Public Spaces for Domestic & Local Life

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While the ‘UN-Habitat State of the World Cities Report 2020 on the Value of Sustainable Urbanization’ has been launched, the international symposium ‘2020 A Year Without Public Space: Reflection and Outlook’ has been an opportunity to look back, reflect, and plan ahead for 2021.

The transcription of the closing remarks of Maurice Harteveld at our initiative ‘2020 a year without public space under the COVID-19 pandemic’, including reflections and an outlook beyond (online symposium on 7 November 2020, 3PM (+ 8UTC)):

2020 – A Year without Public Space has been an impressive initiative. We have seen 20 webinars, engaging more than 100 speakers all over the world, and over another thousand attendees watching the presentations and thematic discussions live. On the YouTube channel, we can see that the numbers of views continuously grow. From May to September; the global community of ‘public space’- experts have joined together. The networks of public spaces have become a world-wide-web. Non-Exclusive!

At the moment, we are online, but our concerns are at the human space, in its physical reality. We keep sharing our observations, in an immense challenge. It is not easy! Under the current pandemic crisis, the global death rate is approaching 1.5 million people; 50 million cases of positive testing. An extremely small minority of countries have not reported any coronavirus cases. Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu seem to be still on the safe side. In contrast, particularly, communities in urbanised areas are infected at large. LA, Miami, and New York City… Rio, and Sao Paulo. Here densities are higher, people live closer together, and thus, transmission may go too fast, & too easy.

My contribution to the round table discussion is not another presentation. Deliberately! We know the numbers, we know the effects, we know the responses, and we know the critics… Widespread lockdowns, curfews, or other measurements during a state of emergency have been issued in many places around the world. The immediate responses have had a strong focus on the introduction of measurements for urban hygiene. Local governments provide sanitation infrastructures in public spaces, and signs and symbols to remind people to stay on distance.

First wave, second wave, third wave: We still see a growing number of people hospitalised ‘per day’ in our cities. We still face the same urban challenge. We are still mitigating the health risks. Our concern lies with those people being alone, young, fragile, or disabled, whom are facing difficulties in participating in public life, online and on-distance today,
and, with minority groups of all kind, which are not recognised with the same rights in public space. Our concern lies with privacy issues, control, big data. These concerns remain.

Yet, in my view, this closing event should not lock us in, metaphorically, it should provide an opening to expand our horizons again. Under changing conditions, we should question if everybody can have access to urban commons, recourses of the city, and public amenities. It is the nature of public space. Public space presumes granting the equal rights of all members of the human family. Public space gives place to ‘universal human rights’, like the right to freedom of movement, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Although herd immunity seems not near, the landscape of COVID-19 candidate vaccines, as drafted by WHO, provides hope. And.. as UN-Habitat pronounces: “Cities can turn the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity to ‘build back better’.” “COVID-19 calls for re-imagining public space both during and after the pandemic.” Although extreme effects of the pandemic are being exposed in public space, at the current in fact, from many perspectives, they are synchronically the result of decades of ‘societal change’ and ‘technical innovation’. For example, that people move less and to different places. In March 2020, mobility dropped unprecedently in Italy and Spain. Though extremes, most other European countries followed close. Near all people stayed home or close to home. Again, since October 2020, we are seeing similar mobility decreases. With respect to some intermediate ‘bounce backs’, the decrease of movements in Belgium and Czech, and The Netherlands are high again. In difference, in this period visits to parks increased generally. People stayed mostly home and close to home and increasingly started to visit green public spaces nearby.

Since years, people work more and more from home – if possible –, they shop and order more online, and they are increasingly pro-active, online and ‘in real’ in their neighbourhoods or streets. The public space is again seen as our valuable immediate living environment. People relax here; eat and drink here; exercise and play here; read, text, chat, and take selfies here. Communities appropriate the space progressively, and where possible they bend it to their will. They adapt, and rebuilt communities if needed. In the current period, long-distance travel radically has dropped, and urban citizens have started to discover living at home, and nearby. The house is slowly becoming more than just the place of domestic life.

Many self-employed workers have been working from home, for some time. Homework of all kinds make ‘spaces of individual intimacy’ spaces for ‘collective utility’ and labour; The homes of childminders, tutors, mechanics, technicians, artists, and general practitioners are de facto workplaces too. To a lesser degree, this is for example true for a growing group of entrepreneurial people who offer services and goods online in addition to their permanent jobs. The offering of ‘services’ and ‘quality of life’ within the space in the vicinity of the house has become important. Not every house is equipped, nor large enough, thus the commons nearby matter.

Can we provide safe and inclusive public spaces, which are open, and accessible, yet give a place to all? Can we design domestic public spaces? We may have to challenge generic infrastructures, dominating the ‘global city’ parts which have introduced a lack of local public spaces. We may have to challenge car-dominated infrastructures when they block the ‘outdoor living rooms’. We may have to acknowledge that we also could live local, and move slow. We may start to rethink dense neighbourhoods, with small dwellings and narrow, little, and few public spaces. We may have to redesign high-rise areas without sufficient (interior) public spaces. We may have to consider areas where newcomers and/or reactive people form respectively dynamic and/or reluctant public spaces. Because in these cases, alike many others, the challenge is to create public spaces for domestic & local life

So, do not look too long to slides. If you watch live; you should look outside. Look through your window for a moment! Not every city is the same, and as people are divers too, public spaces are very different by nature. You know best what you see. And in the spirit of the Sustainable Development Goals: “Leaving no one, and no place behind”

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