Public spaces, this year’s theme for World Habitat Day, are areas for common use by people.
Public spaces in cities include open spaces such as parks and green belts, riverbanks, public squares, roads, and even beaches. Uses for public spaces include recreation, social and political gatherings, and transport, among others, while floodplains and wetlands provide additional functions like addressing urban environmental issues like river flooding and wastewater management. Public spaces can also showcase a city’s culture and heritage, which gives the city its own identity and becoming an attraction that opens up economic opportunities from tourism and increasing local income for cities.
But at the rate that cities are expanding nowadays in Asia, the pressure to maintain or retain public spaces a serious concern in urban development. Most city governments are overwhelmed by the need to develop available land given the increasing demand for housing and services, coupled with the influx of migrants seeking better job and education opportunities. Some Asian cities have resorted to land reclamation just to meet the need for more land. Singapore for instance has been doing this since the mid-19th century, and it is commendable that the authorities there have somehow managed to integrate the development of public spaces into their reclamation projects.
Most cities wrongly believe that investing in public spaces—especially green open spaces and heritage areas—is not an urgent need. This perception has led to serious problems such as:
- Restricted mobility. Continuous urban expansion requires providing adequate access roads. The expansion of transport networks can make or break a city’s transport system, depending on how the system is designed: if roads are designed for vehicles without considering pedestrians and non-motorized traffic, this restricts transport choices of people going from point A to point B. For example, a 5-kilometer trip can easily be covered by bicycle. But without proper infrastructure like bicycle lanes or decent public transport options, one may have no other choice but to travel by car to cover that distance. Cities in Denmark and the Netherlands are probably the best examples of integrated transport network systems.
- Climate change risks. A city with decreasing green open spaces means there is a bigger risk of warmer microclimate conditions in certain densely developed areas – a phenomenon known as “urban heat islands”. These heat islands, steadily increasing across the region’s cities, are areas blocked in by concrete roads and buildings that restrict the flow of rainwater back to aquifers, and reflect heat from sunlight back to the surroundings. This raises the temperature in certain spots. These spots have less air circulation, fewer green areas and permeable surfaces that can drain rainwater.
- Missed income opportunities. In terms of development interventions, this is one aspect of public space development often unappreciated by city governments. Developing public spaces with historical and cultural value is more than just “recreating the past to make the present beautiful.” Restoration and preservation of these sites provide an attraction for cities that trigger the development of tourism-related businesses and additional demand for services. This creates job and livelihood opportunities for people, and increased income for the local government from increased business taxes and fees, as well as from real property taxes. Siem Reap in Cambodia and Hoi An in Viet Nam are good examples of how preserving heritage sites and spaces can create a year-round vibrant social and economic climate for the city.
Public spaces provide multiple benefits to the city’s physical environment, and its inhabitants. Well-planned and developed public spaces are not just for social and political activities, but also help contribute to better local climate conditions through climate-resilient construction methods and materials; improve mobility, which translates into health benefits for people through walkable streets and transport networks that accommodate non-motorized vehicles, including wheelchairs; and establish vibrant zones that promote a city’s unique character and create income opportunities. Urban planning should thus be coupled with a viable program to educate city stakeholders on developing public spaces beyond mere aesthetics.
City governments should realize that public spaces are viable investments, not just in the financial sense, but also in for environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness, and social inclusion.