Nossa Cidade (“Our City”), from TheCityFix Brasil, explores critical questions for building more sustainable cities. Every month features a new theme. Leaning on the expertise of researchers and specialists in WRI’s sustainable urban mobility team in Brazil, the series will feature in depth articles on urban planning, sustainable mobility, gender, resilience, and other key themes for sparking more sustainable development in our cities.
“Life is the art of encounter even though there might be so much discord in life,” said the Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes, commenting on what he took to be the essence of human relations. Building on this, we can say that public spaces are at the essence of urban life. It’s in public spaces that these encounters occur and produce what we can call “the art of city life”.
When talking about public spaces, we need to first understand the important role they play in our concept of the city. Public spaces are where movements, interactions and connections between individuals happen. It is there, in freely accessible spaces, free of barriers or prejudices of any kind, that everyday city activities should occur.
However, the perception of public spaces is often restricted to images of parks and squares. Although streets, for example, count as public spaces, and generally represent the largest share of public space in a city, they are often forgotten as communal places. In large urban centers, roads dedicated to cars occupy on average 70 percent of total public space, leaving people with less than 30 percent.
Historically, city life has often been closely connected to residents’ use of public spaces on a daily basis. For example, beginning with agoras in ancient Greece, the majority of urban activities—political, economic, cultural, and social—took place in public spaces. However, after worldwide growth in car use, many of these activities moved into private settings, causing cities to neglect their communal, public spaces.
Urban life is currently undergoing a transformation in cities worldwide. Through changing land use policies, high speed rail, and new technologies that foster online interaction, urban streets and public spaces are regaining their vitality. Here are three key reasons why we need to recognize the value of public spaces in creating cities for people:
Helping Build Vibrant Communities
Urban vitality depends fundamentally on quality public spaces throughout the city that facilitate or encourage common use. These public spaces enable coincidental meetings, informal exchanges, and general community development.
It’s important that streets, squares, parks, sidewalks, and bike lanes remain open to and equitably serve all city residents. The concept of “complete streets”, which has been employed in cities worldwide, refers to a set of urban design principles that aim for accessible, safe, and people-centered streets.
In addition to design, some cities are also exploring creative ways of revitalizing public spaces. For example, Montreal, Canada, created the 21 Balançoires (21 Swings) project—a play structures with swings that reproduce musical notes. Public spaces are for everyone and should be accepting of a variety of uses—from tactical urbanism projects to casual picnics in the park.
Reinforcing the Local Economy
Quality public spaces not only provide people with areas for leisure and physical exercise, but also have the potential to boost the local economy. In Seoul, South Korea, the Cheonggye Stream Park is a great example of how this can work. Built in 2005, where an urban highway had once displaced 40,000 residents and 80,000 jobs, the park has been steadily raising economic activity in the local community. Because of redevelopment, the real estate industry experienced a 25 percent increase in the average price per square meter of local properties—15 percent higher than values in other areas of the city.
The project has drawn international media attention is now a popular tourist spot in the city. But more importantly, the space has returned to Seoul’s residents, restoring vegetation, improving air quality, and creating a generally healthy and attractive environment for the local community.
This is just one example of how public space can positively impact a city’s economy. Activities such as streets fairs and cultural festivals are other features that enhance the local economy and contribute to the diversity of activities that can happen in public space.
Greening Public Spaces to Reduce Environmental Impacts
When public spaces include urban greenery, they can support an ecosystem of indigenous natural life within the built environment. Squares, parks, and other green corridors can be used strategically to mitigate environmental impacts, increase urban resilience, and give residents an opportunity to connect with natural life.
In the Grajaú neighborhood of São Paulo, for example, the city created a park called Parque Cantinho do Céu. It was designed to preserve one of the most important water sources for the metropolitan region and is part of a joint city-state initiative called the Water Source Program. The Water Source Program aims to maintain balanced networks of water and sewage, draining rainwater and extending sanitation services to marginalized communities. The park is not only a recreational public space for the residents of São Paulo. The Cantinho do Céu park also improved resilience and quality of life in a neighborhood that was once particularly vulnerable.