Over 30 community groups and professional organizations came together from the 15th to 19th of November 2017 for the second consecutive year to organize what is now the annual ‘Nairobi Placemaking Week.’
Although the term ‘placemaking’ is still strange to the ordinary city resident, there is nevertheless a deep appreciation and understanding among citizens of the need for open public spaces. Over time, the stalwarts behind the placemaking week have mobilized people from various sectors to advocate for the need and importance of inclusive public spaces in the city.
Nairobi’s history reveals a once racially divided city. In spite of the race and consequent class divisions, the city had allocated significant public open spaces in the form of playgrounds, social halls, sports clubs, stadia and parks.
Over the last few decades, Nairobi has faced a very significant challenge related to public land allocation. This has lead to the loss of several open spaces to private development. The designated official ‘City Square’ is now a well fenced and guarded property with no allowance given to the public to sit and pass leisure time.
Other public spaces like the Nairobi Arboretum have imposed entry fees and charge visitors for activities like photography within the park. This has dispossessed both the urban poor and the general public of inclusive public space.
City bylaws also prevent restaurants from extending their operations onto adjacent pavements (although informal vendors get away trading on the same pavements). Pedestrianization programmes are at times seen by city engineers negatively as ‘a challenge to vehicular traffic to flow.’
The result has been the creation of more ‘private spaces.’ This is exemplified by the upper and middle classes giving preference to private clubs, shopping malls and indoor coffee houses.
The annual Nairobi Placemaking Week attempts to deflect this trend. The week consists of a series of activities organized to engage audiences and create more awareness of the importance and essence of open public spaces. Activities include ‘share the road,’ several street concerts, urban dialogue, urban cycling, an urban skating marathon and a community street festival. These are held in various parts of the city across several communities.
Share the road is a temporary closure of a street that is transformed to a people-friendly public space through art and people-centric activities. This includes marking the pedestrian ways, photo expo’s, games and allowing adjacent restaurants to extend to the pavement and street. .
Urban dialogue brings together people from different sectors – practitioners, creatives, policy makers, academicians, professional organizations, Non Motorized Transit users – to discuss the impact and influence of public spaces on urban life. The ‘critical mass’ cycling event assembled over 80 cyclists doing a circuit around Nairobi and finishing at the community street festival where over 1000 residents enjoyed games, fashion, food and art along a closed street section.
The world is urbanizing and we cannot ignore the need and importance of open and inclusive public spaces. Cities are experiencing increased demand for spaces for children and adults to play, for the elderly to sit and talk, for teens to hang out and for creatives to paint, sing and dance. Spaces are also needed for several other activities that make cities more vibrant, cohesive and inclusive.
Melbourne, Vienna and Vancouver were recently named the world’s most livable cities. City planners in Vienna state that they view the city as a social system, a perspective that makes them put ‘people’ at the centre of their planning. As a result, they are continuously attempting to create and re-create urban public spaces in spite of continuous urban growth. They view public spaces as the engine of the city and the heart of urban life. This is unlike the trend in other cities that tend put cars as their central focus.
African cities ought to be innovative and identify how they can both create and reignite public spaces. They should view public spaces as means of celebrating cities, bringing people together, enhancing communities and not as ‘jobless corners’. For this to happen, ‘people’ must be at the centre and heart of all planning methods.
What has your city done towards improving public spaces? Do you feel that public spaces should be all inclusive or there needs to be some control mechanisms over them?
Images from Nairobi Placemaking Network, Data Linked to Sources.
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