The City Is Ours!

Who owns the city? This question was a subject of passionate debates at the Habitat III conference in Quito. The answer was straightforward: it belongs to its citizens. In this context, the design of public spaces is one of the biggest challenges. This has not always worked well. The Habitat III conference and the New Urban Agenda create opportunities for cities’ authorities and civil societies to learn with and from each other.

An opinion by Jonas Freist-Held from Habitat III, Quito October 2016

In Berlin, you do not have to search long to find best and worst practices how to design public space. On the one hand, the “Gleisdreieckpark” – a newly designed park in the heart of Berlin – with its inclusive and sustainable design sets new standards. Or the “Tempelhofer Feld”, the massive area of the former city airport that has become the city’s biggest recreational space, stands exemplary for effective citizen participation. On the other hand, you can find the “Alexanderplatz”, a grey and busy concrete desert in the heart of Berlin that becomes more terrible with every new building constructed.14859603_10211112837115690_1381135185_o

During the Habitat III conference on sustainable urban development in Quito, the Mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller, rightly stressed the role model his city can be to other cities around the world. Nevertheless, he did good to state that Berlin can – and must – as well learn and benefit from best-practices and experiences of other cities from all around the world.

The City as Public Good

The discussion about public spaces is closely linked to a movement that has become stronger and more influential within the last years: The Right to the City. Who owns the city? Are cities public good? – Questions passionately debated in Quito. For Sergio Roldán Gutiérrez the answer is easy. He is the President of the Urban Planning group of the Colombian city Medellín.

“Before we design a city we have to empower its citizens. A city cannot be shaped without the active participation of its people.” Just a decade ago his city was a stronghold of Colombian drug traffic, a crime haven. With targeted and intelligent policies, today, the town 14881244_10211112836835683_415405407_owith more than four million inhabitants has become a role model for innovative and sustainable urban development. Creative mobility solutions such as cable cars have connected districts suffering from poverty and crime to the city center. After that education centers were built and public spaces created. “If we fail to actively involve citizens, they might not experience the city as they should and ultimately even destroy what we created. The citizens have priority! Then comes the city. That’s our main objective, that’s our mission.”, the urban planner is convinced. The success proves him right.

Fight Against Urban Exclusion

But what if cities are not blessed with such foresighted decision-makers? Worldwide, and especially in Latin America, gated communities are growing. People are segregated by social status; public places are declared as exclusive. Increasingly, poor people are driven out to the cities’ outskirts. Hence, empathy for the lives of others decreases, social and economic inequalities increase. This is a frightening development. Public spaces are meeting places for people from all social classes, from any background and of any age. They are key to sustainable development in a vivid urban environment.14859410_10211112837155691_669084167_o

In Quito, it was the youth repeatedly stressing the importance of public spaces. It was one of their central causes at Habitat III, a conference that was dominated by the positive vibes and creative ideas of young people from all around the world. In discussions, such as during a spontaneous pop-up meeting organized by the Youth Advisory Board of UN-HABITAT, youth from Ecuador, Peru or Chile complained about the lack of channels to engage in their city’s development – an element Roldán Gutiérrez considers crucial in making a city work for its people.

Taking control!

That such channels are still missing in many places around the world does not leave young people silent or inactive. Habitat III has shown how initiatives and projects have been created at grassroots levels. Often, small-scale ideas and movements that incorporate sustainable and innovative solutions have the potential to create bigger change in the long run. And nothing is more sustainable than a strong and growing youth movement.

Examples of creative and innovative urban solutions are as diverse as cities around the world themselves. In Barcelona (Spain), streets are reorganized to create new public spaces and decrease traffic; the Colombian capital Bogotá supports street art and graffiti allowing citizens to design their city, One-Stop Youth Centers in Mogadishu (Somalia) create safe spaces with education services for young people, in Freiburg (Germany) the Vauban, a entirely green and sustainable city district was created from scratch and in Montreal (Canada) the city has introduced special measures to improve the safety of girls and women in public transportation. The list of projects and initiatives could be continued endlessly.

Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda provide a global framework to exchange these best-practice examples and to create new ideas and share them in an international network of cities. The years to come will show if the agenda will be successful. But one thing in Quito has become clear: young people are willing and capable of acting to design inclusive cities. Their creative potential is immense.

This article was first published in German at: http://menschliche-entwicklung-staerken.dgvn.de/meldung/die-stadt-gehoert-uns/

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