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Post by Marines Pocaterra

According to modern urban planning standards, public space has a great importance in cities, in terms of providing green areas, playgrounds, cultural spaces, improving the quality of life and provide opportunities for educational initiatives, for correctional and social attention, and so on and so forth.   With all these positive attributes associated to public space, why is it then, that our communities reject public spaces near their homes?

In our experience, while discussing the proposals with communities and low income barrios or favelas in Venezuela, whenever we produced a little plaza with a bench connected to a walkway, we immediately received wry looks from the neighbors. Why we saw a social opportunity, and a place where their children can play or learn, they saw a potential center for drug dealing.

This attitude against public space is also present in high income areas. We can see the proliferation of fences that transform the continuous network into numerous cul-de-sac devices which cut into pieces huge sectors of the city. It is a “de facto” privatization by individuals, similar   to expropriation of land by government. This reduces the capillarity of the city and rendering useless many road bypasses and forcing traffic (both vehicular and pedestrian) into a reduced and less efficient public network.

On a more personal level, we have met communities supporting the construction of border walls over children’s parks, using the scarce resources offered to them to divide rather than integrate their sector. For another example, while we were working on new informal developments; leaders even rejected the provision of other paths and alternate connections to existing roads, accepting only one access and  leaving no right of way for infrastructure even after talks explaining the future consequences for local accessibility.

Why is this? How to explain to people (high and low income) that closing up sectors will bring about solitary streets, excluding normal pedestrian flow, thus increasing the risk factor? Fences are not obstacles to thieves or bands, public activity is.

Studies 20-25 years ago studies spoke of a tight solidarity among these social networks.  At present, perhaps the fast urban growth in late years has influenced and created an uncommitted social mass that no longer trusts its neighbors? Or perhaps it is the certainty that police force can no longer, as we have seen in last decades, control or be present to guard the public spaces from bands?

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Fig. 3,4 Empty spaces in Ojo de Agua Caracas, that could satisfy the outdoor needs of many children

So how could we begin to change habits to accept and encourage a more open and connected city planning strategies and city development ? In this respect, we feel that only intense participation of communities will save the city.

Participation is a common theme in political media in Latin-American cities but real participation is really hard to find. Overgrown Government structures consume citizens in petty activities fighting against a tight bureaucratic web just to defend their most basic rights. Subsidies and slack work laws destroy the incentives to work and also divert the communal efforts from improving their sector.  The authorities behave like gracious masters rather than service providers. Few mayors pretend to listen to their communities or even incentivize real discussions about their problems. Its true many countries are confronting violence but there are plenty of good practices pointing to empowerment of communities. Even police action has proven to be more solid if combined with local leaders and local organizations support.

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Fig. 5 The street (covering a creek) is the only space for children.

To sum up, some urban upgrade principles include: accessibility, improved legal tenancy, risk control, participative projects, supply of equipment and services, local empowerment.  Although institutional support is key in order to achieve the latter, too much help from municipal authorities may be  mistake, and instead of empowerment, this may weaken the social fiber in the community.  Contingent on the latter, and although every context is different and every context may need a different balance, I leave you with what Stephen Goldsmith, mayor of Indianapolis, recommends for the XXI century American city in his book The 21 Century City (edited in 1999 by Cedice) as food for thought:

  • On government’s corner: Smaller governments supporting neighborhoods, to materialize their projects, with more effective services at lower costs, exploring competitiveness and privatization.
  • On the elector’s corner: Activated Urban neighborhoods assuming responsibility for their future improvement through urban social activism and strengthening of family values.

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