Summary & Report
The Urban Thinkers Campus on „Public spaces as anchors in social resilience and climate action: The role of participation“ took place the 18th of February 2021 with 295 registered and 130 participants.
The Program on Urban Ecological Planning at the Department of Architecture and Planning at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), hosted the online webinar. With the Global Public Space Programme of UN-Habitat as a co-organizer, further partners included the Centre on African Public Spaces, City of Johannesburg, and the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi.
The UCT relates and contributes most directly to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 10 (Reduced Inequalities), 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and 13 (Climate Action). The New urban Agenda lists ten specific paragraphs related to public space promoting socially inclusive, integrated, connected, accessible, gender-responsive, environmentally sustainable and safe public spaces.
Objectives & Leading Questions
The main objective of the UTC was to showcase and mainstream the relevance of public spaces as anchors for climate action and social resilience. Within this framework, it highlighted the vital role of approaches based on ownership, engagement, participation and co-creation. The presentations discussed selected case studies based on three leading questions:
How, from your point of view are public spaces vital components in climate action, especially how do public spaces contribute to social and environmental resilience? Do you know any examples?
When, from your point of view, can environmental and social solutions support and when are they opposing each other? Do you know any examples?
Which role do citizen engagement and co-production play in promoting urban resilience and sustainability in the case of public spaces? Do you know any examples?
„Participatory approaches play an essential role in long-term community building and social cohesion. That is the case because communities know their priorities best and share collective knowledge. Understanding the problem helps people solve it. Participation may also enable the contribution of public spaces to environmental resilience.“
Jose Chong, Programme Management Officer, Global Public Space Programme, UN-Habitat
"The case study about the Bez valley park [inner-city farm in Johannesburg] and the sidewalks food gardens is really showing how public spaces are especially good arenas for creativity and also for collaboration between government, private sector, communities, universities."
Ayanda Roji, Head of Research and Knowledge Management at the City of Johannesburg’s Parks and Zoo agency; Centre on African Public Space
„These Public Spaces [in Windhoek, Dar es Salaam] are very important for shade, particularly in drier areas as well as improving air quality and carbon sequestration. Beautification, aesthetic value, inspiration, and re-creation is the important value of these areas and, of course, exercise. And finally, many residents see birds and domestic animals as well as reptiles and snakes that they find in these public spaces.“
Jessica Thorn, African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town; University of York
"Our Challenge is integrating urban forestry, urban agriculture and urban food systems into the process of urban planning. These areas are often considered as secondary priority after other infrastructures/transport/energy but are a key to making cities more resilient to economic, health and climate shocks."
Simone Borelli, Urban Forestry Office, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)
Key Points of the Speakers
Speaker 1: Jose Chong, Programme Management Officer, Global Public Space Programme, UN-Habitat
The first keynote speaker, Jose Chong, reviewed the prevalence of climate action in the global agenda, from the perspective of UN-Habitat and its role in the work of the Global Public Space Program.
A key message from the presentation was that if public spaces are to have a positive effect on climate change, they must be created and managed in a participatory way and supported by policies at all scales. Policy examples include natural disaster and natural resource management and incorporation of green growth into global, national, and urban policies.
This presentation highlighted both the City-Wide Public Space Assessment (a tool used to measure distribution, quantity, quality and accessibility of public spaces across a whole city), and the Block by Block methodology (a participatory process that uses the game Minecraft to co-design public spaces).
Speaker 2: Jessica Thorn, African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town; and University of York
Dr. Jessica Thorn and team are conducting research to find evidence and create an analytical framework to understand barriers and limits to access green infrastructure for climate adaptation in peri-urban settlements in Africa. Their case studies included Dar el Salaam, prone to flooding and a quickly growing city, and Windhoek which experiences drought intensification. In both examples, irregular population growth has encroached on natural resources.
When looking at how public spaces in peri urban settlements contribute to social-ecological resilience, Dr Thorn’s team developed four categories of assessment: Provisioning services (such as fruits, medicines, grass), regulating services (such as shade, air quality), cultural services (such as aesthetic value and exercise) and supporting services (such as biodiversity).
The identified key barriers to access green infrastructure included financial barriers; land use change and spatial trade offs; design performance and maintenance; legal and institutional barriers; and ecosystem disservices. As a result, the study recommends an integrated landscape approach, coordination platforms, simplified land tenure systems, local communities engagement, a shared sense of responsibility, planning agro pastoral livelihoods when there is a transfer of land uses, as well as monetary and non-monetary valuation.
Speaker 3: Ayanda Roji, Head of Research and Knowledge Management at the City of Johannesburg’s Parks and Zoo agency; Centre on African Public Space
Ayanda Roji’s presentation focused on how we can build climate resilience through urban agriculture, how we redesign public spaces for environmental and social resilience, and how we can differently manage these spaces. In South Africa, public spaces are fragmented and unequal in terms of access, quality and distribution - an antithesis of the SDGs. COVID-19 has increased the vulnerability of people and urban areas, as people seek refuge in public open spaces.
Ayanda emphasized that, although cities are learning how to mitigate climate change and in particular trying to have partnerships with universities, there is still not sufficient collaboration with the public. The people most affected are not brought to the table, however, to counter historic inequalities participation is necessary.
One example highlighted a synthesis of social and environmental resilience is in Johannesburg, where a portion of the park had been given to communities to develop an urban farm. This is a hallmark of intersectoral collaboration, led by the city and partnered with communities, universities, private sector, schools, and NGO’s. This is a community asset, offering training to unemployed, using natural solutions for a flood prone area. Finally Ayanda particularly emphasized the role that this urban farm has in promoting intergenerational information transfer, and a reminder of identity and history.
Speaker 4: Simone Borelli, Urban Forestry Office, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)
Simone Borelli’s presentation highlighted the role of trees and nature in public spaces and how it can both bring people together, change people’s mindsets about their role in their own environment, but also have a detrimental social impact. In his presentation, Simone referenced the „Tree cities of the world programme“. This presentation highlighted four examples of public spaces that have considered environmental and social resilience at the local scale, city wide scale, national scale and policy making level and in a rural context.
First, the smallest scale example was the Picasso Food Forest in Italy, where the neighbourhood took over management of an unused space in the city without support from the municipality; Second, a city-wide scale example discussed how informal settlements in most high risk areas have been given support from the municipality in Lima, Peru; At the national level, the third example of Phoenix, Arizona, USA showed how a tree and shade plan, a policy driven by a combination of actions voted on by the community and with shared responsibility of implementation between both community and municipality, provided social and environmental benefits. Finally, a rural example from Ouarzazarte, Morocco, highlighted how social and environmental resilience may not always go hand in hand. The climate positive effort to create a green belt around the city, resulted in the rise of the land price has risen and a gentrification process.
The Panel Discussion
In the interim between the keynote speakers and discussants, Peter Gotsch highlighted the blend between public and green spaces in the cities and the difficulties associated with ‘green washing’ (the practice of using climate action as a marketing tool or in a tokenistic way, without real change towards a shared goal to limit carbon emissions and manage climate change).
Luis Miguel Artieda brought a Latin American perspective to the discussion by highlighting examples in Mexico and in Brazil and by exploring the work of the Avina Foundation in relation to climate and social resilience. One of the key messages that Luis gave was that our definitions of resilience must be comprehensive and must be complete – that does not only refer to the capacity of local populations to adapt to climate hazards. Instead, it must infer a possibility to surpass beyond the chronic stresses of poverty and inequality that existing populations face. One example given was the construction of retaining walls to create terraces against natural hazards by a group of female workers that Avina is partnering with. As well as providing mitigation against hazards, these terraces also provide public spaces which are now being used for urban agriculture to produce food and create a source of income.
Kirsty Daniel emphasized the importance of a ‘natural heritage system’; a mapping of blue and green networks, and how important the connection between public spaces are to create this network across the city, in particular to facilitate biodiversity, and to ensure that animals are able to travel across the built environment. The adaptability of public spaces was also highlighted by Kirsty, for both social and environmental gains. One example described an amphitheatre in Copenhagen that could be used as a water storage and pond in the rainy season. Kirsty also pointed out the inability for formalised structures to adapt to climate change or natural hazards and that informal vendors are crucial in providing for the needs of communities in emergency situations.
Like Kirsty, Arunava Dasgupta discussed the role of informality in environmental and social resilience. He identified the multidimensional claim on public spaces, and the importance of not just users, but also of access and inclusion to avoid places of divide, but to create places of unity. Arunava described the need for more robust spaces, meaning multiple uses, occupancy and participation. One example was the use of a car park for cattle in the early morning, cars in the mid-morning, hawkers later, food vendors, and recreation in the span of a day. He emphasised how open spaces can be used as spaces for playgrounds, ritual, protest, celebration, relief and escape.
Finally, Rolee Aranya outlined how environmental concerns compete with social resilience objectives because public spaces are commodified in mainstream project driven urban development. This has led to increasing exclusion through neoliberal urban development, where powerful actors expropriate public spaces and determine access to public space. This competition most often increases exclusion. Rolee also highlighted that not all public spaces are peaceful or equitable.
Key Results Achieved - Priority actions
All stakeholders, especially in a policy context, need to embrace that:
Public spaces are vital for the generation of social and environmental resilience. In action, these two agendas must be combined.
Whether for pedestrian use, or the role of trees in mitigation of temperature extremes, or for maximization of uses etc.: It is often the “traditional solutions” that work very well, so it is worthwhile to learn from local history.
If public spaces are to have a positive effect on climate change, they must be created and managed in a participatory way and supported by policies at all scales.
Capacity building of governments on the role of public spaces in environmental and social resilience must come hand in hand with shared resilience goals between stakeholders
Social inequality and poverty are constant crises that city’s face. The city therefore must be constantly and actively resilient to these social stresses, not only in times of large-scale events and catastrophes.
Public spaces can improve social resilience, cohesion, and identity if they:
Address Well-being and inequality
Increase access to nature, space to be active, and social interactions
Are flexible in their programming and are used by diverse user groups
Are managed by those that use them.
Globally, access to public space, and land allocated to streets and open spaces, falls short of UN-Habitat’s targets. Even with the effects of the pandemic, we have not reached our goals in reduced carbon emissions.
The more communities can be involved in the process, the more successful the project will be in addressing their needs. Challenges and needs assessment, engagement and implementation phases of a project must be directed by participation.
Adaptability is key to resilience, so public spaces, as adaptable places, can provide the resilience needed in face of natural hazards, climate change and social inequalities
Solutions & Good Practices
The Siyakhana food garden in Bez valley park, Johannesburg Inner-city, is a part of a public space where people can plant and also buy organic greens… It is also a platform for research and training. Collaborating with Universities, Corporates, academics, and volunteers.
A city-wide scale example was given to show how informal settlements in most high-risk areas such as Independencia, have been given support from the municipality in Lima, Peru. They have planted trees on the slopes above the informal buildings to prevent landslides.
In Ouarzazarte, Morocco, an effort was made to collect wastewater to create a green belt around the city.
The Block-by-Block methodology (a participatory process that uses the game Minecraft to co-design public spaces)
Public spaces in Kathmandu as vital components of identity, community infrastructure and and post-disaster (earthquake) resilience
The typology of the Maidan in India as an example for flexibility, temporary adaptation and multiple uses.
The pertinence of the approach of planning networks of public and of green and blue spaces on a city wide and regional scale.
The necessity for governments to build streets, not roads.
The Picasso Food Forest in Italy, where the neighbourhood took over management of an unused space in the city without support from the municipality.
The example of Phoenix, Arizona, USA was given to show how a tree and shade plan, a policy driven by a combination of actions voted on by the community and with shared responsibility of implementation between both community and municipality, has provided both social and environmental benefits.
The City-Wide Public Space Assessment (a tool used to measure distribution, quantity, quality, and accessibility of public spaces across a whole city)
Public Spaces [in Windhoek, Dar es Salaam] are very important for shade, particularly in drier areas as well as improving air quality and carbon sequestration.
Three lined streets in the historic centre of Dire Dawa (Ethiopia) as models for providing climate comfort in public spaces and promoting accessibility
Allotment gardens as traditional examples of urban agriculture.
Convertible public spaces along rivers that can become flooding retention areas such as an open amphitheatre in Copenhagen.
The pertinence and agility of informal economies (i.e. vendors) in post-disaster situations.