Reflections on the New Urban Agenda: Let’s focus on public spaces for social cohesion

Reflections on the New Urban Agenda: Let’s focus on public spaces for social cohesion – Blog

Kids are playing in End Street North Park, Doornfontein: In the park, an integrated, participatory approach for park upgrade and management is being tested. Click here for more information.

Kids are playing in End Street North Park, Doornfontein: In the park, an integrated, participatory approach for park upgrade and management is being tested. Click here for more information.

Some ten days ago, on 20 October 2016, the 3rd United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development – in short: Habitat III – took place in Quito, Ecuador. This UN-Conference, convened only every 20 years by the Secretary General, provided a valuable opportunity to engage in a new and global dialogue on methods and measures for sustainable development in cities.

More than 30.000 international experts from different levels of government, academia, civil society organizations and the private sector attended the Habitat III conference. The topics discussed at the conference included urban resilience, slum upgrading, integration, technological (digital) innovation and disaster risk management as well as questions on governance and financial resources especially for bulk infrastructure.  

As a result and outcome document of Habitat III, the participating national governments adopted the New Urban Agenda, which intends to assist and guide the global community in making cities more inclusive and liveable spaces and help them to become sustainable in the next 20 years.

A quick glance back into the past: The first UN-conference on human settlements took place in 1979 in Vancouver, Canada, followed by the second meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, 1996. While the trend of an urbanizing world was already clearly visible and tangible in 1996, only in 2009, more than half of the world’s population was considered to be living in urban spaces.

What is remarkable about the New Urban Agenda?

The process! Thematic and regional conferences, as well as online discussion forums and numerous informal meetings brought stakeholders together in the lead-up to Habitat III. Local governments became engaged in the process through associations, city networks or interested mayors. Although only few topics, questions and existing good practices became part of the official outcome document, the collective debate has certainly triggered new initiatives and cooperation amongst participants even before the conference took place.  

Slogans such as “Cities for all” and “Leaving no one behind” were ubiquitous throughout Habitat III. They point to an important characteristic of the New Urban Agenda: its intention to connect current topics such as sustainable economic growth and environmental protection (especially facing the consequences of climate change) with the widely recognized urgent need for better social integration.  

However, the Agenda could benefit from a bit more clarity in the regard. For example, it is important to consider the spatial aspects of cities and their multidimensional challenges in order to achieve more equitable urban development. Yet while many of these aspects are mentioned in the document, they are spread widely across references to various, distinct sector themes.

Safe public spaces – critical for urban development

Surprisingly, a critical and overarching aspect for urban development which significantly shapes the physical and social form of a city is hardly mentioned in the Agenda: The provision of safe, public, open spaces such as parks, pedestrian areas or playgrounds. 

From an environmental perspective, public spaces can help mitigate climate change. Green parks with lakes support lowering extreme temperatures on hot summer days while trees provide some shadow. In this way, the effects of so-called ‘urban heat islands’ can be (sometimes significantly) reduced. In areas with extreme weather phenomena such as heavy rain showers, unsealed surfaces in parks and small lakes help absorb rain water and may prevent the forming of dangerous torrents.

Public and green open spaces are also highly relevant for the wellbeing, integration and social cohesion amongst city inhabitants. Green spaces provide opportunities for recreation and relaxation, while playgrounds may assist children in learning while playing.

In spatially divided cities, public spaces also have an increasingly important role. People from all walks of life who wouldn’t meet otherwise can use parks and open spaces. Students, parents or nannies with kids, managers, electricians, business people during their lunch breaks, tourists, beggars and the homeless, elderly people – all classes and generations share the same open space and invariably interact in them.

While the New Urban Agenda shows that national governments feel committed to work towards providing more and better usable public open spaces, there seems to be little understanding of the conditions that make a public park or open space, safe and accessible to its users.

The Agenda underlines that planning procedures for urban extensions, urban renewal and regeneration shall consider the provision of public spaces and ensure integrated and participatory approaches that systematically involve residents and relevant stakeholders. This sounds like a good start. The reality, however, is that many open spaces remain unused and therefore fail to unfold their potential for social development. Planning procedures often do not consider aspects of urban safety – starting with features on urban design and the built environment.

Unfortunately, the New Urban Agenda stops at the planning and implementation stage of public open spaces. Yet effective and inclusive urban management for collectively used public spaces is critical. This type of management requires the involvement of different stakeholders and it goes far beyond the mere provision of a park or any other type of public space.

South Africa: safe public spaces an important indicator for social cohesion

In South Africa, where over 60% of the population live in urban areas, the provision and management of safe public places and parks may be considered a crucial indicator for progress on social inclusion and social cohesion. Yet the lack thereof may indicate an on-going dynamic of spatial fragmentation.

To enjoy safe public open spaces in an urban area, where kids can play and people can walk freely and without fear of violence or crime. For many South Africans, this vision still remains a dream. It is easy to understand what happens when people abandon public spaces for fear of becoming a victim to violence and crime. Such spaces quickly deteriorate and the important social benefits of public urban space immediately get lost.

What can be done to recuperate the many dilapidated parks in South Africa’s bigger cities? And how do we maintain and manage them better, once they have been recovered and physically improved?

Any upgrade of a public space needs to go hand in hand with a continuous management process from the very beginning. Moreover, the process should extend to and include various city departments. That’s because of the different uses and possible misuses of public spaces as well as the financial investment into their physical upgrading. It cannot be one department alone that takes care of such a complex environment.

Additionally, residents and other user groups need to be involved in the upgrading of public spaces. This kind of participatory process goes beyond public consultations on citizen expectations or desires. It includes a clear understanding of roles and shared responsibilities. Social activities in the public spaces that are to be upgraded can help create local ownership from the very beginning of the upgrading process.

End Street North Park: An example of participatory, integrate park upgrading

An example of such an integrated approach towards the upgrading of an urban park is a pilot project in End Street North Park in Doornfontein located in a dense area in Johannesburg’s central business district. Under the lead of Joburg City Parks and Zoo and with support from German Development Cooperation through GIZ, several city officials from different departments (incl. public safety and the Johannesburg Development Agency) have formed a core management team preparing for the physical upgrading process and the time beyond.

In-depth consultation with further stakeholders from the city have taken place and led to new ideas for how to connect this project with other civil society groups and schools. An extensive park activation programme involving residents and all kind of users started in 2015 directly in the park facilitated by the NGO Sticky Situations – activities included afternoon reading clubs, sports activities and workshops on safety mapping in and around the park.

This integrated approach and multi-stakeholder involvement throughout the End Street North Park Pilot have received enthusiastic support,, We hope that it might become a prototype for further upgrades of public parks in Johannesburg and other South African cities.