Cities and public spaces

Vibrant and energised public spaces enable greater inter-class interaction and socio-religious and economic tolerance

The dominant urban planning and development approach in Pakistan revolves around widening of roads and undertaking mega infrastructure projects. Another recent trend is to install flower/plant pots on roads and manicure inaccessible green belts as part of city beautification efforts.

The consequence of focusing primarily on politically motivated high visibility urban infrastructure projects is that the creation and functioning of smaller public space is grossly overlooked in the process.

Experts on cities will widely concur that cities are beautiful when they create and maintain vibrant and accessible public spaces and provide an enabling environment for the delivery of basic services to citizens. This article expands on the meaning and functions of urban public space.

Urban public space is an area that is open and accessible to all citizens of a city. It takes many spatial forms, including parks, streets, sidewalks and footpaths, public squares and plazas, playgrounds, marketplaces, community centres, libraries and spaces between buildings and roadsides which are often utilised by street vendors and the urban poor.

These spaces serve a number of functions in a city. First, vibrant public spaces provide a great source of entertainment. Second, public places attract tourists and add to the economy and jobs in the city. Third, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how the provision of public spaces in residential areas (parks, gardens, balconies) can serve the purpose of ensuring public health during a pandemic.

Fourth, public spaces in commercial areas in the form of market squares can help generate interaction of ideas and people to trigger business growth and innovation. Fifth, public spaces can also help in mitigation and adaptation strategies for climate change if they incorporate green shade via trees and urban gardening features. Sixth, the work of 20th century urban activist, Jane Jacobs, has proven that vibrant and lively streets improve law and order in neighbourhoods.

The need to maintain pedestrian-friendly streets and active, safe plazas hasn’t received much attention by Pakistan’s city authorities. Streets are made for cars – what were once narrow residential streets are now being expanded into 4-lane urban highways to accommodate fast-moving traffic.

Sidewalks either don’t exist, or are broken and encroached upon by electricity poles, illegal car parking, and local vendors, leaving no room for pedestrians.

Open spaces in and around most marketplaces are in a precarious state. Sanitary conditions are poor, little to no attention is paid towards landscaping or installing street furniture and lack of surveillance has turned them into hubs for petty crime.

City authorities need to think beyond inaccessible green spaces inside traffic roundabouts and food streets. The government must pay attention towards improving the livability of our neighbourhoods by creating pleasant public spaces embedded in the daily lives of the citizens.

Small-scale interventions to rehabilitate our urban communities, like making market and neighbourhood squares safe and active, constructing wide and shaded sidewalks along streets, marking bicycle lanes and installing street furniture and trashcans, can improve every-day civic experience for the poor and the rick alike and create a sense of community among them.

City governments need to research and put effort into installation of people-friendly urban design interventions that activate and energize urban space. The lack of people-friendly design and provisions has resulted in a shameful neglect and underuse of outdoor space in our cities.

Cities around the world have realised the importance of public spaces. We are seeing moves to reduce car parking and commutes in streets and roads to create a place for people. Such streets across the world become hotspots for tourism and cultural exchange.

Cities around the world have now realised the importance of public spaces. We are seeing moves to reduce car parking and commutes in streets and roads to create a place for people.

Astonishingly, Pakistani authorities consider tourism a Northern Area and hiking phenomenon. We are not realising that tourism is also an urban phenomenon. The world over, tourists flock to experience the hustle and bustle of diverse city life.

We need to focus on public spaces for domestic and international tourists. Pakistan’s cities have a rich culture and heritage but the absence of vibrant public spaces has hindered the promotion and upkeep of of such attractions.

It is important to understand that accessibility, inclusivity and design of public places has a profound effect on their functioning. In a recent webinar organised by Urban Innovation, Sana Khurshid, an advocate for inclusive spaces for differently-abled citizens said, “There was not a single college or university which had facilities that I needed as a wheelchair user. People with special needs also need a normal life. As a disabled person I was ready to live a life but the society didn’t encourage that. A basic thing such as a ramp is denied. Asking strangers to lift you up because of no ramp is undignified and ungraceful and takes a toll on mental health.”

We think this statement is enough to hold the city authorities and society accountable for not developing inclusive public spaces for people with special needs.

Another aspect is to consider use of public spaces by children and women. City planning processes are male-dominated and mainly focus on creating infrastructure for cars and healthy young men. The field of city planning, and design is not considered a woman’s domain and very few inputs by female practitioners are put into practice. There is a saying that ‘if you can design spaces and streets which are safe for children, they will work for everyone.’

Unfortunately, our children cannot leave homes alone now due to a breakdown in communal values. The relationship of people with the street and the concept of “eyes on the street” is totally missing from our cities and even so-called elite housing societies.

Urban design considerations such as benches, provision of shade, connectivity for pedestrians, and multi-model accessibility are very important in this process of improving public spaces. There must be a lively programming to the place through activities and facilities for people. Such spaces should be inclusive, especially for women, children, elderly and people with diverse needs.

Vibrant and energised public space will enable greater civic values, such as inter-class interaction and socio-religious and economic tolerance. Public spaces should offer comfort through safety, cleanliness and maintenance. Ultimate goal of all these design considerations should be to encourage – not limit - human interaction.

The most important question in public places is how to design and maintain those with the engagement and ownership of local residents. A top-down approach in this may not work well. There is a need to understand the demand for such a public space and there must be contribution by local communities and residents in order to maintain the space on a sustainable basis.

It may be important to mention the Privately Operated Public Spaces programme of New York City. The concept was introduced under the 1961 incentive zoning programme of NYC zoning resolution. The programme encourages private developers to provide spaces for the public. These spaces are designed according to government-provided standards within or outside a building in exchange for additional building area or other considerations, such as relief from certain height and setback restrictions.

Since its inception, the programme has produced over 503 state-of-the-art public spaces (3.5 million square feet) in NYC. Similar public private initiatives can be replicated in Pakistani cities if our city authorities commit to creative upkeep and revitalisation of public space.

One can say that this can only happen in developed countries. Indeed, this is not true. Communities in Pakistani cities have also been very active. It would be important to discuss the contribution of Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan in inspiring community-led upgrades across Pakistan through his pioneering efforts in Karachi’s Orangi area. This work can also be categorised as public space improvement as most of the work was around making streets cleaner and functioning.

City authorities in Pakistan have also been collaborating with corporate organisations to design and maintain traffic squares. Instead, private sector and local communities should be engaged in developing public spaces.

The writers are directors at Urban Innovation

Cities and public spaces