3rd Public Spaces Biennale – Public Spaces in Africa

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Streets and Public Spaces as Drivers of Urban Development in Africa

The second day kicked off with very interesting session dedicated to the various interventions of public spaces across Africa. Panellists from various institutions and organizations showcased their work in some of Africa’s major cities, including Kigali, Nairobi and Porto-Novo. And what are the main findings?

First of all, it is important for us to understand that public spaces in Africa are nothing like the ones in Europe. Not only they look different, they have different functions. Public spaces in Africa are there for people to meet, interact with each other, buy and sell food, exchange goods and most importantly, they are spaces for dialogue. Traditionally, people are meeting in the streets or any other outside open space to discuss anything from politics to football.

What is public and who’s in charge of it? That is a question that many people ask as the word “public” does not necessarily have a positive connotation due to government’s scandals and reputation. Also, many public spaces are not so public after all. Unfortunately, urban divide and class segregation is a growing phenomenon in the African capitals, providing nice public spaces such as swimming pools, parks and gardens for the upper class, nicely gated from the rest. Another challenge is the lack of space in informal settlements, making it very hard to provide for any area that could be turn into well designed and functioning public space. Accessibility goes without saying – what kind of public space would it be if you need a car to get there?

People need to be consulted and engaged in the mapping and design, otherwise we’re asking for trouble and failure. Urban planners and architects do not know it all, although they may possess a piece of paper that says otherwise. Not taking the complexities of culture, tradition and people’s opinions into account is a recipe for disaster.

Having said all that, the city of Nairobi has shown a lot of good examples of how they’re turning their public spaces from shady and violent corners to vibrant and exciting areas to hang out. The city has committed to improve 60 public spaces over the next few months, which is a great promise for the city and for the people.

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