World leaders have been meeting in New York to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). That public spaces is a key and important topic not only at the city level but even at the global level is reflected in the fact that Target 7 of Goal 11 of the SDGs is specifically about public spaces. It states: ‘By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities’.
Streets and public spaces have often been overlooked and undervalued, but they are increasingly being considered the backbone of cities. Public spaces are places which are accessible and enjoyable by all without a profit motive and take on various functionalities and spatial forms, including parks, green spaces, streets, sidewalks, markets and playgrounds. Public spaces are the key ingredient of a functional and livable city. They are key to the quality of life of city residents. That is why the promotion, protection and restoration of green and public urban spaces should be one of the key tasks of every city local government.
Today, the first Monday of October–the month now designated by the UN as Urban October– is World Habitat Day. It is the day that reminds us that we all have the power and the responsibility to shape the future of our cities and towns and it is also opportune that the theme for this year’s World Habitat Day is ‘Public Spaces for All’.
Urban public spaces can be categorised into three main spatial areas–the street, the city ‘sinks’ and the conservation/recreation spaces.
The street gives urban form to the city. The street is also important for mobility, commerce and socialisation as well as for underground and above ground services. The street is supposed to provide for all forms of mobility. However, the reality in cities and towns is that the street only provides for motorised mobility and hardly for cyclists and pedestrians (the majority). The result is increasing traffic congestion and traffic related accidents as motorists, cyclists and pedestrians jostle for the use of the same road space. With rapidly increasing human and vehicle populations in the cities and towns, the car/cyclist/pedestrian conflict is bound to get worse.
The city sinks are the lowlands (marshes, dambos, gullies, streams and rivers) that collect excess water in the city. They are key to floods prevention because they drain water out of the city or provide holding ground for excess rain water. The sinks are fast disappearing as they are turned into building plots as people build in stream reserves, dambos and marshes. Soon, excess water from rainfall will have nowhere to go and we can expect more flooding in our cities if the trend of turning city sinks into development land continues.
Conservation/recreation areas can be said to be the ‘lungs’ of the city. The city is a ‘living organism’ or system. Without green areas, the city would suffocate. Green spaces are carbon sinks but they also contribute positively to air quality. Conservation areas in cities such as the Michiru Conservation Area, Botanical Gardens or the Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary are also important for wildlife, tourism and education. Playgrounds are particularly important in every city, more so in Malawi cities where 70 percent of the population is below 30 years and therefore, highly active.
Today, as we commemorate World Habitat Day, we need to raise awareness about the need for well designed and managed public spaces and streets that are conducive and safe for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities. We need to raise awareness about the need to design streets not just for cars but also for pedestrians and cyclists. We need to raise awareness on the need to create new city parks and rehabilitate disused city parks in order to enhance community cohesion and safety for all citizens through activities and events held in public spaces and streets. We need to raise awareness on the importance of urban planning that creates and protects public spaces. The livability and prosperity of cities will depend on this.