1. What is the public space model that best promotes equity in the city?

March 24, 2017

This discussion is now closed. Thank you for your participation.


  • Claudio Torres Slum Upgrading Consultant, Housing and Slum Upgrading Branch. UN-Habitat
  • Pireh Otieno Human Settlements Officer, Urban Basic Services Branch - UN-Habitat
  • Kulwant Singh Regional Advisor - UN-Habitat
  • Marcus Mayr Urban Planner, Climate Change Planning Unit, UN-Habitat
  • Edmundo Werna Head of Unit at Sectoral Policies Dept. ILO

1. What is the public space model that best promotes equity in the city?

Question 1: What is the public space model that best promotes equity in the city?

Please share your ideas and/or examples below.

icomos españa
Thu, July 21, 2016 at 05.54 am

El modelo de espacio público parte de las necesidades comunes, desvinculadas de lo privado que tiene el habitante de una ciudad eso quiere decir que estará constituido por un sistema de espacios construidos y no construidos de acceso libre.

Ekoparken Association
Sat, July 2, 2016 at 10.16 pm

Dear Sirs,

Green spaces of all kinds are the the most equitable and the most proficient meeting places: small city parks with playgrounds for children, a fountain to rest by on nearby benches, or a boulevard where people stroll, hastly during workdays, slowly, perhaps with baby carrieges during Saturdays and Sundays, larger parks with playgrounds and football fields, out-door theaters, accessible cafés or really large parks with a variety of sports grounds, playgrounds, amusement attractions, ponds for boating, trails in the woods, lakes to bird-watch…there are so many things you can do in a large park: bike, jogg, rest under a tree.. In short greenery is a fantastic meeting place, informal, open to all, regardless of class or income. And mutal activites will give chances to talk. About children, dogs, the weather, city planning.

Fernando Barreiro
Mon, April 4, 2016 at 05.20 pm

We should consider that social activities in public spaces can be developed around either necessary or optional activities. In any case they are conditional to the presence of others: people in the same space, passing each other or looking at each other in connection with other activities. Examples include children playing, greetings and conversations, common activities, or the most widespread social activity of all: passive contact in the form of just watching and listening to other people.

We can differentiate between social activities with people who know each other and encounters with strangers on the street. While it is less common to talk to strangers, it is easier to strike up a conversation with people standing nearby, even strangers if you experience something together in common space.

People attract people. As a species we are sociable animals who like to gather in groups. Thus, when we see people like us lingering in a space, we are attracted to it, over and above any physical or environmental attractions that the place may have. Thus it becomes tautological that convivial spaces tend to be full of people looking at ease. It should therefore not be surprising that nearly all the convivial spaces are well populated.

Lydia Gény – Discussion Moderator from Switzerland
Sun, April 3, 2016 at 04.59 pm

Dear all,

First, allow me to thank each and every one of you for having contributed to this online forum concerning Urban Dialogue in Public Spaces.  For me, it was a real pleasure to act as Moderator together with David Bravo. The level of participation – even after the forum came to a close on 26 March – reflected the importance we all attach to this crucial issue of equity in cities and, in that context, the importance of public spaces.

Our first question was aimed at trying to identify the public space model that best promotes equity in the city. Several issues were highlighted by participants from different regions and countries, and while it is difficult to imagine a one size fit all model for public spaces, there was a clear acknowledgement that, whatever the model, it should be based on a people-centred approach and should comprise some common patterns:

(a)  Legal, policy and regulatory frameworks related to urban planning should guarantee non-discrimination and enhance the participation of and consultation with inhabitants, and so promote community engagement, with particular attention to certain groups, such as older persons, those with disabilities, women, children, homeless persons and others living in situation of poverty. For this to happen, inhabitants should be empowered in order be able to claim their rights and exercise them in all circumstances.

(b)  In addition, this model of public space should include measures that ensure accessibility and mobility for all inhabitants. Public spaces should be places that enhance connectivity among users from different localities in cities. They should be localities of inclusion, that enhance social interactions and cohesion, as well as cultural diversity. One of the structural causes of exclusion, segregation and spatial injustice was the choice of transportation – mainly the use of private cars – and cultural resistance to change. With that in mind, the public space model should provide efficient, broad, inclusive, sustainable and accessible modes of transportation that suit the needs of all inhabitants. Several options for addressing the problem were shared, such as vehicle free zones, non-motorized transport, pedestrian-friendly cities encouraging walking and cycling, green areas, parklets, functional places, and the use of geospatial technologies.

(c)  In addition, the safety and security of public spaces are indispensable in any kind of model of public spaces. The lack of safety has prevented people from using public spaces. Associated with this, is that public spaces should also be localities that guarantee other rights, such as the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. Public spaces should also guarantee the resilience of its inhabitants in case of disaster situations and protect those who are at risk.

(d)  Public spaces should also be well distributed in the cities, with spatial equitable distribution and quality, including in informal settlements if we we want to have equitable cities. One possible solution is the development of regulatory frameworks regarding access to land and property and a better sharing of responsibilities between State authorities and other stakeholders, including the private sector. Related to this, is the need to regulate the current situation of the privatisation of the management of public spaces and the development of private places, which tend to reinforce segregation and social exclusion.

Lastly, our discussion highlighted the necessity for the model to be the result of a wide consultation process with its users in order to take into account their needs. All professionals, including national and local authorities, architects, engineers, urban designers and planners have an important role in ensuring that all inhabitants can enjoy all rights, including quality and accessible public spaces.

I am sure that this question will continue to be discussed during the Habitat III Thematic Meeting on Public Spaces. We wish you a fruitful discussion in Barcelona and ask that you please continue your engagement with the urban dialogues! 

Bahram Ghazi from
Wed, March 30, 2016 at 01.00 pm

There are a number of elements that are crucial for public spaces to promote equity in cities: 

1. These spaces need to involve the free, active and meaningful participation of the beneficiaries of these public spaces, and in particular of the most vulnerable and marginalized. This means wide consultation and participation of all inhabitants – not only of the richest and the most powerful. Urban and spatial development should be done with and for all city dwellers.

2. Public spaces: a place for inclusion not exclusion: in some countries (developing and developed alike), poverty in cities is seen as a negative thing that needs to be hidden. Therefore policies and laws are put in place to discourage some groups to use these spaces. This is particularly obvious when major sport events or international conferences are organized. Homeless persons are one of the most targeted groups. The criminalization of poverty and homelessness needs to be banned. Reference can be made to the recent report of the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Ms. Leilani Farha. This report (A/HRC/31/54) is available in all UN languages here: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Housing/Pages/AnnualReports.aspx

3. Any serious urban development activity must in all circumstances embrace strategies for the political, social and economic empowerment of people, especially the most vulnerable and the most marginalized. Freedom of speech and assembly, the right to information, consultation and participation in decision-making processes, the right to vote – to name a few – are all crucial to sustainable and fair urban development. In this perspective, the closing of public spaces or the redesigning of these spaces for avoiding peaceful assembly and freedom of expression of the inhabitants is an issue of concern in various places around the world.

All these issues need to be considered in the New Urban Agenda.

Lydia Gény – Discussion Moderator from Switzerland
Sat, April 2, 2016 at 07.53 pm

Thank you very much, Bahram Ghazi, for your insightful comment and targeted recommendations. A human rights based approach is definitely needed in the New Urban Agenda if we want to promote equity in the city. By adopting a human rights based approach, it would allow for the reinforcement of the obligations of States and other stakeholders to protect and promote the whole spectrum of rights of inhabitants, including those who are often left behind due, inter alia, to their age, sex, race, colour, disability, national, ethnic, indigenous or social origin. You also brought to light an issue that has not been discussed so far, which is the violation of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression that can be the result of limiting arbitrarily access to public spaces. Hope all of these issues will be discussed in Barcelona. 

Kamana Kamana Manandhar from Nepal
Wed, March 30, 2016 at 10.56 am


I am Kamana Manandhar from Kathmandu, Nepal. Here are some of my thought in this issue in a very simple way as it could get.

 Kathmandu city traditionally was designed with communal space for people.  As any other developing urban city, Kathmandu itself is moving towards the urban development which prioritizes motorized vehicles and high rise buildings, metro and malls forgetting its real essence. I believe, city or and public space should focus on the model that is best for the people.

 It is also important to mention the recent disaster that occurred in Kathmandu which claimed thousands of life and massive loss of city infrastructures. Since, the event the importance of public spaces has rise to extreme extent. But, again the main concern is the design towards which it is moving. Public spaces should not be treated and be limited only as escape ground in our case. It should be and is an integral part of any urban design for a healthy and happy community.

The idea of foot over bridges, high lane roads are taking over  the mind of urban planner which only caters motorized vehicles  whereas, it should have focused on sustainable mode of transportation that suits people of all ages.

 A bigger gap we see is the lack of interaction between the planner and the community which results the design that looks best in theory. Sometimes it also seems to aim at people with high economic status. Whereas, the ration of people with high income is very less compare to people with low income.  Equal and appropriate design should be there to address such group.

Kathmandu covers area of 220 square miles with challenging topographical structure, which proves that the best form of transportation around the city is walking and cycling including public transportation rather than developing the infrastructure that encourages more private motorized vehicles increasing air and noise pollution.  

 Coming back to the question of public space that promotes equity in our city Kathmandu would be the following;

  • Create vehicle free zones in different part of the core area of the city. (* core area is the central part of the city which was designed with narrow streets and communal space and also includes some of the world heritage sites).
  • Preserve and manage vegetable markets in the city that increases access to healthy food.
  • Include specific parks for children.
  • Design and reform exiting parks which is accessible to all.
  • Include, well managed and planned street vendor as part of city development.
  • Encourage designs focusing on communal spaces rather than parking spots.
  • Develop policies that ensure rights of pedestrians which includes plan like;
    • Removing foot over bridge which is not favorable crossing aid for senior citizens , porter and differently able people.
    • Including footpaths with the designs that favor differently able peoples in each area of the city. 
    • Crossing aids like zebra crossing should be increased supported by appropriate traffic measures.
    • Improving accessibility to reach public transportation.
    • Prioritize inclusive public transportation especially electric ones.
    • Dedicate lanes for cycle in possible streets.

In our case, two recent studies showed that; (1) Kathmandu among the top 25 travel destination in the world (tripadvisor, 2016) and another showed (2) One of the most polluted city. We just need to think which one of this report we want to continue reading.

 Beside no city is producing any more land, thus it is up to each individual to make a choice and opt for the better design that is for people.

Lydia Gény – Discussion Moderator from Switzerland
Sat, April 2, 2016 at 07.55 pm

Thank you very much, Kamana Manandhar, for your valuable contribution and bringing to this forum your experience from Nepal. Thank you also for your list of suggestions that encompasses the different needs of individuals in public spaces, including older persons, those with disabilities, and children, as well as different issues: transportation, accessibility, sustainability, resilience, cultural heritage, inclusion, among others. We will incorporate all of your suggestions in our report. 

Patricia Palacios J. Docente investigadora. Estudios urbanos from Ecuador
Sun, March 27, 2016 at 05.40 am

Hello everyone!
If any of you is comming to Quito to The Hábitat III Conference, next October, please take contact with me because we will be honored and Very Glad to invite you to participate in a couple Of events regarding Public Spaces organized by The Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism Of the Central University Of Ecuador. patriciapj1@yahoo.es / whatsapp
(00 593 996530988)

Catherine Holt Toledo Consultant from United States
Sat, March 26, 2016 at 08.39 pm

Safety for women in public spaces, transportation, housing and at home must be guaranteed to insure improved economic, educational and employment opportunities for women and strengthen communities’ resilience. Women are key drivers in creating societies, lifting families from poverty and increasing community economic development. Grassroots women are not beneficiaries of services and projects, but should be treated as authorities on the needs of their communities and neighborhoods. Women need to participate in all levels of governance and budgeting to ensure that their valuable perspectives as end-users are incorporated into policies. 

The following recommendations were agreed upon at the EGM on Engendering the New Urban Agenda that was held in NY on 29-30 of September, 2015, co-sponsored by Habitat III Secretariate adn the Huairou Commission that I chaired.

Vigorously address violence against women to decrease barriers to effective participation of women in all areas of urbanization.


  • Universally define violence against women and respective laws to protect them. Reinforce the extension of these rights to refugees and migrant populations.
  • Use input from grassroots women and immigrants in planning and implementing safety in urban areas and rural-urban linkages, which includes public spaces and transportation.
  • Institute judicial reforms and practices that provide fair and honest judicial oversight to enforce laws that protect women.
  • Intensively train authorities on reducing violence against women and monitor their compliance and effectiveness.
  • Extend these same rights and protections to migrant and refugee populations, especially women and girls.
  • Monitor implementation of global initiatives on reducing violence against women using panels that include women.
  • Promote and fund grassroots programs that empower women to combat violence.
Lydia Gény – Discussion Moderator from Switzerland
Sat, April 2, 2016 at 07.56 pm

Thank you very much, Catherine Holt Toledo, for your valuable comment and for sharing with us recommendations that focus on the specific needs of women in public spaces. Much appreciated! We will incorporate them into our report.  

James Goldstein Sustainability research and consulting from United States
Sat, March 26, 2016 at 05.43 pm

The Right to the City framework is useful for identifying approaches to public space that promote equity in cities. Following are serveral key considerations for creating, enhancing, maintaining and/or protecting urban public spaces that promote equity:

–  Public space policies, planning, designs, and governnace should be based on meaningful community engagement — including women, low-income and other often marginalized groups — and reflect equity criteria.

– Public spaces should be controlled by local governments or the community itself, not private parties.

– To promote equity, public space should be distributed throughout a city, providing open access to all neighborhoods, income levels, and social groups. Geospatial technologies can be useful in assessing the distribution of existing public spaces and where inequities need to be addressed.

– The accessibility of a public space is also defined by ease of access for pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transportation users.

– For streets as public spaces, accessibility means adequate space for non-motorized and public transportantion modes.

– In rapidly growing cities, advanced geospatial planning is critical for ensuring adequate and accessible public space, including in informal settlements.

– A useful regulatory tool for cities to consider is to link government approvals for significant new private housing and/or commercial developments with requirements to create and maintain accessible public spaces.

Lydia Gény – Discussion Moderator from Switzerland
Sat, April 2, 2016 at 07.57 pm

Thank you very much, James Goldstein, for your valuable input. Would you like to explain further the privatisation of the management of public spaces and their impact on urban spaces? We still have a few hours before the beginning of the Habitat III Thematic meeting on public spaces- Barcelona. Thank you in advance. 

Nelson Saule Júnior Lawyer , Gereral Coordinator from Brazil
Sat, March 26, 2016 at 12.53 am

The model we defend is the public space as a component of the implementation of the right to the city  with this definition building in the Policy Unit 1 defined as the right of all inhabitants present and future, to occupy, use and produce just, inclusive and sustainable cities, defined as a common good essential to the quality of life.

The City as a common good contains the following components:

  • A city free of discrimination based on gender, age, health status, income, nationality, ethnicity, migratory condition, or political, religious or sexual orientation.
  • A city of inclusive citizenship
  • A city with enhanced political participation in the definition, implementation, monitoring, and budgeting of urban policies and spatial planning in order to strengthen the transparency, effectiveness and inclusion of the diversity of inhabitants and their organizations.
  • A city fulfilling its social functions, that is, ensuring equitable access for all to shelter, goods, services and urban opportunities, particularly for women and other marginalized groups; a city that prioritizes the collectively defined public interest, ensuring a socially just and environmentally balanced use of urban and rural spaces.
  • A city with quality public spaces that enhances social interactions and political participation,  promotes socio-cultural expressions, embraces diversity, and fosters social cohesion; a city where public spaces contribute to building safer cities and to meeting the needs of inhabitants.
  • A city of gender equality
  • A city with cultural diversity,
  • A city with inclusive economies that ensures access to secure livelihoods and decent work for all inhabitants, that gives room to other economies, such as solidarity economy, sharing economy, circular economy, and that acknowledges the role of women in the care economy.
  • A city as a system within the settlement and common ecosystem .

The Right to the City further implies responsibilities on governments and people to claim, defend, and promote this right.  The Right to the City as a diffuse right can be exercised in every metropolis, city, village, or town that is institutionally organized as local administrative unit with district, municipal or metropolitan character. It includes the urban space as well as the rural or semi-rural surroundings that form part of its territory.

The traditional way of conceiving urban planning intends to provide goods and public spaces (such as parks and public gardens) for all social segments. However, often these spaces are exclusive and inaccessible to the poor and informal areas residents.

These spaces and goods are important to: (i) create inclusive cities, (ii) strengthen collective interests at the expense of individual ones; and (iii) respond to some of the challenges created by rapid urbanization seen in many contemporary cities. They are also places of social gathering, of income generation and employment for informal workers. Therefore, planning and management of urban policies should be oriented to ensure the creation and existance of public goods and spaces throughout the city, both in the formal and in informal city and also managed by government and/or by the community itself.

 Housing projects must produce qualified and equipped public spaces, not just housing units. As well as public spaces must be designed with participation and collectively managed by the community. Public spaces, besides ensuring ethnical and cultural diverse uses, shall provide economic uses that strengthen its collective dimension and its safety for users, especially for women. Equipments and public spaces must be accessible to all, digitally inclusive and they should structure cities’ development, not be mere results of this development. Government should use instruments available to recapture public investment in order to promote new public spaces.

Lydia Gény – Discussion Moderator from Switzerland
Sat, April 2, 2016 at 07.58 pm

Thank you very much, Nelson Saule Júnior, for your valuable comment and suggestions. You highlighted the importance of the right to the city as a way of promoting a series of human rights established by international law. Hope this will be the common understanding that will prevail during the discussions towards Habitat III Conference. 

Lydia Gény – Discussion Moderator Consultant at OHCHR from Switzerland
Fri, March 25, 2016 at 10.55 pm

Dear all, as tomorrow is the last day of this urban dialogue on public spaces, we would be glad to see as many interventions and comments as possible. Your participation is crucial in this process towards the UN Habitat III Conference. We look forward to receiving and reading your contribution ! 

Fri, March 25, 2016 at 04.37 pm

1. What is the public space model that best promotes equity in the city?

The model that understands each park, market, street, plaza, etc as part of a larger and continuous system. Therefore, the system needs to make sure there is enough public space in all the territory, with equal distribution and quality. Strategies need to acknowledge urban public space as an almost rare and non-renewable asset, which seems even more important than ever to be taken care of:  (1)  the spaces we have remain public and streets are understood, designed and maintained as such  (2) we develop financing tools that are related to the private right of development, (3) we have citizens participate and (4) public space, as  publicly owned, with no fences, with no restrictions, is open for dialogue, for encounters, for friction, for demands, for peace.

Laura Janka, Mexico City

Lydia Gény – Discussion Moderator from Switzerland
Fri, March 25, 2016 at 10.14 pm

Thank you very much Laura Janka for your intervention. Would you like to give further details on the financial tools that you mentioned in your reply ? What measures and mechanisms are needed to ensure the participation of all inhabitants in public spaces? Any good practice to share ? Gracias. 

RB Singh Professor from India
Fri, March 25, 2016 at 10.58 am

1. Land use planning based on environmental zoning of public spaces through geo-spatial technology: In developing countries, we have often mixed land uses and continuous spill over from one use to another use so public spaces are encroached and misused by land-hungry institutions and people. In this context, proper an up-to-date zoning is essential. This can be easily done by remote sensing data together with GIS analysis.

2. Landscape synthesis is key to public space model: Landscape synthesis includes both landscape structure and landscape potential. Using geo-spatial technology it is possible to prioritize landscape for public space purposes.

Lydia Gény – Discussion Moderator from Switzerland
Fri, March 25, 2016 at 09.53 pm

Thank you very much RB Singh for sending comments to all questions. You have provided specific recommendations and it would be very much appreciated if you could explain further your ideas about up-to-date zoning and landscape synthesis in the context of public spaces.

Fri, March 25, 2016 at 04.58 pm

1. I agree technology in general and GIS especially can contribute to better plannig. Crossed system policies, using the territory as a platform, are key to make things happen and be able to start imagining more and better public spaces. 

2. Sao Paoulo published its Urban Master Plan defining great tools for making private development, above the  allowed, pay for public space and public infrastructure. This is a key dialogue and fight in many cities where the real estate and the economy behind it are real stake holders in ten definition of inclusie policies. 

Lydia Gény – Discussion Moderator from Switzerland
Fri, March 25, 2016 at 10.06 pm

Thank you very much SomosLOCAL for your intervention. Would you like to comment further on the key tools that you mentioned in your reply ? 

Evangelical Social Action Forum (ESAF)
Wed, March 23, 2016 at 11.12 am

Hi, I am Manju George from India representing ESAF, an organization works on public space, healthy transportation and encourage children to use active and safe route to school.

Excess use of private vehicles especially in the area surrounding public spaces be it a city public space or the one in the neighbourhood, discourage or denies people to use the space mentioned for its purpose. Survey done in three Indian cities on how friendly cities for children clearly showed that safety is a serious concern when children have to move around which restricted or enforced a forced scenario of them being indoor.

Another context of this is that the space could become sooner or later non functional and attracts land encroachers. This is very common scenario in Indian cities.

Car oriented city developments restricts people to be physically active and people are forced to make a choice (willingly or unwillingly) to endorse more cars and other private vehicles. Gone are the days where children and adults are seen on the street either playing or doing casual chit chats. The indirect developments and benefits it brings to each individual is invaluable in terms of measuring, but current generation children are facing issues due to lack of such simple facilities of life. Development of the cities should not happen at the cost of humanity and human interaction.

Initiatives like Cycle Days and Open Street events organized in many cities are converting many to adopt non motorized transport atleast for short errands and fun. These newly found behaviours should be encouraged and facilitated by providing adequate infrastructure such as cycling lanes, cycle stands, traffic calming measures, respect for pedestrians and cyclists on road etc.

Car free cities are possible, already we have seen and experienced many benefits and people are ready to endorse it provided adequate public transport facilities with great last mile connectivity is provided. I feel that UN should voice on the importance of public transport as a major city development agenda and criteria with last mile connectivity taken into the point by the city administration.

Coming back to the primary discussion of what is the public space that best promotes equity in the city:

  1. It should be easily accessible for any individual in the community. Walk able distance of 400-500 meters or within the cycling distance of maximum 1 Kilometer
  2. Free access to public space which otherwise eliminate whole lot of sections in the society and denies their basic right to use the public space
  3. Public space should be open for all, all through the day
  4. It should be designed in such a way that encourage differently able to use the space
  5. Basic amenities should be provided
  6. Well lit and covered with adequate tree shades
  7. Well laid pavement around the area that encourages vendors and other small business will act as a community watch for people
  8. Allowing vendors to progress in the designated area encourages people to have access to locally produced fresh fruits and vegetables at an affordable cost
  9. Local market and affordability and access to the local produce should be encouraged which increases the livelihood of many, stabilises the rich poor wide and ensures equity in the city to an extent
Lydia Gény – Discussion Moderator from Switzerland
Wed, March 23, 2016 at 06.43 pm

Evangelical Social Action Forum (ESAF), thank you very much for your comment and for including a list of targeted recommendations.  Would you like to elaborate further and share additional examples of best practices? Would anyone else like to contribute to this list of recommendations?

HealthBridge Foundation of Canada
Wed, March 23, 2016 at 08.48 am

Hi!  I’ve been encouraging our partners in Asia and Africa to provide their comments to the discussion.  They are all NGOs working at the local and sometimes national level on public spaces issues.  They have a lot of great experience to share.  But the feedback I have received is that the terms being used in the discussion are “heavy”.  For all of the people working in these groups English is a second (and sometimes third or fourth) language.  When we use a lot of jargon and “heavy” terminology, we intitimidate and exlude people.  I am as guilty of this as anyone and am constantly reminding myself that I need to speak clearly and be as jargon-free as possible (and I’m frequently unsuccessful). 

But, I also think this is an important equity issue – if we want to include the community in our decision making then we need to speak in a way that is accessible to everyone.  Local NGOs are often the closest to the community.  If we can’t find a way to include them, do we have much hope of including the community?  So, I guess my request is for us to find a way to make sure the urban dialogues and the New Urban Agenda are easily understandable so that we, the public space champions include everyone.   I found this interesting website which might be useful to anyone interested in this topic:  https://centerforplainlanguage.org/

Lydia Gény – Discussion Moderator from Switzerland
Wed, March 23, 2016 at 06.44 pm

HealthBridge Foundation of Canada, thank your for your comment and for highlighting the important issue of inclusion and accessibility in this Forum. We are happy to hear that you have been sharing this discussion with your partner organisations in Asia and Africa. We strongly encourage them to participate regardless of the vocabulary used and to develop the conversation in a way they feel comfortable. We will all benefit from the sharing of their experience and ideas. We hope to hear from you and local NGOs partners. 

Gustavo Macedo Brazilian public servant from Brazil
Sun, March 20, 2016 at 09.58 pm

Hello, everyone! I am writing from São Paulo, Brazil, and I would like to bring to this rich discussion some debates and experiences that the city that I live in is facing right now. We are amidst a heated debate about the adequate public policies to solve the most urgent problems in our city, and all of them are related to the theme about the public space model that best promotes equity in the city.

I would risk saying that São Paulo is a great case of urban problem, and it must call the attention of anyone who likes to think of urban public policies.

I apologise if I am, by any means, repetitive regarding any issue that has already been discussed above. I just want to give you the picture that I see nowadays in this intense, problematic, though rich and charismatic city.

Here are some topics of discussion in São Paulo:

1)   Public transportation

It is clear that an efficient, broad and inclusive public transportation system is one of the best ways to promote equity in what concerns urban equity. As long as many modes of transportation are implemented complementarily, such as trains, subway/metro, buses, taxis and bike, not to mention cars, the city will achieve a better mobility.

São Paulo has a huge problem on that issue, because our city has grown on a car-based model, with little space for a decent and broad public transportation system. In a city of 12 million people (20 million in its greater area), we have more than 8 million cars circulating in our streets and avenues. That is clearly not sustainable, not least because of a  limitation imposed by Physics laws. There will never be enough room for every car in the city, if everyone decides to use hers or his own car as the only means of transportation.

I addition to that, we still have an insufficient subway/metro net. There are les than 80 km of that mode of transportation, much less than similar cities haver around the world. The suburban trains are in a little better shape, with 260 km of trains sprawling over greater São Paulo.

As making those nets grow is a responsibility of state government, the city has been trying, in the last decades, and especially in the current administration, to implement a decent bus system, in order to overcome the huge demand for public transportation. The inspiration are cities like Curitiba/Brazil and Bogota/Colombia, which have implemented bus systems based on exclusive lanes and well planned lines, with some central express lines crossing he city.

That system is not yet fully implemented, but we can already see some results since more than 500 km of exclusive lanes for buses are in operation. The average speed of buses has fallen, and people that needed two or three hours to commute in the city are now doing the same route in half that time. Besides that, the quality of buses has improved, and more comfortable ones are in use, even with air conditioning and Wi-Fi. The electric buses are in still in use, despite some resistance due to frequent operation problems (they use air tracks, or wires, to be supplied with energy, but often are disconnected), and they are responsible for less pollution in our city, as well as buses fuelled with hydrogen and electric batteries.

Another attempt to improve mobility in São Paulo has been the bike lanes, which began to be installed one decade ago but have received a boost in the current administration. As of today, we have almost 390 km of bike lanes in the city.   

In spite of those efforts, that are two problems: the cultural resistance of our population and the imperfect implementation of those transportation alternatives.

People from São Paulo, in a much similar way as of people from Los Angeles and other cities highly dependable on cars, are greatly addicted to their cars, and even people who cannot afford to buy one are keen on buying old cars, so as not to depend on public transportation. There has been intense resistance to the exclusive bus lanes and bike lanes, and the mayor has seen his public approval rating fall since he began to implement those lanes.

The cultural problem is worsened by the imperfect implementation of the bus and bike lanes, which are sometimes not well planned. Some bus lines are very crowded, and others are empty. On what concerns bike lanes, some are built on hills, and others on very narrow streets, making it difficult for people to use them.

In conclusion, there is a cultural resistance from people from São Paulo to migrate from their cars to public transportation or alternative means of transportation, such as bicycle. If the administrations do not expand subway (a popular and cherished mode of transportation in São Paulo), and the bus system is not better planned, the cultural resistance will persist, making it difficult for mobility in São Paulo to achieve the goal of good quality and equity.  

2)   Public space versus private space

One open discussion in São Paulo is about the balance between public and private space. The city has recently approved a long run plan to direct the growth of the city within the next 16 years, and that plan, if implemented, will try to overcome a problematic tendency in the urbanization process of São Paulo: people are fleeing from the streets.

One crucial point of discussion was the diminishing public spaces of pleasure, culture and commerce. São Paulo is a victim of the privatization of spaces of living, working and buying together. People are farer and farer from the street, and they flee to shopping centres, condominiums, cars and any other kinds of place that are secluded from the outer, and “dangerous”, world by walls, fences, cameras and private security.

That phenomenon is fed by calamitous public security conditions, poor illumination, terrible sidewalks and, of course, the preference the cars have in the public area.

São Paulo’s “Director Plan”, as we call it, if fully implemented, will try to stop the ferocious verticalization of the city, trying to concentrate it around public transportation facilities, and will make it harder to build great facilities such as shopping malls and supermarkets, which will need to bring more compensation than they have today regarding their impact on their surroundings with some kind of facility or construction (like new streets, parks, public illumination etc).

The tendency of people fleeing from the streets is hard to counterbalance. It demands rethinking the whole city planning. But if we begin to promote public transportation instead of cars, and if we concentrate our efforts on low cost measures with great impact, we may reach a change of culture, which will make it easier for bigger investments to be made in the future.

An example: parklets. Originated in San Francisco, they are all around the globe now, and are slowly being introduced in São Paulo. Not only they effectively substitute a place previously destined to cars by one destined to people, but they also have a symbolic role, showing how we loose a huge portion of space trying to accommodate our cars. I believe in the exemplary role of parklets, and they are not so expensive, usually being financed by private actors located in the area they are installed, such as shop owners. 

We need to think cities for people, to make them return to the centre of urban thought and action. São is paying as enormous price for letting its people off the streets, so we need a more cosy and more welcoming public space, the only one that will bring people together, promoting the equity in are in need for.

3)   Urban area vs natural areas

São Paulo has been built over lowlands of rivers and creeks, which has charged a huge price to the city. Most of houses and avenues have been built near, or even over, lowlands of rivers and creeks. So, during the rain time in the ear, floods scourge the city, taking the lives of many and affecting the housing of the remaining in those areas. Generally, the poor people pay the highest price, because they usually live in areas of greater risk far from the city centre, where housing is cheaper.

An equitable public space must consider the geographical characteristics of the city. As simple and basic as it may seem, we must think the city according to the soil, the water and the vegetation surrounding it. In São Paulo, we have ignores that basic principle, so every we have to weep the tragedies that flood bring, and try to alleviate the consequences.

Our first responders are better than ever. And many reservoirs have been built in order to receive the water the drainage system is not able to take away. But much more needs to be done, especially if we want to solve the problem definitely. What if we change some buildings, streets and avenues built over rivers and creeks by parks able to absorb the water during the floods. We do not have to rebuild the city from the ground. We just have to think strategic actions that can help in avoiding disastrous floods.  

4)   Accessibility

Lastly, I believe that the public space model that best promotes equity must assure that everybody, including disabled people, has hers or his right to mobility enforced. That means that the city has to have all its public equipment and facilities adapted so as to allow access by disabled people.

In São Paulo, although we are far from having the perfect situation, we have seen huge progress. Almost all of our streets and sidewalks have ramps so as people on wheelchairs and with other mobility difficulties can move along the city.

In the city centre, the last administrations have been installing tactile paving, for people with visual disabilities. The same is being done in subway and bus stations, as well as on other public buildings, which are receiving all the adjustments for people with disabilities. Here and there the traffic lights for pedestrians are receiving sound alarm.

That is an incredible advance in the practice of human rights, guaranteeing the mobility for people with disabilities. But there is a lot to be done, especially on what concerns the streets and sidewalks. The city will only be fully accessible when the entire city is covered by the tactile pavement, ramps, plain sidewalks, without the holes we find everywhere and, above all, the entire public transportation system is adapted to receive everyone.

To conclude, it is important to mention an important initiative from the city administration. There is a special service to transport people with difficult conditions for transportation, which takes the person from door to door. It consists of special vans that can carry some people with disabilities that require special conditions of transportation and could not use the regular transportation system.

If see the last 20 years in São Paulo, accessibility has improved enormously, and we can only achieve equity when everybody can exercise their right to mobility in equal conditions, regardless of race, bank account and physical conditions.


If you have reached this point, thank very much! J

PS: For everyone interested in urbanism for people, I highly recommend the book by Jan Gehl, Cities for people (https://www.amazon.com.br/Cities-People-Jan-Gehl/dp/159726573X/188-1314863-8907105?ie=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0)

We must think our cities for ourselves, for people, e not for cars or any other thing!  

Featured Comment ()
Lydia Gény – Discussion Moderator from Switzerland
Wed, March 23, 2016 at 02.48 pm

Thank you very much, Javier Otero Peña, HealthBridge Foundation of Canada and Gustavo Macedo for your interventions and suggestions about the importance of promoting urban mobility in any model of public spaces. You also raised the crucial issue of adopting and implementing a people-centred approach if we want to address equity in public spaces. To make it happen, this requires a paradigm and cultural shift that reorientate the use of transport existing in most cities, which means from the use of private cars to a wide range of public transports, such as bus, metros, tramways, as well as the development of walking and cycle paths. Thank you once again for sharing with us your valuable experiences from different cities. What else is needed to promote equity in urban spaces?  One intervention raised the issue of accessibility and barrier-free transportation as something that needs to be taken into account when addressing mobility for all. What is the role of national and local authorities, as well as other stakeholders- including the private sector in this model of public space ? 

Patricia Palacios J. Docente investigadora. Estudios urbanos from Ecuador
Fri, March 18, 2016 at 03.37 pm

While it is true that in most cities in the world inequities related to the production, use, ownership and management of public space, in addition to qualitative deficits and cuantativos the same occur, such inequalities are specific to the spatial, cultural context, historical, etc., so it is not possible to imagine a single model that will lead to equity, social and territorial. On the other hand, there are countless ways in which the citizens themselves and produces appropriates public space according to their needs and without waiting vigendia of this or that public policy in this regard. In any case, as requirements to reach a public space that promotes equality would be: the recognition of inequality, diversity and there are expressed needs; diverse citizen participation in technical and political process of design and appropriation of space; the application of principles and rules of design for all and universal accessibility; the multiplication of interactive public spaces; use and permanent citizen appropriation of public space as an act of resistance against the pressures of capital and other forces or interests that dominate the public space, among others.

David Bravo – Discussion Moderator Architect, editor of publicspace.org from Spain
Fri, March 18, 2016 at 02.12 pm

Many thanks to everyone for your relevant interventions. I propose that we focus for a few days in private car. From my point of view, behind many of your reflections there is a suspicion that the mass use of private car is one of the main factors that has most attacked equity (and sustainability) in public spaces around the world.

A universal problem

Alessandro Scarnato has warned us against Eurocentrism and about the fact that there are very different conceptions of public space in different parts of the world. Frederic Saliez has also warned that architects and planners have been “over-optimistic” about the capabilities of urban design in having an impact on social order (as an example of this is the ambition of the question of this debate). I think that the hegemonic presence of private car in our public spaces is an example of how much design can strongly influence (even if here it is in a negative way) equity and sustainability in our cities. Although the design of the automobile industry and car infrastructures is more attributable to engineers than to architects, pedestrian crossings, traffic lights, parkings, roundabouts, motorways and spaghetti junctions are extremely similar all around the world, regardless of the idiosyncrasies of each location. Car is a universal problem that needs general key solutions to be applied in very different local situations.

Effects on spatial distribution:

It is widely accepted that car has very negative effects on the sustainability of cities and as an accelerator of climate change. Less accepted is the fact that it also has devastating effects on equity in our public spaces. The recent bet on electric vehicle demonstrates how new discourses are focussing on the issue of CO2 emissions without regard to other effects such as urban sprawl or overflowing occupation of compact neighborhoods. “HealthBridge Foundation of Canada” has stressed the importance of spatial distribution. I think, in the last six or seven decades, car has had a profound impact on the spatial injustice of our cities. As Frederic Saliez said, too often, equity is not considered as a priority in public space, sometimes not even as an objective. Instead, all around the world, the priority given to quick mobility of car has generated large infrastructure segregating poor suburbs between “walls of traffic”. Gated communities, private enclaves or big shopping malls (pointed out by Indu Prakash Singh) are segregation scenarios that proliferate thanks to massive car use. As “HealthBridge Foundation of Canada” argues, car use is only available to some but it has serious consequences for everyone, like health effects of contamination, reduction of productivity caused by traffic jams or the increase of public debt created by the cost of large motorways.

Effects on social interaction and trade

Car invasion of public space prevents children playing in streets and makes sidewalks less crowded, namely more bleak, unsafe and difficult to maintain. The street markets defended by Frederic Saliez as places of interaction where those with less incmoe can earn a living are eminently pedestrian, while the kind of urban trade promoted by car are large peripheral shopping malls, which are not equally accessible to everyone.

Therefore, I throw the following question: Do you think that cities must fight the hegemony of car and try to work again without it? Do you think a post-car city will be possible soon? Do you think the United Nations should make a clear and forceful recommendation to the cities of the world to fight against the proliferation of private cars and to defend public transport and neighbourhoods where people can live as pedestrians?

Javier Otero Peña Research Associate – Public Space Research Group / PhD student in Environmental Psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center from United States
Fri, March 18, 2016 at 03.45 pm

I do not believe the issue is about getting rid of cars in cities as much as it should be of refocusing the design and making of cities towards a human-centered rather than car-centered development. Owning and using a car is a right, but with the right policies in place, car-owners would prefer not using cars in the city, and prefer mass transit, bikes or walking instead. Many cities in Europe are example of how cities can give priority to pedestrians and mass transit, while still coexisting with cars harmoniously. Some of their practices include enforcing emission controls, exclusive lanes for buses, banning the use of cars in downtown areas, restricting car access to certain streets, etc. Many cities in the developing world however, design still seems to be strongly focused on improving the mobility of people with cars, who generally are but a minority of the users. In Caracas, for example, less than 20% of the people move around by cars, but most of the infrastructure investment is being done to build more car bridges, more car roads and expand the highways. Some of these constructions are done in spite of sidewalks, the few bike lanes on the city, and many trees and green areas.


Other cities such as Bogotá have had great improvements in developing bike lanes, althogh these do not yet connect all of the city and high pollution levels and PM concentrations in the city can make it very unpleasant and dangerous to bike.

There are initiatives in the UN, both from UNEP and UN Habitat, to try to help reduce emissions from mobility and make cities more pedestrian-friendly. But, how effective are these initiatives? What can be done to encourage governments to give priority to these issues and commit to making cities more pedestrian and bike-friendly, and thus more equitable? How can they be persuaded of the benefits of transitioning from a car-centered city to a pedestrian-centered city?

HealthBridge Foundation of Canada
Sat, March 19, 2016 at 08.57 am

I feel I need to disagree with you on one point Javier.  Owning and using a car is not a “right”.  If it was a “right” then we, as collective citizens of the world, would need to ensure, based on our desire for an equitable world, that everyone can own and use a car (I’m saying car to be simple – but I also mean motorbike, trucks, vans – private motorized vehicles in general).  That would mean that our governments, as implementers of the the public’s will, would have a responsibiliy to take actions that would realize this “right” – which ultimately could include subsidies for those without the means to purchase a car, parking for everyone at both origins and destinations, and of course massive amounts of infastructure to move the vehicles from place to place. 

I realize this is probably not at all what you meant.  But, I believe the words we use to describe things has an effect on how that thing is viewed.  Many, many countries and cities do seem to view car ownership as a right and mobilize significant resources and implement an overwhelming number of policies to encourage  people to exercise that right – which has a direct impact on the design of the city.  Bangkok at one time was providing loan guarantees for anyone that wanted to purchase a car.  The building code in Dhaka states that for all new buildings the first floor (or ground floor – the floor at street level) must be car parking.  Imagine what that is doing to the functioning of the public realm at street level?  Our partner can (and frequently does) talk to government officials about changing this policy – but while the government believes it has a responsibility to car owners to ensure they have a safe place to park their car, such efforts will fall on deaf ears.

But, if we change the discourse from the right to the car to the right to mobility, then we start to change the responsibilities of government and this has the potential to fundamentally change public spaces.  No longer are governments required to ensure everyone has a spot to park their personal belonging.  No longer are they required to widen roads to accommodate the ever increasing number of cars in a city.  Instead, if the goal is to move people from one place to another and if we can get governments to agree that health,  sustainability, safety, equity, and efficiency are the ultimate goals for that mobility then the actions become even more clear.  From a mobility perspective public space would first serve people walking and people cycling -supporting walking and cycling achieves all (not just some) of those goals.  Governments would enact policy that ensures  there is housing that is affordable in every neighbourhood so that people can live where they work.  There would be a diversity of uses in the neighbourhoods so that walking and cycling to destinations.  Streets would integrate livelihood opportunities as this is good for both pedestrians and cyclists.  And of course the bulk of government spending on moiblity would support these actions.   Only when the needs of pedestrians and cyclists have been satisified would other uses of public space be discussed.

All of the above is great and wonderful and has the potential to make walking and cycling an attractive choice.  But, I come from a health perspective and our experience has shown that it is not sufficient to encourage the behaviour you want – in many cases you need to discourage the behaviour you don’t want.   So, it won’t be sufficient for governments to make walking and cycling great – public space can be supportive to walking and cycling but people will still choose to drive.  One might think that banning (or making something illegal) is the best way to discourage this behaviour.  But, I don’t believe that is so.  The single most effective policy to reduce smoking has been increasing the taxes on tobacco.  I believe it will be the same with cars.  So high taxes on car imports, gasoline/petrol taxes, congestion charges, etc…  That means you can still choose to drive.  But if you make that choice, the mobility choice that is the worst for society – the most damaging to the environment, the most damaging to health, the least equitable, the least efficient, and the one that puts the most number of people at risk of injury and death, the most damaging to public spaces – then you are going to have to pay dearly for it. 

But to get governments talking (and eventually agreeing) about about these measures to encourage what we want and discourage what we don’t want,  then we need to start acknowledging (and stating) that cars in cities are bad and we need the public to start talking about that as well.  This is especially true countries that manufacturer cars.  This message is even more difficult there – car lobby is very powerful.

I hope I didn’t take this public spaces discussion too far into mobility.  But for me the paradigm shift from cars to mobility is so important that I felt I had to challenge the “right to the car”.  If we don’t fundamentally change how we move in cities (and how we talk and think about mobility)  then we will fail – not just for our public space vision but we will fail to achieve our sustainability, health, safety, and equity goals.

Alessandro Scarnato Architect / Research from Spain
Sat, March 19, 2016 at 11.08 am

The idea of shifting from “right to the car” to the “right to mobility” is powerful in terms of pursue of equity and it has direct impact on how public space can be improve in the sense we discuss here. I would add that the most of urban areas that can be turned into pedestrian are, almost everywhere, old areas or historic centers. In these areas, urban morphology has usually developed long before cars became the ruler of modern urbanism (let’s not forget LC’s visions) and, therefore, in these contexts is somehow easy to achieve interesting results because it is a sort of coming back to the origins, to a sort-of human-sized dimension. Then we have situations like in Porto, where the historic center is reduced to an almost completely empy shell, scenography for pedestrian gentrified touristic areas. In Porto, one of the strongest attempts to give back to life the historic center, has been to give developers the possibility to restore entire buildings in such a way that thay can use the entire ground and first floor as a garage. A solution that, so far, has had the effect that some pedestrian areas have been reshaped in such a way that one can access his/her garage.

HealthBridge Foundation of Canada
Fri, March 18, 2016 at 07.07 am

Thanks for the interesting discussion so far.  For me there are several ways that public spaces can promote equity in the city.  Obviously spatial distribution of things like parks and playgrounds is important.  We recently conducted a formal park mapping exercise in Kampala, Uganda and, unsurprisingly, most of the formal open spaces (i.e. those spaces recognized and protected by the government)  were located in the central part of the city – not in the areas where there are informal settlements and where lower income people might reside.  We conducted follow up research where we mapped a sample of the informal spaces that people were using.  Although there are still areas underserved by parks and open spaces, these informal spaces were very important.  The challenge now is to protect them -so a key principle (or maybe even action) is to ensure that everyone has walkable access to an open space from home.  But, it is also important to protect the diversity of uses in those spaces.  Because they are not just places for playing football but places for drying clothes, for selling goods and earning and income, etc… So a second important way of having public spaces promote equity is ensuring the diversity of uses needed by a community is protected and encouraged.

An obvious model for developing these spaces is through community engagement.  Our recent experiences in Hoi An, Vietnam found that the community was very interested in participating in public spaces development.  They volunteered to make equipment, donated funding and contributed ideas to the development of the Hoi An Public Spaces Master Plan.  Hoi An now has, as part of policy, community engagement as a key element of park development.  I do, however, present a challenge to the community engagement model – and I’d be very interested in people’s thougths.  Community engagement and involvement is going to be a key part of the final outcome document (if the trends continue).  it of course only make sense that the community participates in deciding how our cities are to be built.  But people are busy.  They have jobs and family responsibilities.  How realistic is it to think that the community can be active participants in everything we need them to participate in?  I’d be very curious to hear from others about innovative ideas for this.  Our work in Hoi An was successful and very “low-tech”.  But, there is a long history of community participation, especially in public spaces, in Vietnam.  We haven’t found this to be the case in other countries to quite the same degree.

A last issue that I’ll discuss now is the equitable distribution of street space.  I certainly don’t need to tell this group that street space is far from equitable.  Pedestrians and cyclists are treated very poorly in many (most?) parts of the world.  The amount of space (and resources) that are put towards moving private automobiles is inequitable to the millionth degree.  In a country like Bangladesh where, I believe, less than 5% of all trips are made by private automobile significant resources go into moving cars.  Other than the typical “pedestrians are our priority” wording in planning documents, pedestrians are virtually ignored.  There’s no funding for sidewalks, no projects to ensure safety at crossings etc…  If we really want public spaces to promote equity then we need to switch the paradigm that streets are for cars.  Streets should first be considered as places to move pedestrians and cyclists, then public transit, and then, only if there is space and safety consideration, as places to move private automobiles.

Rafael Hortua Analista-redactor en políticas e intervenciones de desarrollo from Canada
Thu, March 17, 2016 at 05.50 pm

El modelo de espacio púbilco que mejor promueve la equidad es aquel que favorece las interacciones del conjunto de ciudadanos, sin importar su edad, género o condición económica. Una plaza, un parque, una ciclovía, un paseo, son ejemplos de espacios que siguen este modelo.

indu prakash singh I work on the Urban issues of India. Been active on it since 1993 from India
Thu, March 17, 2016 at 07.56 am

The public space model that best promotes equity in the city is where private enclaves are decimated. Where gated communities are not the order of the day. Where parks are not enclosed by walls. Where ALL children are allowed to play, not just of the specific residents children. 

Equity is a palpable term not peppered and  perforated by exculsivity. Conditions, reasons, exclusions, ifs & buts sound the death knell of equity.  

Equity is a process and not merely a product that once produced will always be so.  

Universidad Central
Wed, March 16, 2016 at 09.13 pm


Actually, not is sufficuent the sidewalk and public furniture, right now everyone we should think about meeting areas and meeting places to meet people to one purpose but differents uses. Like youngh I want see the public space with not only more “green” or more trees we need public spaces nearby our home, nerby our studies and nerby our work, doesn’t about only beautiful places it’s more functional places where will be more easy share with our friends, family and ourselfs.

Taking into account the above it’s prioritary like citizents we demand public spaces with more spacie to walk, to seatdown, to share happines moments and chiefly public spaces inclusive to everyone. 

Frederic Saliez UN-Habitat from Belgium
Wed, March 16, 2016 at 05.45 pm

Shall public space promote equity in the city? This does not seem to be a given in most cities of the world. In fact, there are many places that do not promote equity, because it was never considered as an objective by their designers or managers in the first place. We therefore may want to start this discussion with a loud and clear reaffirmation that public space policies, public space design options and public space governance structure shall be assessed against a strong equity principle.

A second remark relates to the level of ambition brought by David’s question. History has shown that architects, urbanists and urban planners tend to be over-optimistic about their capacity to influence social order by design. As much as I am convinced that spatial configurations do have an influence on people life and powers, let’s acknowledge that the levers to a hypothetic “redistribution of wealth and opportunities towards the base of the social pyramid” are primarily located outside the sphere of public space policies. This does not mean that public space policies are irrelevant to promoting equity, but let’s not be overambitious and focus on areas on which we can have a real influence.

There is certainly not one “public space model” that can be promoted over all the others. Life is much more complex than that. It is true that the historic agreement on Sustainable Development Goal #11 has unveiled an universal agenda for public spaces, but it also comes with a clear recognition that there cannot be one-size-fits-all approaches to urban policy matters. Every city, every neighbourhood, is the combination of a unique blend of people with a unique geographical setting, a unique culture, a unique heritage, and require a unique solution. What we can look for are principles, or values, that can guide urban decision makers through the complex process of urban management. Not sure this can be synthetized in a universal “model” of public space.

What are these values against which public space policies shall be assessed? Without taking much risk, we could borrow them from the well-established conceptual framework of sustainable development, with its three (or four) “pillars” in the areas of economy, environment, social (and culture). Many of us would probably agree that a good public space shall promote economic vitality, be environmentally sound, supportive of (diverse) cultural identity, and promote social cohesion. In practice, this is however incredibly complex and requires a adopting an “integrated” systemic approach (an “ecosystemic” approach some would argue…), in opposition to sector-based interventions. Understanding this complexity is key to achieving a more sustainable urbanization, but won’t help taking the right trade-off decisions, which are of political nature. Public space policies are not politically-neutral.

A first level through which public spaces can promote equity in the city relates to the offer of public spaces, their quality and accessibility. Are there more, or less, public spaces in socially under-privileged areas of the city? Is this compensated by an explicit investment policy in favour of specific areas? Are there health implications related to the distance one is located to a green public space? Beyond relatively “simple” quantitative questions, this leads to the complex social chemistry that determines the social use of public spaces: Are women offered the same opportunities to enjoying the benefit of public spaces? What are the factors that constrain women’s access? Is it good that people identify with public spaces? What happens if there is over-appropriation or privatization by specific social groups? Are there policies in places that favour a variety of appropriations over space and over time (for instance through organizing specific activities, or through specific equipment?)…

Another dimension relates to the socio-economic benefits that directly derive from the use of public spaces. Are these opportunities equally accessible for the diverse social groups that form the city’s population? What are the factors through which public space planning, design and management may increase or mitigate inequitable access to such opportunities?

The way municipal authorities organize street market activities can serve as a good illustration to this question. Street markets offer business opportunities that are more accessible than opening a formal shop, as they require much smaller initial investment. Furthermore, street markets are often characterized by a greater margin of tolerance for informal or partially informal activities, which represent unique livelihoods opportunities for the most vulnerable. Example of equity questions on street market policies could therefore be: Are street market promoted or discouraged? What are the conditions for access to business opportunities in the market? Do these conditions create development opportunities for the most vulnerable, or do they tend to consolidate the dominant position of the most powerful vendors?

Javier Otero Peña Research Associate – Public Space Research Group / PhD student in Environmental Psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center from United States
Fri, March 18, 2016 at 03.58 pm

Frederic, I believe you hit right on the spot on many of the issues concerning equity and public space and I agree with all that you say. It’s true that there is no ideal prefabricated public space that offers a solution anywhere anytime, regardless of cultural and social characteristics of the target public. This is why I suggested earlier that the key is to involve the target public as much as possible in the conception of public spaces themselves: if they participate and engage in the shaping of their own spaces, not only these spaces will be tailored to their needs but they will also develop a stronger sense of belonging, place attachment and identity with the place and with their community. Your questions about socioeconomic opportunities of public space should be addressed after the current conversation centered on cars.

Alessandro Scarnato Architect / Research from Spain
Wed, March 16, 2016 at 12.19 pm

I’d like to point out another aspect of the debate: to which kind of cities we can actually apply the concept of public space as we are used to, according to our mainly Western criteria?

For some regions (eg Middle East), public space is considered as space for poor people: if you can afford it, you will have social interaction in some other structure (mall, compounds, open air clubs).

For some other regions (eg Subsaharian Africa) every space is potentially public, so the concept is more linked to the meaning you can give to certain areas.

Finally, also in our old Europe, the public space is slowly shifting, in my opinion, from the universal idea of an open air common surface, to a still blurred concept of volumetric space not necessarely open air, some time not even really phisical, where you can choose if and at which level you want to interact with other people.

In this sense, spaces with vegetation are still keeping (almost everywhere) a kind-of pure spirit of public space as we know it as far as both their morphology and the way they work.

I would add that another dramatic evolution in public space we are witnessing in these years and it is represented by the slow but unstoppable subdivision between spaces that are (or eventually will be) generators of real estate-related benefits and spaces that will not be able to generate such benefits, at least in short terms.

Such subdivision often starts as a gentrification process (stil, not always) but I feel is quite more complex and powerful and will have enormous effects on the possibility to keep cities as a scenario for equitable and sustainable societies.

Environment Europe Ltd
Wed, March 16, 2016 at 01.58 pm

I find what Alexandro says very interesting. Indeed there are different cultural peculiarities in how people perceive and use public spaces in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. In tropical Colombian city of Carthagena for example, one of the public squares becomes a place for live music, circus performers, and social interaction after 8pm when the heat goes away. In France, the social interaction happens in the cafes on street corners, along the main avenues and in the squares. This is much less present in England for example. Which other examples of the effects of cultural and climatic conditions do you know? It seems that the amount of rainfall, average temperatures and the amount of available light would determine slightly different solutions? In cold Toronto for example, a lot of such public spaces are hidden indoors or even underground.

Cátedra UNESCO paisajes culturales y patrimonio. UPV/EHU
Wed, March 16, 2016 at 08.41 am

Good morning ,
for now the debate has focused on the environmental aspects influencing public spaces.In my opinion I think it is also important to highlight that today , globalization, the information society and the economic boost that characterize the contemporary world through factors such as tourism , real estate pressure and gentrification , impede the protection and safeguarding forcing professional managers urban have to face the challenge of harmonizing the past and the future in a sustainable way . In this context , public spaces are embedded in the overall dynamics of accelerated urban development predominant in the XXI century , with consequences that are not yet able to warn in its entirety.

Javier Otero Peña Research Associate – Public Space Research Group / PhD student in Environmental Psychology from United States
Wed, March 16, 2016 at 03.25 am

Hello! David raised many issues, here are some of my first thoughts on the specific argument of equity, technocracy and involvement of the people.

Perhaps one way to avoid neglecting the principle of equity in the making or management of public spaces is making sure the equity is respected also in the management/design of the places.

We have seen pocket parks, pop-up parks and other quick solutions made BY technocrat governments FOR the people, to attend the public space need in certain cities; we have also seen how short-lived many of these initiatives are, and how after one swing breaks, one bench is damaged, soon people are discouraged from using them and these parks become swing graveyards, weed gardens and in some cases an ideal place for illicit activities and for disease-vector breeding, until a future technocrat government decided to invest on maintenance on the park and the cycle repeats itself. However, governments often focus on more visible parks and plazas, rather than small parks or plazas that only benefit a few unprivileged people. What can local people do about this? How can they organize to demand attention and good-quality public spaces? Still, we could ask ourselves: is this a sustainable model for maintenance of public spaces?

I think not. I believe that if people are involved in the design, and even in the building of the parks, they would develop a stronger attachment to the park, a more solid place identity. People defend more what they feel belongs to them, and what better way to develop a sense of belonging than when you build or you help build something that is intended for your own use?

Looking forward to reading your thoughts on this.


Javier Otero Peña

Alejandro from Spain
Tue, March 15, 2016 at 05.09 pm

Renaturing the city would be a ridiculous concept if it had not been so misleadingly used by neocon town planners to hide evil intentions behind. The city is not an ecosystem and we are not little animals. The city is a far more complex political, formal and cultural construction. Urban design should focus on spaces that allow for human connection to each other, on the street as a stage, court and marketplace for human intense interaction, which should exclude cars from compact centres, and should not force the creation of poor habitats for plants and birds. For a healthy relation with nature please go visit the countryside or rather watch National Geographic.

Javier Otero Peña Research Associate – Public Space Research Group / PhD student in Environmental Psychology from United States
Wed, March 16, 2016 at 03.48 am

Alejandro, could you please explain what do you mean by “evil intentions behind”? Could you give some concrete examples?

Environment Europe Ltd
Tue, March 15, 2016 at 07.46 pm

Let me point out that my right and honourable friend is in fact an animal, like every other human. More specifically a mammal. And like every mammal, he needs air to breathe, water to drink and food to nourish oneself. These unfortunately do not come from socio-political circles.  They come from nature directly. And it is very important to understand our reliance on nature in everything we do, in all the complex economic and cultural processes happening in the city, just like my right and honourable friend points out. Have you tried to breathe in the middle of Bogota, the capital of Colombia in rush hour for example? Apparently, some parts of Bogota have worse air pollution than Shanghai. And this is already very serious. Every human being out of seven million in Bogota needs sixteen fully functioning trees to process just CO2 emissions that the cars and humans produce (not even talking about PM10 from fuel combustion or anything more exotic). Unfortunately they only have 0.16 per person – exactly one-hundredth of what they need. In Shanghai and Beijiing the situation with air pollution already lead to severe health problems for thousands of people. Recently Beijing was on red alert for air pollution, which means that all the schools are closed. Of course there is a surrounding region to support a lot of processess that happen in the cities. But we are definitely part of the ecosystem. And urban design should take that into account and make sure that the potential impacts are reduced, the green spaces, pedestrianized areas and squares create a friendly and stimulating environment for social interaction, there is a maximum possible use of public transport, bicycles, and walking routes, making the air breathable. Without the latter it would be very difficult, especially when cities do not have strong airflow, are surrounded by mountains or simply are overreliant on cars, which are often stuck in traffic jams. Water circulation, photosynthesis and other ecosystem services are equally essential. So there needs to be a middle way, a harmonious synthesis of sustainable development, uniting social, economic and environmental dimensions in urban planning and design. And by the way, my photography is published by National Geographic.   

Alejandro from Spain
Tue, March 15, 2016 at 10.38 pm

Dear Environment LTD, maybe that is too long an explanation to justify the one word blatantly missing in your first comment: car.

David Bravo – Discussion Moderator Architect, editor of publicspace.org from Spain
Wed, March 16, 2016 at 10.04 am

Thank you, Alejandro and Environment LTD, for your interesting contributions and for a vibrant debate. It is radically true that we are mammals and that we depend on the environment, on water and air quality, on photosynthesis, on sun and the contact with chlorophyll. As the matter of fact, many voices among the urban population are demanding more green presence in our cities. Still, it is also true that not everything which is green is ecological (think in a golf resort installed in an arid climate) and that not everything which is ecological is green (think in a windmill or in a railway track).

Actually, you have introduced into the debate a great paradox of our time. Excessively mineral cities, namely those lacking vegetation or soft grounds, are bleaker and they feed the “chlorophyll ideology”, ie, the desire to escape into green suburbs. At the same time, suburban fabrics with an abundance of green areas are, by definition, less compact and mixed. This means they are much more dependent on private car. A city in which it is impossible to live as a pedestrian is not only less sustainable. It is also less equitable.

So, what should be the proper proportion of vegetation in cities to make them more equitable and sustainable?

Environment Europe Ltd
Wed, March 16, 2016 at 11.52 am

I really like how you framed the debate, David. A city in which it is impossible to live as a pedestrian is not only less sustainable. It is also less equitable. It seems there is a general division between two models: the compact city (like New York, with green space concentrated in a few areas) and a garden city (North London, Oxford, etc). The former is more technocratic, but could allow less reliance on cars and more efficient use of public transport; the latter, thransformed through the urban sprawl, is much more reliant on private car (this however is not absolutely true in North London). The issue of scale is definitely becoming very important. What is the most desirable scale for a city: a megacity like Hong Kong, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, New York, London, Paris or a more manageable size: Stockholm, Vienna, Bristol, Edinburgh, Prague, etc? What could we do to resolve the paradox?

Environment Europe Ltd
Tue, March 15, 2016 at 11.42 am

It seems one aspect to bear in mind in desigining public spaces will become more and more important as time goes by. At the time when regeneration and renaturing become new and hot terms for urban design, focusing on ecosystem services will be essential. Ecosystem services include: habitat for species of plants, birds and animals, water circulation, photosynthesis, regulation of air quality, biogeochemical cycling, but also inspiration, aesthetic values, social relations, cultural diviersity and the sense of place. Focusing on all these aspects and making sure public spaces are accessible for all, stimulate interaction, give opportunities and inspire could be a useful guiding principle.

David Bravo – Discussion Moderator Architect, editor of publicspace.org and secretary of the Jury of the European Prize for Urban Public Space. from Spain
Mon, March 14, 2016 at 07.26 pm

Welcome to this online discussion on urban public spaces for the Barcelona Thematic Meeting, which will be open to everybody from 14 until 26 March. I am really glad to be moderating this discussion, jointly with Lydia Gény, and looking forward to listen to your contributions and discuss them with you.

I am deeply concerned about the importance of urban public spaces, not only because they are the setting in which the progressive erosion of equity becomes more evident, but also because they are the place from which this erosion can be fought with greater firmness and efficacy. In an increasingly urbanised world, the right to the city takes on a growing importance as a foundation for the other human rights. I believe that this right should be achieved by means of urban policies that democratize the city in two main ways.

  • On the one hand, wealth and opportunities should be redistributed towards the base of the social pyramid.
  • On the other hand, those in the base of the social pyramid should be empowered by means of transparency, pedagogy, debate and accountability in order to let them participate with rigor in decision-making concerning the whole society.

Too often, the collective effort invested in improving streets, squares, parks or waterfronts has the paradoxical consequence of the concentration of wealth and power in a few hands.

  • Sometimes, gentrification increases prices of nearby homes and causes the expulsion of the weakest residents.
  • Other times, the urban space is explicitly designed to scare away the poor, whose presence is considered unseemly.
  • Often, decisions on public space are taken in a technocratic way. Experts and powerful decide without taking into account the needs and capabilities of its recipients.
  • Usually, public space improvements consist on huge operations that are only available to large companies, so that they get rich by increasing public debt.

These are examples of situations in which the improvement of public space contradicts the principle of equity. I would like to discuss with you on specific proposals to avoid such situations and to contribute to the redistribution of wealth and opportunities.