Public Spaces for All’ is the theme for the UN Habitat Day 2015 which will be celebrated on October 5th. 2015. Provision for public spaces for all is a sine quo non for providing a conducive Human Settlements Environment worldwide. With the world population now exceeding 7.2 billion people as at December 31st.2014 the increasing pressure on public spaces need not be gain said.
Traditional public spaces generally comprise public squares, market places, foot paths, school playgrounds, road sides and parks in the built up area which served a specific purpose. There has also been limited public green places that enrich human ecological quality of life in addition to open public spaces, parks and river banks. These have been further augmented by privately owned gardens generally in private use and private green space belonging to corporate organizations such as schools, hospitals and industrial parks.
These public spaces which were initially created for specific purposes are now been called upon to serve multiple purposes. Thus the intensity of use of public open spaces have steadily increased over the years leading to a multitude of problems to planning agencies and municipal authorities in terms of public safety and convenience of the inhabitants.
It is generally believed that urbanization is a pre requisite for economic development as the concentration of people and economic activities lead to economies of scale and agglomeration economies. Consequently there has been a general tendency for governments to increasingly use public spaces in urban areas for a multitude of economic activities not only to revitalize urban areas but also to stimulate economic growth with a view to ensure a favourable impact on the national economy.
These globalised beliefs and concerns have had an impact in Sri Lanka in many ways. The informal or unorganized sector in Sri Lanka has been encroaching rapidly on public spaces including foot paths, streets and roads causing much concern to the local administrators and also causing tremendous inconvenience to the public. The informal sector which occupied pavements and sidewalks have driven the people to the roads thus exposing them to danger from traffic on roads.
These informal establishments received an additional impetus since the 1970s as a sector with a potential for economic growth and employment creation. It therefore received state patronage and was offered new locations for operation. These locations which were separated from the area of operation of the formal business enterprises however, did not meet the requirements of the informal sector which in fact has no existence in the absence of the formal sector. Consequently the state efforts to regain some of the lost public spaces were thwarted with the gradual movement of the informal sector to the previous sites. The previous government took a courageous step to move out the informal sector from the city centre of Colombo. Although it caused some distress to the informal sector activists it enabled the removal of a hindrance which enabled the smooth functioning of the city. The cost benefit of this move was heavily in favour of the removal of the informal sector from the city centre. The recent action of the Mayor of Colombo to allow informal sector activities in a part of the city should be severely condemned as it has invited unnecessary planning problems impairing the growth of the city and its development.
Further the rather adventurous move to install a night bazaar in the 1980s at Galle Face presumably to maximize the utilization of the vacant land and the permission granted to erect some temporary stalls were the beginning of the end of the lush green.
Another important factor that impacts on public spaces is the forms of mobility. This is an area that requires serious attention in the Sri Lanka context. The number of cars that enter the city of Colombo from all directions far exceeds the desirable numbers and consumes a huge chunk of public spaces. It has therefore, become an imperative need to reclaim space from cars. Sustainable development therefore, requires attention to other forms of mobility. The improvement of bus, train or bicycle paths calls for better connections between the different modes of transport.
The connectivity of the different modes is therefore a sine quo non pre-requisite to replace the car by a public mode of transport which will inevitably consume less public space than what is consumed by cars. This would mean that one solitary bus with a capacity for a hundred passengers can replace hundred, one passenger self driven cars thereby saving the space consumed by at least 97 cars. Achieving connectivity of the different modes of transport is easily said than done. This requires a concerted effort of an interdisciplinary team of management consultants which should also include town planners. Bus terminals adjacent to railway stations and car parks within railway yards can bring about the integration of the different modes of transport thus relieving some pressure on public spaces. Some countries like Singapore for instance restricts the number of cars entering the city centre through the issue of a special entry permit in addition to the annual revenue licence.
Saving, creating and improving public spaces can contribute to the positive atmosphere of a city or neighbourhood and would eventually lead to an improvement of the quality of life, well-being and image of the city. It is also vital to make public spaces safe.
An actual or perceived lack of security can adversely impact on economic and social activities. Some countries introduce surveillance measures to make the city safe. Public spaces by and large should provide access to all. It is necessary to think in terms of a range of mobility abilities from the disabled to the old and the very young and improve access to urban facilities and amenities.
This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat