Why Shared Public Space Is More Important Than Ever

Bieno Prague

What belongs to everyone belongs to no one at the same time. Public space is the perfect example of this. Until not so long ago, conceiving and creating public space seemed the exclusive domain of governments and designers. Nowadays, they must increasingly take into account citizens, who long for more control over their living environment. Why is this an important development?

Trend 1: We’re Getting Uprooted

Most people like to get involved with others, being members of associations or doing voluntary work. But the close-knit communities that once existed are a thing of the past. The corner grocer has been replaced by the flash delivery boy, over a quarter of Dutch people do not know their neighbours, and with the growth of single-person households, the number of people feeling lonely is growing. In cities, these developments are more far-reaching than outside. For instance, only a third of city dwellers feel that there is a lot of solidarity in their neighbourhood. In non-urban areas, this is almost twice as many.

It is not surprising that we are slowly becoming uprooted from our living environment and each other. We spend less time in the physical world, which is the same for everyone, and more in the virtual world, which is precisely different for everyone. Meanwhile, the authentic character of the physical world is disappearing: the brown pub on the corner is being replaced by a bar that could also have been in New York. The urban population is also becoming more international and increasingly composed of temporary residents, who spend a short time in the city due to work, study or fate. The large number of Swap bikes in the bike racks is a good example of this. The lack of a common past, but especially the lack of a common future, creates misunderstanding between residents who have lived in the city for many generations and intend to stay (the somewheres), and residents who have just arrived and will leave in a while (the anywheres).

Only a third of city dwellers feel that there’s a lot of solidarity in their neighbourhood. In non-urban areas, this is almost twice as many

République des Hyper-Voisins
In Paris, the ‘République des Hyper-Voisins’ is working to strengthen the social character of their neighbourhood. It all started with an outdoor dinner in 2017

The sense of alienation makes people yearn for a new sense of community, connection and home. You can see this, for instance, in the enormous popularity of festivals, or in the growth of residential complexes with spaces where residents can meet. But also in the increasing number of initiatives in which city dwellers are actively involved in designing the public space in their neighbourhood.

Trend 2: The Rise of the Participation Society

To keep the welfare state affordable, successive cabinets have downsized social services in recent years. Self-reliance is the magic word. Senior citizens have to live on their own for longer, newcomers have to pay for their integration themselves and benefit policy is less generous than it once was. The right to challenge also made its appearance. This means that residents can take over tasks from municipalities if they think they can do it better or cheaper. In the wake of the credit crisis, the Dutch government introduced the term ‘participation society’. In a participation society, everyone who can, should take responsibility and actively contribute to his or her own life and environment. The government thus takes a step back, by necessity or otherwise, and leaves the initiative to the citizens.

During the introduction of the participatory society in 2013, the economic recession was felt everywhere. The collapsed real estate market and stalled construction production left empty buildings and sites everywhere. These unused spaces turned out to be the breeding ground for numerous new bottom-up initiatives, in which city residents themselves took control of improving their living environment. Think of temporary interventions like a pop-up cinema against an unused wall, community projects like vegetable gardens on empty lots, and creative repairs or decorations like wild knitting. A new generation of city makers responded to this important bottom-up development, in which no longer urban planners and architects are the only ones who determine what the city looks like and should function, but groups of committed non-professionals launch small-scale projects, ideas and initiatives that directly contribute to a better living environment, unsolicited and on their own initiative.

Trend 3: Meaningful Citizen Participation

In recent years, the theme of inclusiveness has become more prominent on the agenda. After all, as the city and society become more diverse, attention is growing to the needs of different groups of citizens. Increasingly, the question arises whether the city is equally accessible, reachable and experienceable for everyone. The trend of inclusiveness translates into control. Who actually determines, talks and draws the public space? How is this process organised? Do we take sufficient account of all the different perspectives and backgrounds in the super-diverse city? And is everyone’s voice heard?

DENNIS Design Center Milan
During the annual Salone del Mobile festival, Danish Bureau Detours landed in Milan with DENNIS, a pop-up design agency for public space

In itself, this is not a new chapter, as the demand from citizens to have a say is as old as the road to Rome (literally the Forum Romanum). For years, we have been sitting in halls to discuss local issues with varying degrees of success. The latent criticism of this traditional form of participation is that citizens are allowed to participate, but then nothing is done with their input. In Amsterdam-Zuidoost, this even led to a real participation strike: residents no longer wanted to take part in the municipality’s ‘participation puppet show’, but wanted to be at the wheel of the redevelopment of their neighbourhood themselves. This example marks a change in the participation landscape. In recent years, spurred on by the government itself, citizen juries, co-creation processes, bottom-up cooperatives and interest groups have sprung up everywhere, in which well-organised city dwellers are actively seated at the table and participate with more authority. For hesitant governments, this is a good way to include citizens’ wishes in planning, for developers an opportunity to gain support for their projects. They lead to a sense of ownership among local residents, community building and self-reliance.

But there is also criticism of these forms of participation. On whose behalf do these interest groups speak? Do they represent all perspectives? ‘Buying off’ participation from an active and empowered group of citizens who claim to speak on behalf of the majority, and allowing them to co-decide, creates a participation elite that can ensure others are left behind. And thereby perhaps create greater rather than lesser inequality, and more exclusive rather than more inclusive spaces. Care is therefore needed.

Interested in hearing more? Get in touch with Jeroen