Rethinking public space

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Protesters at Tahrir Square in Cairo, 8 July 2011.

Protesters at Tahrir Square in Cairo, 8 July 2011. Image: Mohamed Elshahed

The 2011 IFLA World Congress looked at the resilience of cities and public spaces, a relevant topic in what is a politically sensitive time for areas such as North Africa and the Middle East.

Professionals from around the world converged in Zurich to attend the 48th IFLA World Congress, titled Scales of Nature. Thematically the ambitious program of the congress was split into urban landscapes, peri-urban phenomena in urban agglomerations, and specific issues relating to rural landscapes.

Emerging as the most exciting parts of the debate about our future landscapes were the productive and social aspects of creating resilient cities and public spaces, a topic that is often disregarded in recent discussions about sustainability.

The rise of urban agriculture at a community level and peri-urban agriculture on a larger scale was underlined by a large variety of examples, demonstrating the possibilities of producing, cooking, selling and consuming food in urban spaces.

Food urbanism is commonly affiliated with alternative lifestyle and grassroots movements, which have been gaining momentum recently. But although practice is frequently outstripping policy, considering the abundance of individual, often spontaneous projects, it is fast becoming a vital part of planning strategies, specifically for cities in developing countries. The Harvard University case studies in Kolkata, Dhaka and São Paulo, and the Urban Agriculture Casablanca project by the Technical University of Berlin, illustrated the potential of urban agriculture in the sustainable development of future megacities, securing local food supplies for a fast-growing population and providing a source of income for the communities.

In North America, Toronto has implemented exemplary urban agriculture-related policies by creating the Toronto Food Strategy and the Toronto Food Policy Council. The creation of community gardens in city parks is part of the council’s strategy, aiming to balance the ongoing densification of the city to accommodate population growth with increasing social concerns over food production and distribution. The example of the street food vendors in São Paulo recognized the cultural and social aspects of food urbanism. Food and the shared partaking of meals represent a cultural expression and reflect ethnic influences. They also act as a democratizing activity, which connects people from different economic and social backgrounds.

To draw on urban agriculture as a tool to build resilient cities and to develop strategies for productive urban landscapes, we are facing complex and multifaceted challenges. These include the coordination of agricultural expertise, cross-disciplinary research and an ongoing dialogue with farmers and user groups. Another key step is the recognition of urban agriculture as a protected land use form and the regulation of stakeholder issues. Furthermore, the potential conflict between allocation of land for food production and more traditionally understood functions of public open spaces needs to be addressed.

The question of the importance of public space as social and political space was raised in the discussions of the Arab Spring, interrogating the complexities in public space versus public sphere. The recent events in North Africa and the Middle East brought into the spotlight issues of availability, accessibility, restriction and occupancy of public space.

Keynote speaker Mohamed Elshahed affirmed the significance of free access to public space and freedom of expression in public space to the revolution in Egypt, exemplified by Cairo’s Tahrir Square. While Facebook and social media played a fundamental role in instant information sharing and connecting people across different generations and geographical and class boundaries, it was the reclamation of the previously heavily restricted and controlled public spaces and the physical manifestation of the people’s will that ultimately brought about the demolition of the Mubarak regime. Small protests by a few hundred activists along waterfront promenades and busy traffic roads, standing separately with a few metres’ distance from each other to bypass the strict assembly bans, culminated in the ongoing occupation of the symbolic Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) in front of the administration building of the ruling government. Indicative of the new sense of public ownership over their civic spaces was the big clean up of the square after the protests by a flock of activists with brooms.

Challenging Western views of Arabic cities, Elshahed argued that our public spaces are not shaped merely by cultural and geographic conditions, but more decisively by accessibility, governance and the level of control, highlighting the way in which public spaces reflect the relationship between civilians and the authorities.

At the concluding round table about “open space, freedom and communication,” parallels were drawn between Tahrir Square and the restrictions our civic spaces are subjected to. To comprehend these restrictions, we need to examine the various degrees of semipublic and privately owned space, the lack of access for specific groups such as disadvantaged and homeless people and the increasing surveillance and regulation of our public spaces.

Both the urban agriculture movement and democratization of public spaces encourage people to take ownership of our cities and open spaces. This implies that good design of public spaces facilitates access for all user groups and allows the public to participate and shape those spaces.

Therefore we as designers are required to rethink our role in creating public space beyond design aesthetics and environmental qualities and to question how far the use and image of public spaces should be controlled by the designer, government and private developers.

The 48th IFLA World Congress 2011 ran 27–29 June 2011 in Zurich, Switzerland.


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