‘Urban October’ was launched by UN-Habitat in 2014 to emphasize the world’s urban challenges and engage the international community towards the New Urban Agenda. Starting with World Habitat Day on 5th October and concluding with World Cities Day on 31st October under the motto ‘Designed to Live Together’, urbanists are organizing events centered around urbanization, urbanism and urban planning. This year’s theme is ‘Public Spaces for All’.
The City of Nairobi, Kenya has planned a series of outdoor film screening events dubbed ‘Urban Nights.’ In Florianópolis, Brazil architecture students will build an exhibition addressing the question of Housing and Urban Sustainability for vulnerable population in their city. In Belgium Youth for Public Transport (Y4PT) celebrates World Habitat Day through its campaign #BreathableCities measuring people’s exposure to air pollutants and inhalation through different modes of transport in order to estimate impact on human health and by taking into account that at present air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. In Cambodia, Protesters Marched Against Land Grabbers,
The recently launched Sustainable Development Goals also emphasize on the importance of public spaces for all. Goal 11, Target 7 states that: ‘By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.’
This gives us the opportunity to reflect and analyze how well we have planned the public spaces in our cities. Urban planners recommend that public spaces should make up 45 to 50 percent of a city’s land area, with 30 to 35 percent of the area occupied by streets and 15 to 20 percent open space. Public Spaces range from parks, playgrounds, bus parks, open streets, plazas, sports grounds to social halls among others.They are places where people can freely go to meet friends, socialize and spend their time in an atmosphere of freedom, security and they also offer a sense of ownership.
Open spaces provide a number of benefits including: sense of comfort in the city, improved accessibility, building and supporting the local economy, improved social interaction, promotion of health/healthy lives, nurturing and defining a sense of community.
Major cities are easily identified with their public spaces: New York with Central Park, London with Trafalgar Square, Nairobi with Uhuru Park. Many open spaces also have political significance relating to the collapse of dictatorial regimes, swearing in of new leaders or even the beginning of revolutions.
The City of Nairobi has not been left behind in the new urban agenda. Over the years the city has seen several public spaces come under threat. These have ranged from the grabbing of school playgrounds, threats to the survival of Nairobi National park and the most famous ones: blatant attempts to grab Uhuru Park, Karura Forest and Jeevanjee Gardens. Thanks to efforts by Nobel Laureate, the late Wangari Maathai, these last three were prevented.
The County Government of Nairobi has not hesitated in stating its support for creating and helping maintain the city’s public spaces. With the city fully urbanized, all open land is continually under threat from private developers, such as that recently witnessed through the attempted grab of Lang’ata primary school.
During this year’s World Habitat day celebrations, Nairobi County Deputy Governor Jonathan Mueke informed participants of the inclusion of public spaces in the Nairobi master plan. He provided examples of projects where the County Government has worked with the Architectural Association of Kenya (Landscape Architects Chapter) towards the renewal of public spaces and city beautification. The city plan, however, is long term in nature, and forecasts the city’s operations in the next 30 years and beyond. The proposed public space renewal measures will also be realised through the Safer Cities Programme which falls within the Deputy Governor’s agenda. Corresponding with this are planned housing development projects that the will give substantial consideration to public spaces.
The City of Nairobi is sharply divided along socio-economic lines. To a large extent, these divisions are directly attributable to the ways in which public spaces are utilised. Although the upper classes of society may still feel the need to seclude themselves in private members clubs and expensive shopping malls, hordes of citizens can be found in several public spaces over weekends, especially on Sundays. A good example of this is the ‘Sunken Car Park’ that is used as a roller skating park on Sundays and several mobile markets (known as ‘Maasai Market’) that occupy select parking areas on different days of the week.
Public spaces make people feel that they own their cities and as a result bring a deeper sense of community and belonging. If designed taking into consideration the needs of the people, they can be highly successful and well utilized. This happens when there is adequate public involvement and ownership of the various public space developments.
The City of Nairobi also benefits from a number of efforts by the residents towards improvement of public spaces. Residents have met in different fora to discuss and come up with various resolutions towards developing public spaces. More significantly, the urban poor have made efforts towards reclaiming several public spaces in their neighbourhoods. In Korogocho informal settlement, several youth have come together forming the umbrella body ‘hoperaisers’ to develop open spaces for rollerblading and other social activities, using these as an opportunity to educate the youth on various challenges.
‘Must Seed’ in Dandora, Nairobi is one of the best examples of public space projects undertaken by and for local residents. The neighbourhood is better known for its proximity to Nairobi’s dumpsite but has seen local residents initiate a project to up scale courtyards through clearing of drainage and litter, grassplanting and beautification. The project was l subsequently selected for implementation at the Making Cities Together Lab in Nairobi.
As cities grow the demand for space grows exponentially. In order to ensure that people have balanced lifestyles that allow them to interact and socialize in a true sense of community, cities will have to adopt inclusive and participatory development of public spaces. More open streets and people oriented urban development must form part of the new urban agenda.
How available are public spaces in your neighbourhood? Do you feel that your municipality has done enough towards ensuring that you have adequate space dedicated towards public spaces?