Cities were Meant for People: Change and Conflicts in Using Public Space

The Mauerpark, in Berlin, is a vibrant public space. On summer days, besides the flea market and pic-nic, people assemble play sport and music. There is even a Karaoke! Photo from Loozeroyboy on Flickr.


By URBACT, on August 19th, 2014

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Public spaces, as a place where public life and communication unfurl, create a distinctive image of a particular society. The way they are created, used and maintained tells us about the intensity and nature of relations between members of the society. Our presence or absence, our behaviour and the intensity of usage reflect our participation in social and public life, and express our attitude to common issues.

Empty, deserted squares and streets reflect the anonymity and inertia of the local society, while noisy, bustling public spaces are a sign of its vitality and engagement. One of the lessons learned from the URBACT project USER‘s activities was that we generally don’t know much about how public spaces are used, either when we are creating them or when we are using them ourselves. The core problem and limitation of the Local Support Group (LSG) in Azory District in Krakow seems to be the lack of resident participation : on the one hand, residents have trouble expressing their own personal needs and expectations, but on the other, they also refrain from engaging in common activities.

Setting aside historical and cultural differences, the same observation could be made, to varying degrees, during USER activities in partner cities. This is not only a sociological phenomenon: it seems to be a real hazard for cities’ development. When a city commissions the refurbishment of public spaces, we often perceive them as incongruous and uncongenial. On the contrary, when a local community takes over a public space, we can expect an intuitive, “organic” development, though busy and energizing, yet giving an impression of chaos and unsafety.

Attitudes such as these reveal the distance between the local authorities and local residents, which inevitably generates conflict. In a proper participation process, the local authority and individual residents are participant and beneficiary on an equal footing, while the dialogue leads towards a “clean” form of public-private partnership. After all, cities were meant for people, not vice versa.

By Leszek Jasinski
Member of the Cracow USER team

This article was the editorial article to the latest newsletter to the USER project and network.  A core USER idea is that the design of urban public spaces and the main goals of urban planning are challenged by rapid changes in how cities are used. New trends in how public spaces are used, what the new users’ needs are, increasing malfunctions and conflicts among uses, etc., are challenging the way the city is usually “produced”, designed and managed. This approach entails a process of users involvement as a crucial dimension of public spaces planning and management. Indeed “users experience” is one of the main inputs to understand how the spaces are used and what kind of conflicts are taking place. The USER project will work on the three main aspects that, according to us, constitute a “good public space”: Friendlier and more interactive social-public spaces by solving malfunctions and conflicting uses, safer public spaces in a friendlier city and cleaner, better-maintained and upgraded public spaces for a more efficient city. More infos on the USER minisite!


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