In Belgium the city of Seraing is building a process for the future co-development of neighbourhood. Grounded on the implementation of the city’s urban and social masterplan the project is revisiting established district regeneration practices for the successful reduction of persisting citizen poverty. Departing from co-development the city of Turin in Italy is exploring collaborative management methods for the urban commons as a means to counteract poverty and socio-spatial polarisation. Paris, in France along with Barcelona in Spain are working to create a new approach for schoolyards, as a means to reduce the urban-heat island effect and collectively increase green spaces while in parallel opening-up the schools to the neighborhood in the afternoon to increase community life.
We are experiencing an unprecedent global crisis, which initiated as a global health emergency in the face of the global pandemic of COVID-19 but is quickly transforming into a social and economic crisis which puts to question many of our established patterns of living, established policies or actions. Cities and local authorities especially in large urban centres are, once again, at the frontline as they have being called to implement the widespread lockdown measures, while maintaining critical citizen services and ensuring that social nets are in place for the most vulnerable or disadvantaged.
Public space. A ‘commodity’ (re)emerging as a critical parameter of health to reduce risk.
It is there, in the urban commons, where otherwise restricted citizens have found refuge as the only outlet for maintaining a sense of normality. The lack-off public space exacerbates the inequalities and misdraws of modern cities. In contrust the use and reclaiming of public spaces has helped manage the crisis and decreased the (potentially severe) psychosomatic and social consequences of a prolonged quarantine. Where public spaces are limited, citizen vulnerability is higher. More often than not the most disadvantaged areas of cities have limited access to safe public spaces.
Right now, we are facing a crisis which is also threatening our sense of security in public but in fact public spaces have already been under strain. In fact public spaces have been exposed to a number of vulnerabilities and stresses that when combined with a sudden crisis could prove detrimental to overcoming a public health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
While images of empty cities have made the world-tour and provoked understandable owe, empty and limited public space is in fact an imminent if not ever-present risk we are facing even in times of ‘normality’, and we are unaware.
- Climate change ranks high on this list, intensifying natural phenomena and augmenting the cycle of crisis. Unmitigated, extreme heat can make open public spaces dangerous and the increased frequency of extreme weather phenomena can exacerbate this risk.
- Infrastructure degradation. From the perspective of urban resource management, many public areas are under-utilised, under-kept and are overall unsafe for extensive usage, often leading to prolonged closures due to lack of resources and effective maintenance of facilities. This applies not only to grey but also to green and blue infrastructure.
- Security threats. Recent years have seen an increase in security threats from terrorism and other causes. In addition, the perception of safety is often distorted, discouraging citizens further from use of public spaces where such spaces are in fact, available.
- Privatisation and increased property costs. Increased cost of land use and maintenance costs which deepened over the course of the recent global financial crisis, constitute a significant resource and management challenge. Governments are seeking new solutions to deal with this issue through innovative management schemes or partnerships. However, open private spaces or other privately managed areas which in times of normality sometimes may have acted as ‘solution replacements’ for lack of public spaces, are in fact rendered unusable in times of crisis and can remain inaccessible or may require significant energy resources to remain accessible that can bring a further strain to the system.
It is the combination of the above factors that untreated, can bring about a perfect storm, threatening the standard way of living and rendering open public spaces practically uninhabitable, especially for citizens in more vulnerable circumstances. .For example, cities are increasingly exposed to multiplying extreme heat days, with temperatures sometimes touching 50 degrees Celsius. This is a particular threat in urban centres around the Mediterranean basin. Based on a collaborative study led by Columbia University, Tel Aviv-Yafo in Israel is expected to experience over the next decade two additional months of temperatures over 33 degrees C and an additional 10 days of heat waves. On the other side of the Mediterranean, Sevilla, in Spain, is expecting the mean temperature to increase by 4.5 degrees C and an increase in annual heat waves for temperatures that may exceed 50 degrees C.
Imagine a scenario of public-health related lock-down under conditions of extreme-heat. Where would locked-down citizens go in such a case?
Seeking for solutions for inclusive and liveable public spaces:
Public space management and revival has been a key urban challenge concerning a number of cities participating in the European Urban Innovative Actions program, aiming at “identifying and testing new solutions which address issues related to sustainable urban development and are of relevance at Union level.” (art. 8 ERDF).
Sevilla, Spain, is implementing the the UIA project CartujaQanat to identify solutions to the issues of public space resilience and thus liveability both in times of normality and under conditions of extreme heat. The city has adopted in the last three years an integrated approach to public space management, aiming at increasing the usability of spaces under changing circumstances. Public safety, public health and social interoperability are the three cornerstones of the Mayor’s approach in Sevilla in the face of increasing climate heat vulnerability and diverging social circumstances between areas of the city, inequalities that the city aims to reduce. In the area of Cartuja, near the city centre, the old Expo remains unused with large empty polished spaces and a number of buildings currently usable only in day-time from businesses and the University of Sevilla. An irony, for a city which thrives in outdoors city-life. The project CartujaQanat consists of transforming one of the Cartuja avenues into a kind of urban innovation laboratory where techniques will be tested to adapt cities to changes in climate leading to a completely sustainable space that becomes a reference in Spain and the rest of the world involving social, private and public actors in the process.
In fact, seeking a participative approach to public-space management, the city has been looking through the UIA Cartuja Qanat program at creating a best-practice for pubic space usability under conditions of extreme heat (ie under a climate-change crisis) while improving the usability and safety of the space in everyday circumstances with a goal of increasing social business innovation and enhancing the diversity of users to include all citizens and actors. Once completed the city will have identified a way to respond to three challenges at once; citizens health by reducing vulnerability to heat; inaccessibility by creating circumstances for participatory management and reduction of economic risk and lack of resources through flexible integrated management proposals currently geared around climate-related initiatives
The mere size of the space, renders it all the more valuable today, and in the near-future as the city will be more adequately prepared to manage the expected COVID-19 challenges by creating the circumstances for public space safety and usability as the summer months draw near.
Related to the work of Sevilla, other cities participating in the Urban Innovative Actions program have been tackling similar public-space related issues, now at the forefront, from several cross-cutting solution perspectives.
Looking into the future under present circumstances, usable public space is in fact under significant peril and direct action is needed for its protection and re-invention.
To tackle with increased risk and insecurity in the cities, Tampere in Finland is combining transformative organisational planning, smart city technological solutions and exploration of innovative crowd management methods in order to increase cross-sectoral preparedness to threats against public spaces and other urban security threats. The port-city of Piraeus in Greece aims to provide a holistic framework against urban security threats, focusing on crime prevention and improvement of the actual and perceived security through the establishment of a local Crime Prevention Council and the formation of a data collection collaborative platform due to increase data-based policy making and inform Social and Spatial interventions. From a different point of view and to tackle the loss of public space due to water erosion and extreme weather phenomena, Velez-Malaga in Spain is experimenting on artificial regeneration of public beaches and, as mentioned earlier, Sevilla in Spain is working on new ways of public space management and recovering street life in a climate-changing world through methods of public space cooling.
Lille, in France has been working over the last three years to reduce urban poverty and increase community life. Initially creating a temporary communal dinning place already visited by 120000 people, Lille is now renovating a 2 050 m2 hall on a former brownfield site. It is expected to open as a permanent site by 2021, it will provide a shared space where local residents can train, cook, dine and socialise. The City of Pozzuoli in Italy, is looking to urban agriculture as a means of transforming unused public spaces and reducing the poverty gap. Since the beginning of the project the municipality has managed to strengthen its management capacity and demonstrate how a municipal authority can mediate the conflicts between agricultural production, landscape design and accessibility of the commons to trigger an economic recovery, which can reduce the impact of urban poverty.
Alongside Sevilla which is working to integrate novel ways of public space management, most of the relevant UIA projects have a very strong transformational bureaucracy dimension. This is because it has been recognised that this is a critical parameter in order to ensure the successful adaptation of pilot-solutions at scale and render local authorities more flexible in dealing with volatility. For example the City of Plymouth in the UK as member of the UIA cohort is working towards identifying ways to improve the connections of people to green and blue spaces while experimenting with different delivery and management approaches, taking a co-stewardship approach with communities, landowners and social enterprises. Similarly, Latina, in Italy is working on the methodology of Productive Parks with the project UPPER to go beyond urban agriculture, by using vacant and underutilized land to self-producing nature-based technologies and services as a resource for social cohesion, ecosystems recovery and sustainable economic development. Tampere in Finland is looking at horizontally transforming the security management framework at city scale in order to increase the capacity of the urban authority to manage risk as well as increasing the sense of security in public space.
Solutions resolve around experimentations in:
- the co-management of public spaces for the enhancement of social equity and innovation,
- the role of nature-based solutions in increasing the liveability and safety of public-spaces against extreme events,
- adopting different forms of community-centred actions to decrease insecurity and reduce the impact of disasters,
- experimenting with new technologies and materials to change infrastructure and related established infrastructure management protocols,
- promoting out-of-the box use of existing spaces to tackle multiple social and natural challenges.
With a collective direct investment package of more than 55 million euros each of these cities is working to resolve the separate issues related to public space through the adaptation of cross-sectoral solutions demonstrating that re-shaping and protecting public space is a necessity to ensure that despite disruptions citizens will continue to thrive.