitat highlight the importance of public spaces during the Habitat III Africa Regional Meeting 

Public space has become an important subject for many towns and cities around the world, including African cities. Public spaces can help urban centers meet the targets set by the Sustainable Development Goals, for example Goal 11 “making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

The Habitat III Africa Regional Meeting took place in Abuja, Nigeria from 24-26 February, 2016. The event was an opportunity for regional stakeholders to meet, discuss, and identify priorities for sustainable urban development in the coming decades.  The meetings were attended by ministers, leaders of local governments, civil society and private sector organizations, professionals, experts, academia and UN agencies among them UN Habitat and the Habitat III Secretariat. The meeting included a technical segment, a political segment, as well as side events.

UCLG and UN Habitat raised the topic  of public spaces during a side event on 25 February, 2016. UCLG-Africa, led by the secretary general  Mr. Jean-Pierre Elong Mbassi, was actively involved in the Abuja Meetings and participated in the side event on public spaces and the identity of African cities.

As part of the side event  the findings of the UCLG learning publication on African cities were presented by Costly Chanza, Director of Planning in the City of Malawi, in particular the outcomes of the last Peer Learning Event Blantyre, Malawi that took place in December 2015 (find note here).

Here are some of the key messages discussed during the side event:

  • Pay more attention to public spaces as public services, not only as a matter for the  park departments. Public spaces are not only parks they are also key physical elements shaping cities and territories. Streets, laneways, alleys and roads are public goods. Therefore, they have to be maintained, organized and planned with the same rights and responsibilities in mind as other public services
  • Foresee diverse public spaces in extension plans, in particular for intermediary cities.
  • Cities are diverse. Thus, public spaces should correlate with this diversity. Different types of public spaces for different needs. Needs here are considered for inhabitants and local governments.
  • Access for all, ban gated communities:  public space is where all citizens can legitimately go. Old and new African  elites seem to forget that they privatize public space when they fence off beaches, streets and entire neighborhoods. Private developers can also invest in public space, for example parks, squares and street furniture which  is  beneficial  to  the business environment.  Public spaces should tackle discrimination.
  • Acknowledge the role of the informal economy- provide policies for markets and street vending, they enable local economic development. The African economy is largely informal. Transition into formal economies cannot be reached by marginalizing those who are trying to make a living it should be an inclusive   transition.
  • Public space governance: building and maintenance should include  more actors. It is important to involve the private sector and developers.
  • Contract-led development is a public-private partnership where developers build and maintain.  These contracts are part of the building licenses granted from  the public to private sector actor-led development  is built on the ground by local actors - both inhabitants and associations – this works particularly  well at the neighborhood level.
  • Include cultural activities and events.  

- Cultural activities strengthen local and/national identities and bonds between communities. Public spaces are unique spaces where opinions, ideas and identity can be shared, discussed and celebrated freely.

  • Think more about public space design.

-The design aspects, including urban furniture and  plants, should be inclusive and flexible for different activities.

- The design of public space should promote diversity and be accepted by communities. The design should be affordable, using quality materials and be visually attractive.

  • Include small scale community public spaces in (Slum) upgrading processes. Also known as mini parks these spaces are directly addressed to the local population living next to them. They have interesting qualities enabling social interactions between neighbors, providing  a space for grassroots events, for meeting friends or as a space for relaxing.

Participants actively contributed during the side event and asked for the public space issue to be clearly included in the Abuja Declaration for future implementation in other African cities. It is expected that the discussions in Abuja will provide input for  the Thematic Conference to be held in Barcelona on 4-5 April where UCLG and the Global Taskforce will be involved. 

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