A NEVER-ENDING PROJECT ACTOR-NETWORK OF PUBLIC SPACE PRODUCTION AN APPROACH TO A DEMOCRATIC, PARTICIPATORY URBAN TOOL
Keywords:resilient public space, actor-network, democracy, participatory urban tools
In April 2021, a Polish colleague told us the story of a neighbour who lost her husband and her son in two weeks’ time. She was mourning her losses when she woke up and looked through her window and screamed her lungs out one morning. All the trees in the square were gone. She was devastated. The trees had been there since she was married and were a reminder and symbol of her love for her family. It just happened. Nothing could be done about it. Her story touched us deeply while raising the question that, in reality, where is the place of us as citizens in the formation of our very own public spaces? Is it true that only policymakers and spatial designers can decide how we use the space? Can they remove our memories without taking into account our lived experiences? As Henri Lefebvre explained in his book “space production”, for having a democratic way of living, the three actors of space production: policymakers, designers and users, should work closely together. Is a democratic way of living not a will for all of us in the end?
Public spaces have always been essential parts of cities, having much to do with basic routines in a city’s life (Cybriwsky, 1999). Throughout history, the city has shaped a unique social space as a public space that meets society’s intertwined requirements for socio-economic production (Lefebvre, 1991). In pre-modern urban settings, public spaces played the role of arenas for communication. Also, they performed the principal function of facilitating social interaction, with open spaces being used by large numbers of people (Madanipour, 1992). One measure of any city’s greatness is its ability to provide signature public spaces for its citizens. Successful public spaces share a significant role in socialising and contributing to the quality of life (Rogers, 2003). As many other urban theorists note, public spaces are also significant elements that define a city’s unique attraction points and have higher usage rates than other leisure facilities (Pasaogullari & Doratli, 2004).
Thus, the importance of public space design to our quality of life is now being increasingly recognised in research and policy (De Groot, 1992; Naveh, 1997; Ward Thompson, 2002; Chiesura, 2004). Recent interest in urban design has focused on creating and managing qualitative public spaces in cities (Madanipour, 1999). One of the essential planning tools for enhancing the quality of urban life is thus to design adaptable public spaces that act as vital oases, attracting people to all kinds of daily life activities (Wang, 2020).
The creation of spaces is slow, and the depreciation of the investment costs takes place over a longer time. Nevertheless, the world is evolving quickly. The conditions of cities’ public spaces constantly change based on the impact of, for instance, users’ expectations, climate change, massive immigration or epidemic health crises. Therefore, public spaces must be resilient and flexible, constantly adaptable to these transformations as an ally of society. For instance, the Covid-19 pandemic emergency has interested the whole world and, although in different manner and measures, changed the habits and use of people in places and cities (Abusaada & Elshater, 2020; Babalis, 2019; Carmichael et al., 2012; Carmona et al., 2010; Gehl 2010, 2016, 2020; Mehaffy et al. 2019). This is only one of the feasible changes that we have faced recently regarding the use of public spaces. Ongoing research on the necessity of reconnection of cities with nature and new urban typologies such as urban-forest or the emphasis on developing a connected green-blue network within cities are proof of the importance of having flexible and yet qualitative public spaces. The NUA (New Urban Agenda) in 2016 also emphasised and published its agenda over a shared vision for a better and more sustainable future for public spaces. As mentioned several times in this agenda, the flexibility of the public spaces is the key to future proof cities. Accordingly, the flexibility of public spaces is rooted in the presence of diverse, healthy and green areas, safety, inclusivity, accessibility, social interaction, inclusion, dialogue between all people, and constant participation of users (Sepe, 2021).
For instance, the article 37 of this agenda says:
“We commit ourselves to promote safe, inclusive, accessible, green and qualitative public spaces, including streets, sidewalks and cycling lanes, squares, waterfront areas, gardens and parks, that are multifunctional areas for social interaction and inclusion, human health and well-being, economic exchange and cultural expression and dialogue among a wide diversity of people and cultures, and that are designed and managed to ensure human development and build peaceful, inclusive and participatory societies, as well as to promote living together, connectivity and social inclusion (UN Habitat, 2016).”
Thus far, a transparent, practical methodology for making a flexible public space resistant to environmental, social and structural changes is missing. There are not many accessible measurement systems to help us understand how flexible the existing public spaces are. In contrast, there is so much uncertainty about the result of new designed public spaces. Are they sufficient for their users? Are they corresponding to the environmental crises? Are they providing more social inclusion for the cities? How many percentages of a city, neighbourhood and urban block is allocated to the public open space? How can public spaces best be designed for various activities and serve their users’ needs well?