Public spaces are all places publicly owned or of public use, accessible and enjoyable by all for free and without profit motive. This includes streets, open spaces and public facilities. UN Habitat, in their 2015 report “Global Public Space Toolkit: From Global Principles to Local Policies and Practice”, describes public space as places where people perform a number of functions that are shared with all.
It is an area or place that is open and accessible to all citizens, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age or socioeconomic level; that is, a place where anyone can come, and further, where most events are spontaneous rather than pre-planned, where people mix with others or simply move about or sit and watch others. Public spaces have no entrance fee, no dress code, and no script. They offer surprises and unexpected pleasures: the sight of children playing, youth strolling, the elderly chatting, the fatigued resting, and the lonely and melancholy and bored escaping their troubles. There are no clear distinctions between observers and observed; all are on stage, all are part of the audience.
Jevanjee gardens Nairobi (the only public-owned park in the city)
In the modernization view, the urban public space represents a waste of space that could be utilized for economic purposes; with high-rise office and residential blocks and shopping malls replacing open markets in the drive towards ever-increasing consumption. However, after years of urban practices that have neglected the urban public spaces, there has been an increasing awareness and growing realization of how important public spaces are in promoting social sustainability, especially in the urban areas. This is more so, in light the high urbanization trends and subsequent occurrence of urban sprawl, combined with urban spatial planning policies of densification. These practices have resulted in proliferation of these public spaces, therefore making it hard for public spaces to fulfil their traditional role as spaces for recreation, economic and political partaking, all which promote livable communities, well-being and civic engagement.
Take the case of Nairobi, as a growing city in the developing world. An increasing population residing in the city and an increase in the built environment has constantly threatened the provision, planning and design of public spaces. In Nairobi notable public spaces include the Agha Khan Walk, Jevanjee gardens, Uhuru Park, Central Park, Nairobi River riparian reserve, Mama Ngina Street, just to mention a few. They are known to attract a large number of city residents and non-residents as they are places of recreation (sporting activities such as skating) and relaxation. They also serve as economic zones for city informal traders, meeting or interaction places for city residents, places for social movements and also serve as political arenas. With the new global awareness of the importance of public spaces, and the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 11, Target 7 which aims 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) the city has recently witnessed placemaking efforts and rehabilitation of the public spaces in Nairobi such as Jevanjee gardens, all in the effort of creating a liveable and social sustainable city.
Uhuru Park outlining Nairobi's Skyline
Social sustainability seeks to promote healthy liveable communities that are diverse and socially cohesive. This calls for spaces for social cohesion within a community given that towns and cities represent an intrinsic web of cultures and different ethnic backgrounds.
When public spaces are successful, they will increase opportunities to participate in communal activity. This fellowship in the open nurtures the growth of public life, which is stunted by the social isolation of ghettos and suburbs. In the parks, plazas, markets, waterfronts, and natural areas of our towns and cities, people from different cultural groups can come together in a supportive context of mutual enjoyment. As these experiences are repeated, public spaces become vessels to carry positive communal meanings.
It is common knowledge that human beings are inherently social animals, unable to thrive without human interactions, and those interactions require a venue; Public Space(s). The public realm is therefore, the connective tissue of our everyday world.
By Isaac Kang’ethe