Placemakers Want to Make Sure They’re Heard at Habitat III

In the run up to the 2016 UN-wide conference, public space advocates are working on a unified message.

Of successful projects like NYC’s High Line, above, Gil Peñalosa says, “Private public space is important but even more important is for cities to recognize that public means for everyone.” (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

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The pressure’s on for placemakers. Just as housing and transportation advocates have been mobilizing in the run up to Habitat III (the “Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development”), urbanists who believe place is the space in which to build equitable, thriving cities hope to have a strong voice in establishing the new urban agenda at the 2016 UN-wide conference.

However, as planners, architects, city officials, academics and urban professionals from 50 nations debated, refined and explored the finer points of placemaking at the Future of Places conference in Buenos Aires earlier this month, the challenges to unifying on message and approach were apparent.

Take simply defining terms, for example. “Public space,” “public places,” and “placemaking” were used somewhat interchangeably over the conference. Fred Kent, founder and president of Project for Public Spaces, pushes the notion of placemaking. “Professionals like UN-Habitat still talk about public space, but placemaking is more relevant to the everyday citizen,” he says. Pietro Garau, of the Rome Biennial of Public Space, counters, “Placemaking is a technique. There are many approaches to public space.”

But, Kent affirms, “the younger generation is using placemaking as a rallying cry.” As proof positive, one only had to look toward the strong Brazilian contingent that boldly declared the formation of the Placemaking Council of Brazil. Jeniffer Heemann gave up a lucrative marketing career to found the São Paulo-based project Bela Rua (Beautiful Street), which has employed music, art, yoga and coffee-fueled chitchat to get famously car-oriented paulistas to take a stroll and enjoy the city’s streets.

Many approaches to placemaking are more easily implemented in more affluent parts of cities, a point not lost on Margaret Crawford, architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “This is largely a white, middle-class endeavor that assumes white privilege,” she says. “It offers a packaged set of answers that don’t recognize race, ethnicity and difference.”

Instead, she points to the life-and-death experiences of the Arab Spring, Istanbul’s Gezi Park and, most recently, Hong Kong’s Occupy Central as more pressing examples of making public space relevant to cities.

These are undeniably vital expressions of the democratic importance of public space, but at the same time, not every city is in the throes of political crisis, and even those that are will eventually return to more quotidian moments. Subsequently, UN-Habitat seeks to advise mayors and public officials on the everyday experience of cities. Thomas Melin, head of external relations at UN-Habitat, believes the kind of conversation at Future of Places represents a paradigm shift for the agency. “We don’t want to only look at cities as contributors to GDP. If you don’t have public goods, the city doesn’t exist,” he says. “Public space has become much more talked about in the last five years [within UN-Habitat].”

Gil Peñalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities, is glad to see cities are getting the message about public space. He worries, however, about the “Friends of [insert park name here]” effect. From the revitalization of New York City’s marquis public space through the Central Park Conservancy to the flashy High Line, supported by a well-heeled non-profit, this trend, “makes governments think that the private sector is responsible for parks,” he warns. “Private public space is important but even more important is for cities to recognize that public means for everyone. We are in danger of developing two-tiered park and public space systems.”

But if the public space constituency is looking for evidence that their concerns are being voiced at the highest levels of urban policy, then last week’s preparatory committee (PrepCom) for Habitat III in New York City, on the eve of this week’s 69th Session of the UN General Assembly, was music to its ears. In his comments at the PrepCom plenary, UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos emphasized the importance of allocating sufficient public space in cities and designing them well as two of four successful urbanization experiences. As pre-Habitat III activity heats up, from next month’s Urban Thinkers Campus to PrepCom 2 next April at UN-Habitat’s Nairobi headquarters to Future of Places’ third iteration next year in Stockholm, the drive is intensifying to make sure the public space agenda is heard.

Where everyone will be converging come 2016, meanwhile, remains speculative. Melin says the world will know by December as the details are hashed out at the ongoing UN gathering. Quito, Ecuador is the only city to have publicly announced its intention to host the global gathering. An Ecuadorian was elected co-chair of PrepCom, which perhaps bolsters its bid. Istanbul hosted Habitat II in 1996 and has also been discussed as a host, following the Eco 92 and Rio +20 model that saw Rio de Janeiro host two UN environmental conferences 20 years apart.

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Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Tags: public spaceplacemakingunited nations

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