Brief notes on social value of public spaces

Authors: Joana Batista, Inês Almeida, Carlos Smaniotto Costa, Marluci Menezes

Public space is here conceptualised following UN-Habitat (2015, 15) as “all places publicly owned or of public use, accessible and enjoyable by all for free and without profit motive”. Among them are streets, squares, plazas, marketplaces, parks, green spaces, greenways, community gardens, playgrounds, waterfronts, urban forests and agricultural used land. C3Places research focus only on urban public open spaces.

Public spaces have been idealised as democratic domains, places of inclusiveness where is possible to be among friends and strangers, encounter differences and engage in planned or serendipitous interactions (Innerarity, 2006). Central to a city well-being, public spaces contribute to the quality of urban life, fostering social, cultural and economic capital (UN-Habitat, 2016). A vast body of literature focus on their social function (Figure 1), as providers of the place for peoples’ interaction with other people (Carmona, Heath, Tiesdell, & Oc, 2003; Gehl, 1987; Innerarity, 2006; Jacobs, 1961; Lefebvre, 1991; Sennett, 1977) and with their environment (Smaniotto & Menezes, 2016). Public spaces act as stage for the enactment of citizenship, to practice publicness, and as such they play a key role within the complex social infrastructure (Smaniotto Costa & Menezes, 2016). Societies’ differences and similarities are put on display in public spaces, allowing distinct groups to claim their right to appropriate particular places and manifest their sense of belonging to society (Innerarity, 2006; Mitchell, 1995). Public spaces enable symbolic identification (Carmona et al., 2003), they are the places where social and cultural identities and the individuals’ role in their community are negotiated, and this may foster the context for mutual understanding and respect, enabling the development of social bonds. Yet, historically, public space was also the site where power structures manifested themselves and dominant social and moral orders were produced, imposed and perpetuated (Sennett, 1977).

Figure 1: Public spaces as places of social interaction. Photo C3Places Project (2018)

Moreover, those public spaces covered by plants and with soft surfaces (Figure 2) offer further environmental benefits as they improve the urban environmental quality (such as air purification, water storage, CO2 sequestration) and provide space for leisure and recreational activities (Smaniotto Costa, Suklje Erjavec, & Mathey, 2008).

Figure 2: Green spaces are beneficial for urban environmental quality and for urban quality of life. Photo C3Places Lisbon (2018)

They offer also further benefits for public mental health (Muñoz, 2009) and for decreasing in contemporary health problems as obesity and sedentarism (Godbey, 2009). Jacobs (1961) and Gehl (1987) drew attention to the importance of putting people at the centre of public space, analysing how people appropriate specific places, what are their spatial practises and needs towards creating better and more inviting public spaces.

C3Places following those premisses is analysing how specific users – teenagers or elderly – appropriate urban public open spaces and how they can be better configurated to respond to different needs. In Lisbon, observations seem to indicate that urban public spaces of transit, as streets (Figure 3), are used mainly for matters of convenience and proximity to primary spaces of daily significance as the home and the school (TBA).

Figure 3: Streets as central public spaces in people’s daily life, both as spaces of transit and circulation and of social interaction. Photo C3Places Lisbon (2019)


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