Public spaces: More than 'just space'

Public spaces: More than 'just space' – Understand

Quality public spaces promote social cohesion and contribute to community safety.

What characterises public spaces?

Public spaces are created and maintained for citizens. They are owned by the public, serve the public good and promote social cohesion. By definition they are accessible to all citizens, regardless of their income and personal circumstances.

Public spaces are where people meet and interact; socialize and discover common passions; and where they affirm their shared rights to the city. In a people-centred city public space is central to the notion of a liveable and human environment.

Public space can become the ideal platform for building a sense of community and to move on to even more ambitious collective goals.

“Safety, particularly safety in public spaces, is an essential ingredient for the creation of liveable and prosperous cities: urban spaces and facilities need to be designed and managed in a way that makes citizens feel safe from violence and crime.” Integrated Urban Development Framework (2014 )

Types of public spaces

Public spaces exist for various uses and in different forms. One can distinguish between open public spaces such as beaches, parks and other natural spaces, pavements or squares and closed public spaces such as libraries, museums or religious, spiritual and heritage sites.

Other spaces of public use such as transport interchanges, sports grounds and recreational facilities can be either open or inside buildings. Streets or sidewalks can be considered as more ubiquitous and flexible public spaces that have to exist to promote mobility.


Public spaces promoting democratic values 

Any equitable city or town needs to offer a substantive and accessible amount of quality public space, accessible amenities and useful.

Public space is a powerful instrument of social inclusion. This is of great importance to cities. It means that all those who happen to be in a city and behave responsibly are treated as equals, at least in those spaces of a city that are public.

One can even argue that, following the logic of freedom as a universal value, the city itself is a public space. 

Attributes of good public spaces (c) Project for Public Spaces (


Safe, lively and well-maintained – according to UN-Habitat these should be the three main qualities of public spaces. They are much more than just 'space' that can be used by citizens. They bring economic value, promote social cohesion and often offer environmental as well as cultural benefits. 

More than just space - quality public spaces hold great benefits for cities (c) Project for Public Spaces (


Public spaces in South Africa

In South Africa, the challenge and promise of public space takes on a historical dimension. During apartheid the equal right of all citizens to access quality public spaces was denied to the majority of non-white South Africans. Spatial segregation enforced a limited, discriminatory access to the city centres and certain areas for the majority of citizens. In the planning and building of townships, quality public spaces were assigned a minimal role and were all but neglected.

For many black South Africans during apartheid open spaces in townships, informal settlements and inner cities were often frightening places - dirty, garbage-strewn and unsafe. Sadly, this is often still the case in many settlements.


Loss of physical space in post-apartheid South Africa

Today, the legacy of apartheid's spatial policies is still widely reflected in South Africa's cities. The so-called 'public space deficit' particularly affects peripheral lower income neighbourhoods and especially informal settlements. In many cases, these are still segregated along racial lines, but also along class lines.

South Africa, with its history of segregation, needs physical spaces for citizens and communities of different backgrounds to interact. But there has generally been a lack of provision for such spaces where individuals of different classes, races, cultures and traditions can mingle.

Over the last twenty years of democracy, many parks and other public spaces have fallen into disarray or are simply not accounted for. This is often both a result of and reason for a general perception that open public spaces are unsafe. Instead malls have increasingly become the physical spaces where people gather without interacting with each other.

Promoting the use of open spaces - Open Streets in Langa, Cape Town (c) Open Streets Cape Town
But there exist a growing number of promising initiatives and interventions that aim at reclaiming public open spaces, such as the Braamfontein Regeneration Project in Johannesburg or the Open Streets Cape Town campaign.

Interventions such as these show how interventions can help improve the perception of safety as well as unlock the social potential of public spaces.


Reclaiming public spaces – enhancing safety

People’s mobility, quality of life, their participation in public life and in sustainable development greatly depends on the safety of public spaces.

There is a direct relation between safety and public space. Upgrading and increasing the quantity and quality of existing public open spaces can help improve urban safety. The goal is to enhance safety in public spaces as a way to reclaim public spaces and therefore resolve the impediments to people’s movement.

Quality open spaces have been proven to help reduce insecurity and interventions aimed at improving public spaces call for a new approach through community participation. There is a need for greater individual, community and civil society involvement in reclaiming public spaces that have fallen in disrepair, and converting disused areas into active spaces, such as local public parks.

Shared public spaces encourage citizens to participate and become drivers in ensuring the attainment of safety. Through public spaces, cities can promote more inclusive, convivial and safer places for their citizens, which as a consequence will reinforce social inclusion, community organisation and participation to prevent insecurity and violence.



The process of place-making is a key tool in creating quality public spaces. A participatory and collaborative process, place-making involves anyone who is interested and allows people’s creativity to emerge in developing public spaces. Such an open and inclusive process is effective in making people identify with the places they inhabit and involving them in building a shared vision of their communities.

For further information see:


Urban acupuncture

Successful (re-)development of public space does not depend on expensive grand gestures. Rightly planned small-scale urban interventions can have a positive impact that radiates beyond the immediate sites. A concept called 'Urban Acupuncture', for example, focuses on turning central urban nodes into vibrant public spaces. Just like Chinese acupuncture relieves the human body of stress, urban acupuncture aims to relieve urban congestion. 

For further information see:


Useful Links

UN-Habitat: Global Toolkit for Public Space

Project for Public Spaces

Open Streets Cape Town