Federation for
Housing and

Public Spaces and Co-Habitation

In the run-up to the IFHP Summit Session Debate on the role of the Public Space in strengthening Urban Communities
In collaboration with the Danish Architecture Center

From the origins of early human settlements to today’s complex global metropolises, public space has formed the heart of urban living. Its importance, at times neglected in face of growth and development, is the focus of much contested discourse and debate. As our cities grow in scale, their reach extending across the majority of the world’s citizens, the concept of public space continues to inspire institutional and informal conversation. From Hamburg’s Hafencity to Cairo’s Tahir Square, London’s Oxford Street to Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, New York’s Times Square to Berlin’s Denkmal, Oslo’s Opera House to your local street corner, public space is as diverse in form and function as the critical and creative ways in which it is used. 

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From a city perspective, public space is the arena that sustains various activities vital to the continued function, attraction and progression of a city. Be it through economic prosperity, social diversification or environmental health, public space frames urban practice and behaviour. Public space is thought of as both a physical entity, including streets, sidewalks, footpaths, playgrounds of recreation, parks, marketplaces, transport, and the edge spaces between buildings or roadsides that often form important plots for the urban poor. Public space is also an increasing virtual or digital arena; where social media platforms host the promotion of images and conversation, that reinforces how urban space is used, enhancing urban lifestyles and perceived quality of life.


Public space has throughout history been formed from necessity. Take for example George Eugene Haussmann who in 1853 led Paris’s urban planning transformation in response to the city’s fledging sanitation systems, crowded, dirty streets, outdated water supply and inefficient transport networks. A drastic increase of investment in public space led to the construction of the city’s famously wide boulevards, a new water supply system and a buried sewage network. As a result, Paris found that it could once again breathe, Parisian industries jumped back to life, competing with cities such as London. Workers could travel easily, allowing for more recreational time to spend in the parks. Water and sewage facilities kick-started a private building boom. From 1848 to 1870 the Parisian population doubled, forming the foundations for the vibrant Paris we know today. Many cities in traditionally defined ‘developed’ countries share similar stories of transformed public spaces, enabling a productive population to thrive under stable economic, social and environmental conditions preclusive of growth. 
In the developing world public space is often less well-defined owing to poor governance structures, dense populations and well-established informal settlements. Where public space is inadequate, poorly designed, or privatized the city becomes increasingly segregated. Economic, ethnic, religious and gender segregation are better able to embed themselves in the social fabric of a city when public space is limited or inaccessible. The result of such is the advance of a polarized city where privatized interests and social tensions are better able to dictate the realities of urban life, stifling social mobility, cultural mixing and economic opportunity (UN Habitat 2012).  Quality, open and safe public spaces are a generator of equality and inclusive processes to ensuring citizen’s right to the city. 


In the last decade of the twentieth century to today, public space, its definition and its effects have shaped global discourse. This has intensified in recent years with the resurgence of the ‘privatization of public space’ debate and the response of so called public placemaking initiatives. Indeed the privatization of public space and the decline of ‘the commons’ have, at least in the western world, contributed to a conversation on the increasing encroachment of privately owned ‘public’ areas and their effects on local society. This has led to an increasing awareness of grassroots, participatory public space interventions whom broadly oppose public space as a privatized entity. The main issue with many modern-day cities is that land is a highly valuable and well sought after commodity. From the sidewalk, marketplace, park or roadside bus stop most urban areas are privatized through ownership or commercial interests. The public ideal of the original Roman forum, where public space facilitated the discussion of affairs among an assembly of equal citizens, may well be extinct or at least diluted in modern cities through the extensive commercialization and influence of the private actor. Accepted by many as a side effect of capitalism and democratic freedom, the encroachment of private influence on the form and function of public space remains a prominent and important issue. 


Placemaking is concerned with the deliberate transformation of abstract spaces into tangible places. This process occurs when a space, otherwise neglected or misused, is activated to provide a place that promotes valuable, shared and positive activities. Ultimately, placemaking is a collaborative process that allows all stakeholders to take collective responsibility, care and ownership of a given space. Commonly such processes are associated with urban gardening projects, sports areas or artistic activities. The strength of placemaking as a concept is that public spaces are appropriated on an aesthetic, functional, social and political level without separating responsibility. Driven by tightening public budgets and a new wave of social collectivism placemaking is moving from a fringe form of public space appropriation towards a more main stream model adopted by municipal authorities.  Through holistic, cross-disciplinary and participatory processes municipalities can ensure public spaces are relevant and loved by those who use them, are maintained sufficiently through shared responsibility and are financially sustainable. A win win win?


The reflections above have formed the basis of this year’s worldwide exploration by IFHP on the topic of co-creation of public space showing possibilities, limits and effects of this approach and encouraging a full range of local stakeholders (residential citizens, international professionals, policy-makers etc.) to engage in the process of shaping interventions in their cities. 
“Can co-creation represent a method for creating better public spaces?” is IFHP’s driving question of this year’s investigation on public space, followed by many more dilemmas and challenges:
How can public spaces become part of the urban society and turn local and spontaneous initiatives into long term policies bridging the gap between informal and formal development? What do self-organizing networks need to do to get their ideas realized? And vice versa: how can institutions use this cultural phenomenon as a legitimate and valuable city making instrument?
How do we scale up our public art programs so that they have a transformative impact on the public realm? How do we broadly engage the creative energies of the citizens of our great places? Are these interventions new expressions of democracy in the vacuum of the urban planning processes or do they expose the lack of democracy?
IFHP has searched for the answers to these questions in the framework of IFHP’s programme in 2015, through the realization of a number of initiatives that have revealed the emergence of new perspectives and practices, making evident the increase of new stakeholders and actors on the scene, increasingly acting in response to the public interest, questioning urban policies and designing new scenarios for the future development of our cities. 

IFHP's Public Spaces Related Activities and Initiatives in 2015 

In a context rich in complexity, contradictions and inspirations, in collaboration with it partners and working groups, IFHP has built a wide range of points of view on the role played by public spaces today. One such view is the public space as a Space of protest and civic engagement by young people. Their impact in their urban community across the world will be observed by the research programme YEI- Youth Engagement Index applied in Porto Alegre, taking place (15-17 Oct) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Another view is that of Public Space reconquered, as shown at the third Biennale of Public Space in Rome, Italy (May 21-23) with the international laboratory on self-built community spaces Yes we can! Reinvent public spaces and the Exhibition “co-creation of public spaces”. The event brought an overview of international experiences where the positive impact of the local self-organisation networks - when it comes to cultural, economic, social and spatial revitalization of the neglected (and sometimes vacant) inner-city urban public spaces - has made or is still making, real and tangible changes within the community. As a conclusion to this theme, IFHP will also contribute to the first Public Spaces international congress in Latin America, 19-22 October, Porto Alegre, Brazil. 
During the IFHP Design lab Making cities together: planners becoming placemakers held in Nairobi, Kenya, May 4-8, more placemaking initiatives were discussed. Initiatives that engage citizens and policymakers to reshape neglected open spaces to experimental and creative governance processes in the creation of new public spaces. 
The IFHP labs have been the opportunity for those actors committed to making public spaces “the democratic representation of urban life”, to look at the way forward starting by sharing each other’s experiences to debating results and expectations, failures and challenges, they have met along the way.
All together these initiatives have been the occasion to rethink the city as an open laboratory where, local initiatives of transformation of the public spaces, needs and resources are shared to catalyze processes to enhance the territory at different scales.
The results of this exploration have led to the organization of a debate session at the IFHP Summit coming November in Berlin. It will be the time and place to think about the role public space plays in shaping urban communities today. 

Read More

Want to read more on public spaces? The IFHP One. Yes We Can: Reinvent Public Spaces! might be interesting for you.